The Making Of Compelling Black-And-White-Images

Beyond just removing color, see how structure, tonal relationships, form, texture and contrast all play key roles
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lake Superior Shoreline
When I was in northern Minnesota last year, the weather wasn't cooperative; we had a lot of rain. One morning, I got up for sunrise and found the sky mostly covered with clouds, but with a small area open around the sunrise. Though there was very little color in the sky, I was determined to get pictures along this wonderful Lake Superior shoreline. One thing I noticed was the way that the sky and the water structured the composition. The light was too weak to make this really work in color, but I believed that there was potential for black-and-white.


When I converted this image to black-and-white in Silver Efex Pro 2, I saw some interesting things going on. However, the sky and the water didn't balance each other. I increased the whites to bring out the rich texture in the water, which gave more structure to the image, and I used the equivalent of a digital graduated filter to darken the sky and balance the sky and water better. This gave a nice feel to the black-and-white composition.

Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas were two of my heroes in nature photography, both superb practitioners of color photography with nature. I got my start in photography working with black-and-white, however. I hated processing film because it was so boring, but I loved making prints in the darkroom. Like many photographers, Ansel Adams was also one of my heroes, and I read his books multiple times until I felt I understood the potential of black-and-white work.

Yet, because color was so critical to my photography at the time, I began to do less black-and-white. A few years ago, I returned to black-and-white work in the computer with some plug-ins from Nik Software (Color Efex Pro, to start) and the excellent black-and-white section of Photoshop Lightroom. What rekindled my love for black-and-white photography, though, was Nik Software's introduction of Silver Efex Pro 2. This tool allows me to experiment quickly to gain the most from black-and-white images.

Black-and-white, to a degree, abstracts any image. The world doesn't exist in black-and-white, so by definition, black-and-white is an abstract art form. Because of this, you can't rely on color to carry the photograph or to emphasize certain elements in a scene.

Good black-and-white photography starts with an image that has a structure to it that works well with black-and-white. It's often disappointing to simply try to change any photograph to black-and-white if you haven't found its structure. Structure in a photograph holds it together just like the underlying structure of a house holds it together. Structure can come from contrast that helps set elements apart. Or look for defining elements in a photograph that have different levels of brightness. And look for adjacent colors that are quite different so they show contrast when converted into black-and-white.

This will make more sense with some specific examples, all of which have a strong structure to support the black-and-white photo.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

California Poppies
California poppies are dramatic in color, there's no question about that. Still, I liked the basic structure of this photo. Notice how the structure is based on the flowers themselves—they're lighter and brighter than the grass. For me, this looked like it could be an interesting black-and-white.

When I first made the conversion to black-and-white in Silver Efex Pro 2, I didn't like any of the presets on the left side of the interface. What made this picture appealing to me were the flowers and the way they went from foreground to background in the photograph. So I went to the color filter section of the program.

When I shot black-and-white with film, I had a complete set of color filters to use. Color filters change colors to different tones of black, white and gray. For example, a red filter makes red brighter and blue darker. The problem with using color filters and black-and-white film is that you're locked into one filter to change the scene for the image you expose.


Now, in the computer, you can try different filters to find out which color gives the best translation of color to black-and-white. Silver Efex Pro 2 features a slider that mimics the effects of having an infinite number of filters. Simply click on the slider and move it back and forth until you see the tonality you like. For me, this picture came alive when the flowers became bright and the grass became dark.

Rob Sheppard is the former editor and current editor-at-large of ­Outdoor Photographer. See his video tutorials, learn about his books and find his workshop schedule at

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2

Silver Efex Pro 2 came out as I was primed to get back to black-and-white photography. It offered just enough extras compared to the first version that I fell in love with black-and-white photography all over again. Silver Efex Pro 2 is a relatively easy program to learn, with presets that quickly allow you to look at different ways of interpreting your color image. In this new version, you now can adjust highlight, midtone and shadow brightness separately from the overall brightness adjustment. In addition, you can use a new slider, Dynamic Brightness, that smartly adjusts brightness for fast and easy adjustments.

Contrast and Structure have some new controls to allow more nuanced adjustments. Contrast includes a slider called Amplify Whites and another called Amplify Blacks that allow you to adjust whites and blacks, respectively, in the picture much better than any other program. Whites and blacks are important parts of any black-and-white image, so this is a welcome addition. And Soft Contrast allows you to adjust contrast without it looking too harsh.

Some new finishing adjustments to the program let you darken individual edges with Burn Edges—classic darkroom work. You also can darken all of the edges at once in Vignette, add some cool borders in Image Borders and change the overall color tone of the image in Toning.

My preference is to use this program coming out of Lightroom, though you can use it in any Photoshop product, as well as Aperture.

You can download a fully functional trial version of Silver Efex Pro 2 for free at


    Nice article Rob. I have been working with Silver Efex Pro 2 more lately. I am amazed at how much control this program offers. Every little nook and cranny can be tweaked to your preferences. With their great Control Points, it certainly makes it quite easy. I found myself playing with the Amplify whites and blacks quite a bit. Some of my latest efforts I wrote about in this post:

    Interesting article. Although the plug-in is a great tool, folks shouldn’t think that they need it to play around in black and white. I find it quite useful in LR to change to some of the B/W presets, and have even downloaded a few. From there, it’s easy to change the settings to achieve great looking results.

Leave a Reply

Main Menu