When To Use Black & White Photography

Monochrome may be a better choice than color for some nature photos. Here's how to decide when to use black-and-white photography.

Monochrome can be a powerful alternative to color for nature and wildlife subjects. To better evaluate when to use black-and-white photography, consider its strengths. It magnifies focus on the subject by eliminating the distractions of color and excels in those instances where the subject lacks color naturally, creating interest through shades of gray.

When to use black and white: An example image of two bears.

The human eye can distinguish more than 500 shades of gray. As for the digital image, it’s limited to 256 different shades of gray, including pure white and pure black. By way of comparison, the human eye can perceive and distinguish around a million colors—considerably more than 256 shades of gray.

I feel that the best way to learn when to use black-and-white photography and how to compose monochrome successfully is to actually look at captures where it works best and consider the reasons why.

See The World Differently In Monochrome

Black and white is a different way of seeing the world. It’s a purer and cleaner interpretation, a world view without the distractions and complexity of competing colors. Often favored by journalists and artists, black and white embraces an aesthetic that emphasizes line, shape, tonal value, motion, dynamic perspectives and texture.

In nature and wildlife photography, I have found seven scenarios where black and white photography can result in a better image. To help illustrate the merits, I chose seven different photos of mine that I converted from color to monochrome and explained the reasons I consider them superior to original full-color spectrum captures. Learn pro techniques to convert color images to black and white.

1. For A classical Or Historical Look

Black and white image of elephants

There is a great demand for classical images, and black-and-white photography conveys a timeless quality, a perspective that is relevant in any era. In essence, black and white imparts an “evergreen” quality to the image that prevents it from becoming dated. It also gives a historic look and feel to places and monuments that reflect a storied past.

Black-and-white photography is a wonderful medium for creating fine art in both interpretation and display, in large part because the elucidation of detail is so much more explicit with definitional shades of gray. My image of the herd of elephants against a dramatic sky becomes a powerful environmental statement and an excellent example of when to use black-and-white photography. Dramatic skies can often be blown out because of the extreme range of tonality from brightness to darkness. Black and white provides emphasis where it should be, on the drama and moodiness of the brooding sky. It also accentuates the powerfulness and majesty of the elephant group.

2. For Portraits With Expression—Especially Where Tonal Range Can Define The Subtleties

Dramatic portrait of a gorilla.

This image of a mountain gorilla against a dark background presents many challenges in providing definition and differentiation. It is essentially a black-on-black capture. What makes this portrait compelling is the facial expression of the gorilla and the positioning of the hand on the side of the head. It renders a concept of contemplation.

Black and white helps define subtleties in the fur while drawing attention to and emphasizing the catchlights in the eyes. It is the combination of the eyes, the downturned mouth and the hand gesture that creates an expressive portrait revealing the character of the mountain gorilla.

3. To Focus On Composition

Image of two rhinos.

For compositions that require emphasis on subject matter and involve iconic animals that are not colorful, black and white can help the image by bringing focus to those details, accentuated by shades of gray providing definition and detail to textures like the dry, mud-caked skin of these rhinos. The background is dark, and in combination with a slight vignette, further concentrates attention, drawing the eye to the brighter area of the canvas, the mother rhino and her baby.

4. When Backgrounds Are Bright Or Light

Image of the reclusive caracal

This includes those times when backgrounds may pop with color and be distracting, and when you want to extend shooting time in the field. Black and white can be an effective remedy for those middle-of-the-day images when the light is not ideal, or the skies are overcast.

My image of the reclusive caracal was overpowered by color, as both the foreground and background were distracting. The light was harsh. By converting to black and white, I effectively draw focus on the subject matter.

5. For High-Key Effect

Image of a black wolf in snow.

By purposefully blowing out your background to pure white, you create an artistic canvas on which to place your subject. The stark contrast of a black wolf allows the eye to focus on the subject matter immediately. The negative white space is important in this image as it helps to isolate the subject.

6. When Textural Definition And Perspective Enhance The Image

Close-up photo of a brown bear.

Texture can be challenging to capture, especially when it may be the fur of a brown bear or the wrinkled skin of an elephant or rhinoceros. This can be tricky; the best practice is to be aware of how you position the angle of light for the look you want. Side lighting best enhances texture.

My image of a grizzly bear with matted, water-soaked fur works extremely well in black-and-white conversion, giving it an artistic feel while magnifying the predatory presence of this iconic creature. The concept of predator and prey is enhanced by shooting from below eye level, giving the bear a bigger-than-life presence.

7. To Bring Laser-Like Focus To The Subject

Shadowy portrait of a baboon.

Portraits work extremely well if there is something that defines them, such as light and shadows, perspective, emotion, mood and drama. My portrait of a baby baboon draws in the viewer with curiosity, as the shadowed black-and-white treatment accentuates the face, ear and eye. The moodiness and mystery of the scene cause the viewer to focus on the baboon’s face by concealing other details.

Use Monochrome To Evaluate Color Images

Black-and-white conversion can also be used as a tool to evaluate color images. If you want to know if your subject matter and composition are compelling, convert to black and white (either through the menu of your camera or in post-processing) and view whether your desired elements prevail.

When To Use Black & White Photography As Creative Alternative

Black and white can be used as a tool to change the way we look at and capture the world. It can tap into creativity by forcing us as photographers to see a scene differently. It works best when we have a good understanding of composition and luminosity.

One merit of black-and-white photography is that it forces the viewer to see the foundational aspects of the image. Since there are no distractions of color, the eyes and brain focus on the basic composition and characteristics of light instead. Black and white reduces a photo to the yin and yang, resulting in powerful images that are evocative and enduring.

It is important to remember that black-and-white images intersect the genres of both fine art and classical photography. These are images that are valued as both artistic and timeless. They endure and maintain their appeal through generations and changing times, despite competition from newer technology refinements. After all, photography started out by giving the world only black-and-white images.

Learning when to use black-and-white photography can enhance your ability to choose the best expression of a scene. It works when there is contrast between light and shadow and when backgrounds and colors distract from the subject matter. Train your eye to look for contrast and to see shadows, patterns, textures and leading lines. Realize that there are times when color creates an unnecessary complexity in a scene, and use black and white to simplify the image, controlling chaos and minimizing distraction by effectively using 256 shades of gray. 


See more of Aaron Baggenstos’s work at aaronstours.com.