Black and White Photography Techniques

Before discussing black and white photography techniques, let's just take a moment to look at a definition or two. Firstly, let's compare the term black and white photography techniques with the term monochrome which have different meanings.

The term monochromatic colour is often taken to be a reference to a black and white image but it can also be sepia or any image that has just one dominant hue.

A monochrome image can be more powerful than a colour image in terms of creating harmony and atmosphere as monochrome has a tendency to unify an image and can be easier to use than colour.

Black and white photography techniques are often associated with more serious photography such as photojournalism and social documentary as well as art photography. Historically, we associate black and white photography with factual reporting.

Above: Three Men in a Boat by Anne Darling

Switch to black and white when you want to focus the viewer's attention on the character of your subject rather than the surroundings.

Try going out on overcast days as the light conditions can be good for taking black and white photographs as the low contrast is particularly suited for this medium.

A useful black and white photography tip is to set your camera to raw if possible. That way you can shoot in black and white but still retain the colour information if later on you want to go back to a colour image.

In some ways it is better to use the black and white setting on the camera rather than convert colour images as that way you will learn to 'think' in black and white since the feedback you get from the screen will be in black and white. However, later you will probably prefer to shoot in color and convert afterwards in Photoshop as the results are superior by this method.


The photograph below of Xilinhot Airport in Inner Mongolia works well in black and white through the use of a polarizing filter to bring out the clouds, darken the sky and create a sense of drama.

Above: Xilinhot Airport by Anne Darling

It was shot with a wide angle lens to capture the whole of Xilinhot Airport in one expanse. The rounded domes of the airport buildings echo the shape of the roof tops of the gers or felt-roofed tents, the traditional dwelling of the Mongolian people.

Although a wide angle lens will exaggerate converging parallel lines, the buildings in this photograph are low level so the exaggeration is minimal. With sky-scrapers however, buildings will appear to lean backwards. This can be made more interesting if you point your camera upwards to magnify the effect.

The distortion that is due to the wide angle lens is minimal and adds to the dramatic impact of the image.

Desaturated Colour

It is possible to desaturate an image in Photoshop after having shot in colour which is what I did with the photograph below.

Above: Discarded Boxes - Colour by Anne Darling

The photograph is actually already quite desaturated, and apart from the spots of red and blue in the middle ground, is made up of a series of greys, both warm and cool. Because there is very little saturated colour in the photograph, the viewer can focus on the rhythms and textures of the boxes, tiles and stone wall.

Below is the same image manipulated in Photoshop. I have totally desaturated the image by converting it to grayscale. The cool blues in the stone wall have now been lost and so has the warm reddish brown of the tiles which means that the perspective is flattened. This is because blue is a receding colour and warm colours like red or brown tend to appear to come forward in a picture. The photograph is now more abstract perhaps but the presence of colour subtly enhanced the abstract qualities.

Which one do you prefer?

Above: Discarded Boxes - B/W by Anne Darling

Recommended Reading

Black and white photography techniques is one area in which there are a lot of really good books, perhaps because photographers/authors are attracted to the endless creative possibilities that are inherent in this medium. The following is a list of the ones I think are the best, along with brief reviews.

The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression

by Bruce Barnbaum

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black and white photography techniques

This book is an updated and newly revised edition of the classic book The Art of Photography (originally published in 1994), which has often been described as the most readable, understandable, and complete textbook on photography. With well over 100 beautiful photographic illustrations in both black-and-white and color, as well as numerous charts, graphs, and tables, this book presents the world of photography to beginner, intermediate, and advanced photographers seeking to make a personal statement through the medium of photography. Without talking down to anyone, or talking over anyone's head, Barnbaum presents "how to" techniques for both traditional and digital approaches. Yet he goes well beyond the technical, as he delves deeply into the philosophical, expressive, and creative aspects of photography so often avoided in other books.

Advanced Digital Black & White Photography

by John Beardsworth

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black and white photography techniques

Digital photographers can now attain the enduring beauty of black-and-white photography in their own work! There's more to monochrome than just discarding the color in Photoshop, but many books simply treat it as an afterthought. Not this one! John Beardsworth teaches every major method of making a color picture black and white, and explains what kind of images are best, and why. Both ambitious newcomers and advanced enthusiasts will learn how to achieve the richest tonal depth and balance, use black and white to interpret the subject for the viewer, reproduce historic and darkroom processes, add creative and special effects, and produce exhibition-quality prints.

