10 Tips on Black and White Photography

Groomsmen on a beach.

Black and white photography is just so classic and beautiful if done well.  There's just something so impactful about not just the medium, but sometimes the statement it can imply.  In portraits and wedding photography in particular I feel it really pulls away the distractions the real world can bring with colour and puts the focus on the underlying emotion and connection of the moment.


Today's blog post focuses on introducing some techniques and tips that help you to effectively employ the style to convey emotional connection, but most importantly how to do so with a measure of subtlety.  The depth of the shades, the richness of the blacks, the detail in the highlights, tone is the most important emotional element in this medium.  As with any technique you're new to trying, it's more often better to start slowly with subdued strokes rather than over-applying the technique.  Here we go!

Tip 1: Shoot in RAW

Quality is key.  If your camera supports RAW output instead of JPEG, you should choose RAW.  In shooting black and white you're in a way removing a large measure of your versatility when you remove the colour element.  To that end it's critical to get the most of what you have left, and that means as many shades between white and black as is possible.  The added depth and ability to manipulate it is critical in capturing and in particular processing black and white, and RAW files are uncompressed offering you every detail your camera is capable of.  In essence, shooting in RAW instead of JPEG gives you the most control over your final image.

Tip 2: Manipulate Your Colour Balance

Ok, so you've desaturated, now what?  Before diving straight into pushing or pulling your shadows, highlights, blacks and whites, try adjusting your colour balance.  Now that you have no colour it doesn't matter how "blue or yellow" your image would be by shifting it because blue and yellow no longer exist.  The adjustments are all relative to one another, and adjustments tend to look more natural than just affecting one area of your tonal spectrum like bumping the shadows.  This way your image looks less and less like an HDR if you're doing the typical method of pulling highlights down and bumping shadows up.

Tip 3: Focus on Composition

Don't rely upon a technique to make the image good.  Black and white doesn't absolve you of your requirement to be a good photographer, so focus on the foundations of the image itself.  That means see with your creative eye, compose, expose, and capture what you need to support it. 

Tip 4: Don't Use it if You Don't Need it

Much like any technique if you use it every time it robs you of the strength of the statement when you do use the technique.  It's one thing to have an entire exhibit in medium, or to make a focus on black and white as a tool for personal development, but it's entirely another to make more than half of your images in a set b&w.  Like a fighter you shouldn't just swing as hard as you can with every opportunity, save some of the punch for the shots that really bring your creative focuses to force.  Hit them when it counts.

Tip 5: Use Filters

If you're limiting your colour then consider opening yourself up to other elements to really make your image pop.  Neutral Density is great for opening up the world of wide apertures in broad daylight, but it can also be used for longer exposures to really bring out the details you need to manipulate in a b&w medium.  Circular polarizers can cut through a lot of light reflection and give you more detail too.  Research what filters can do, and see if it supports your vision.

Tip 6: Contrast is Key

Figure out how dramatic you want your image to be.  Harsh shade contrasts are psychologically aggressive and send a strong message, but so do harsh contrasts of subject matter, and vice versa.  Again, this tip ties directly into vision, but can be a foundation unto itself of the purpose and resulting effects of your image on its viewers.  Be intentional in your use of contrast, and commit.  Unless your intent is to leave a question lingering like the Mona Lisa, then make a statement!

Tip 7: Grab the Textures

The details really make the image.  Deep details such as rich textures allow the viewers to really immerse themselves in an image, so don't leave them hanging!  Gray suit jackets, ties, brick walls outside the church, wood barns, wedding dresses, the details give your eyes somewhere to hang and ponder, so don't let them get lost by the wayside.

Tip 8: Dodge and Burn

Don't rely on curves and exposure alone, if your subject's eyes need a bit of pop then grab a brush and give it to them!  Gradiated filters, skin softening, all of the tools available in programs like Lightroom and ON1, and they're fantastic for controlling the fine details of black and white photography.  However, as noted earlier, subtlety is critical to sidestepping regret.

Tip 9: Quit it with the Vignetting Already

We get it, you found the filter/overlay/slider and you recognize the impact vignetting can have.  In black and white images it can REALLY make a huge difference in making your image pop.  So stop using it.  Or at least take it slow and again: MAKE IT SUBTLE!  It's a natural feature of a lot of lenses, particularly primes, so try just letting the natural vignette be the only vignette you have unless you're seasoned at it.

Tip 10:   Determine How Black your Blacks Should Be

Sometimes, particularly in modern wedding imagery, the washed-out look can be great at conveying the softness of the moment.  Rich blacks can also be of benefit too in portraying passion, masculinity, or dramatic/strong emotions.  Experiment with your curves and see what pushing or pulling the punch of the blacks and tonal ranges can do for expressing the emotion you intend.  You'd be amazed by the difference it can make! 

As always, get out, get shooting, and make it fun!

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