The Lost Art Of Shooting Black-And-White Photos

Discover the secrets of classic B&W master photographers and see how you can apply their methods to working with your DSLR

Black-and-white photography has the potential to make any photographer better, even if you mainly shoot color. At the least, it will stretch your creativity and make you see the world differently. It could also refine your way of seeing in some very positive ways. There’s a secret to getting the most out of black-and-white, and it’s not about the newest black-and-white software.

Black-and-white is an elegant, beautiful way of photographing nature. Yet, we aren’t necessarily seeing the stunning black-and-white images we might expect today with the superb digital cameras available to everyone. There’s a big difference between a lot of black-and-white work done today, compared to the black-and-white done by the masters from the Ansel Adams era. In that age, black-and-white photos were made from the very start, when the shutter was pressed. Now black-and-white photos often come from simply removing color from a color image. Often that doesn’t give you the best results.

Tonal Contrast
Tonal contrast is about contrast in brightness. Anytime you can contrast a subject against a lighter or darker background, you get this contrast. A challenge: Photographers all too easily remember the color of the scene and how the subject and background contrasted in color. Then they can “see” the subject in the black-and-white photo because of that memory. Unfortunately, the viewer doesn’t have that memory and the image isn’t effective.

If you’re not getting a good tonal contrast showing up on your LCD, then you aren’t getting a strong black-and-white image with this important contrast. It’s that simple. In fact, of the three contrasts, tonal contrast is the strongest and most dominant. A strong tonal contrast can clearly define and structure your black-and-white photo, but if it’s in the wrong place, such as the background, it can overwhelm other contrasts (even if it’s out of focus).

Tonal contrast isn’t just about having a subject that’s darker or lighter than the background. Very rich black-and-white images can also come from tonal contrasts that change gradually but distinctly, from one area to another in an image.

Tonal contrast can come from two important things while you’re shooting:
1 Contrast in brightness of objects in your scene.
Move around to put areas of different brightness against each other.
2 Light and shadow.
Find ways to use light and shadow to create contrast in tonality.

Use your LCD and its display of a black-and-white image to show you the inherent contrast in the brightness of objects and how light is creating contrast.

Black-And-White Isn’t Color Removal
If you remember nothing else about black-and-white photography, remember this—it’s not about the removal of color. Black-and-white requires its own way of seeing, and you learn that seeing from shooting in black-and-white, not from using software.

All photographers should take time to shoot in black-and-white. I’ve seen how it makes photographers better, and it can energize you because it pushes you to find new ways of taking pictures. I often take time to shoot just in black-and-white to refine my photography and break up patterns that may keep me from being my best.

All advanced digital cameras will allow you to shoot in black-and-white, but there’s a trick to doing this that will give you more control and help you learn more easily. Shoot RAW + JPEG. This gives you a black-and-white JPEG image and a color RAW file. Everything you shoot will now appear as black-and-white on your LCD, so you can actually see and control the black-and-white image as you shoot.

Textural Contrast
A very rich and useful contrast for black-and-white landscape photography is textural contrast (it also works well for other types of photography, but it’s especially good for landscapes). This is any contrast in texture between two objects or areas in a photograph.

Now, this isn’t simply about seeing and photographing texture (although that can be interesting). It’s about looking for the contrast between textures. A very obvious change in texture is between the fine detail of a forest covering the side of a mountain next to the smooth water of a lake. A rough boulder with big texture might contrast with the refined texture of a wildflower. A smooth stream can contrast with the rough texture of its rocky edges.

Leaves frequently work great for texture contrast. So often you’ll find big leaves near finely divided leaves to create this contrast. A big, bold skunk cabbage leaf stands out against nearby ferns because their textures are so different from each other.

Sidelight and backlight can be very useful to enhance textures so that you can better see their contrasts.
Front light tends to flatten out texture and will make these contrasts disappear.

RAW can’t be anything except color. If you tell your camera to shoot in black-and-white but only shoot RAW, you may see a black-and-white LCD image, but when you open the file in software that works with your file, it will change to color (an exception may be the RAW software made by the camera manufacturer, although it can be changed to color).