The Art of Black & White Portrait Photography: Techniques from a Master Photographer

by Oscar Lozoya

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black and white photography techniques

Pairing unique creative vision and exceptional technical artistry, Oscar Lozoya's breathtaking images embody the pinnacle of black-and-white portrait photography. Capturing diverse subjects-from professional artists and musicians to street people in his neighborhood-the images in this collection demonstrate how a skillful photographer can help viewers to look at subjects in new ways. This book analyzes more than 60 of his award-winning, critically acclaimed portraits, revealing the artistic intent behind each and the techniques with which he was able to execute his vision. Included are diagrams for almost every image and in-depth discussions of light selection, light placement, metering, and light ratios.

The Art of Black and White Photography

by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann

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black and white photography techniques

Over the last few years, most books on photography emphasized explaining the new breed of cameras and how to master the digital imaging workflow. In The Art of Black and White Photography Torsten Andreas Hoffmann takes a different approach, as he focuses on image composition and image capture, with an emphasis on the creative aspects of black and white photography, rather than on the digital workflow. After introducing the ground rules of composition, the author illustrates their applications with various photographic genres such as architecture, street photography, portraiture, and surreal photography with his own stunning black and white images. In the second part of the book, Hofmann illustrates the elements of a photographic language , which distinguishes creative photography from random shooting. The final part of the book is dedicated to post-processing techniques, mostly in Photoshop (CS3), emphasizing the functions that are necessary for creating outstanding black and white images

Black & White Photography Techniques with Adobe Photoshop

by Maurice Hamilton

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black and white photography techniques

Fine art quality, black-and-white prints are within every photographer's reach with the techniques illustrated in this digital image editing guide. Taking advantage of the control and reproducibility that the digital darkroom offers, this handbook teaches photographers how to fine-tune images with contrast and exposure levels, crop and rotate images for dynamic results, and remove flaws such as dust and scratches long after the photograph has been taken. Instruction on techniques that simulate traditional hand coloring and tinting and add special effects such as frames, infrared, and lighting and lens effects helps photographers realize their artistic vision. Screen shots and images guide readers through the presented techniques, allowing photographers to gauge their own results and anticipate the effects of the outlined corrections and enhancements on their own images. A gallery of the author's work provides inspiration for simulating - and improving upon - the chemical-based darkroom experience

The Complete Guide to Black & White Digital Photography

by Michael Freeman

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black and white photography techniques

Michael Freeman - our top digital photography author and a worldwide name - presents the most comprehensive book yet on black-and-white digital photography. Oversized, beautifully illustrated, and far-reaching in scope, this guide is destined to be a standard reference for years to come. Freeman covers all aspects of black-and-white digital photography: its fine art tradition as well as its techniques. Learn how to see and expose in black and white, digitally convert color to monochrome, and develop a black-and-white digital workflow. Explore creative choices and how to interpret various subjects most skillfully in monochrome. Finally, get an expert's advice on printing and displaying black-and-white photographs to best effect.

Fine Art Children's Photography

by Doris Carol Doyle

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black and white photography techniques

Customer review: I like this book very much because the photographer/author stresses something I have always believed - a child doesn't have to look perfect, prim and proper for a portrait. In fact, professional portraits of your child having fun and just being a child will probably be your family's favorite and best remembered photographs. The use of black and white film for these photographs gives them a character and style of their own, and lifts them from the realm of being informal snapshots to the medium of art. Photographer Doris Carol Doyle introduces herself in the front of the book and tells how she started doing children's portraiture in her home, using equipment and props that were available. She produced some striking images, so if you are getting started as a photographer her example will give you confidence that you don't have to have a complete and expensive studio to get started.

Elegant Black and White Wedding Photography

by Sara A. Frances

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black and white photography techniques

The wedding business is bigger than ever. Today's weddings are grander, more formal, more elegant—and more expensive. This trend is mirrored in the wedding photography business, where photographers are now being chosen for their high-quality, artful black-and-white photography with only some color photography being requested. To cash in on this trend, the successful photographer needs to deliver the classic look today’s brides and grooms want in both posed and photojournalistic styles. And it’s often accomplished with black-and-white photography that is elegant and timeless. In this valuable guide, a leading wedding photographer demonstrates, step by step, how to produce memorable elegant black-and-white wedding photography that sells. From basic technique, philosophy, and practice to style, procedure, and business concerns, readers will see how to master this latest facet in the art of wedding photography. Brimming with lush examples from the author’s own work, this is the must-have A–Z reference for anyone interested in creating stylish, sophisticated wedding photos that will be treasured for a lifetime.

Digital SLR Black & White Photography (Camera Bag Companions)

by Ilex Photo

black and white photography techniques
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This quick-reference guide to black and white photography offers tips into creating unique, elegant, and sophisticated images while on the move with your digital camera. The book provides instant instruction on how to see and compose great black & white shots, and how to capture images that make great results.

Ilex Photo is one of the world's foremost producers and publishers of books about all aspects of photography. The Camera Bag Companions series is compiled by Ilex's own in-house team of specialist editors.

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