This allows you to compare your color and black-and-white images side by side on your computer, plus you can even use the RAW file to get an improved black-and-white photo. You’re starting with a photo originally shot to look good in black-and-white, then you can convert that RAW file to black-and-white to gain more flexibility and potentially more image quality. (Note: To display RAW + JPEG files in Lightroom, you have to tell Lightroom to recognize both in Preferences before you import the shots.)

Sharpness Contrast
Sharpness contrast can really help define a black-and-white image, especially with close-ups and wildlife. Sometimes in these situations, you might not be able to find a position or a light that will show off a tonal or textural contrast. By shooting with very limited depth of field, you can still define that subject and make it show up in black-and-white.

Just because something is out of focus in the background doesn’t mean it’s necessarily giving a good sharpness contrast. You need to make sure the contrast is strong enough that the subject really does show up in black-and-white. This is enhanced by using a telephoto lens, a wider aperture and looking for space between your subject and the background. Don’t be afraid to shoot “wide-open” with your lens, whether that’s ƒ/2.8, ƒ/5.6 or something similar. When you do this, you do have to be careful that you choose your focus point carefully on something that’s important, such as the eyes of an animal.

Sometimes when you’re shooting this way, the subject will seem to jump out at you because it’s so sharp and the background is so out of focus. This is when you have to watch out for unwanted tonal contrasts showing up in the background. Even if it’s out of focus, a bright spot, for example, will fight for attention because of how strong tonal contrasts can be.

Shooting In Black-And-White
One of the biggest challenges photographers have when shooting black-and-white is that we see in color. Colors can influence us strongly in how we take a picture, so much so that we can miss seeing what’s really needed for a better black-and-white shot. By shooting in black-and-white, you have the opportunity to see what the scene really looks like in this medium rather than guessing or overcompensating based on how you saw colors.

Black-and-white photography is so much about contrast. There are three important contrasts to keep in mind that will help you define your image:

Tonal or brightness contrast
Textural contrast
Sharpness contrast

Finishing Touches
Complete your image with the following final adjustments:

Crop. Crop distracting tonal contrasts along the edges of your photo.

Darken edges. Use the Post-Crop Vignette in Lightroom or the Vignette in Silver Efex Pro for a traditional edge-burning effect used by Ansel Adams and other classic black-and-white photographers.

Darken problematic areas. Too bright areas away from important parts of your subject can be distracting. Try using a minus Exposure Adjustment Brush or the Graduated Filter in Lightroom or Burn Edges or a minus Brightness Control Point in Silver Efex Pro.

Rob Sheppard‘s latest book is a fully interactive photo ebook for the iPad, Reports from the Wild, available from the Apple iBookstore. Check out his blog at

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Translating Color
An important part of black-and-white photography today is translating color to black-and-white. Notice I didn’t say removing color from black-and-white or simply converting color to black-and-white. It’s about translation. You need to be thinking about the same contrasts used when shooting as you make this translation of colors into different shades of gray.One of the biggest distractions to good black-and-white work are all the “cool effects” you’ll find with most black-and-white conversion software. Effects are what you use after you make the translation, not as a substitute for good shades of gray coming from your color image.

Often you can use your black-and-white JPEG image as is with a little tweaking—it can be important to tweak the blacks and whites to get a full range of tonality from black to white, as well as adjust midtones as needed to open up details. If you need to make major adjustments beyond the capacity of a JPEG file, or you want to shift some of the tonalities by changing how colors are translated, then you can go to your RAW file and make adjustments there. I really like using Lightroom combined with Silver Efex Pro for black-and-white translation.

The key to this translation is to use whatever controls you have in your program to change how colors are converted to shades of gray. This is very important—there’s no arbitrary shade of gray for any color. Red can be dark, light and every shade in between. The same goes for all other colors. This means you can change how colors interact with each other as they’re translated into shades of gray.

In Lightroom, this is adjusted in the Black & White panel. Each slider changes the brightness of a specific color. In Silver Efex Pro, go to the Color Filter section and try the different filters. Each will change how colors translate to black-and-white. Once you’ve selected one, you can also use the Hue slider for an infinite range of “filters” and the Strength filter to change how strong each filter works on the colors. Regardless of the color controls you use, watch how tonal and textural contrasts change as you select different color adjustments (sharpness is unaffected).