10 Tips to Improve Your Black and White Photography
By Stephanie Gagnon
In a world of color, sometimes you just can’t beat a strong black and white image. Black and white photography can be an amazing tool to conveying a mood story or statement to your viewers. While a color portrait can tell a story too, the absence of color in black and white imagery can often present a much stronger impact to viewers. Here are a few tips on creating strong black and white photographs.
1. Right Subject Matter
The first thing to consider is your subject matter. Would it be strengthened by the absence of color? The truth is – not every image will look better in black and white. Sometimes color is needed to distinguish your subject from the other elements in the image. So really evaluate whether or not your chosen image will benefit from a black and white conversion.
2. Shape and Form
As previously stated, sometimes color is needed in an image to separate, distinguish and add interest. When you shift an image to black and white, you can no longer rely on it to add interest or a focal point to your photograph. That’s why form and shape are incredibly important in black and white photography. You’ll have to look beyond colors and instead focus your attention on shapes and lines, arranging them in a way that emphasizes the most interesting aspect of the shape or create an intriguing composition of different shapes.
In colored photos, patterns can often go unnoticed because the colors draw all the attention away from it. However, black and white photographs give you a much better chance of capturing interesting patterns because the distraction of color is no longer present, giving subtle patterns the chance to take shape and emerge.
Texture is a crucial element to black and white imagery. Textures provide us with tonal contrast and relay depth to the viewer. Without textures – you would simply have a smooth flat surface showing some shade of gray, but with texture we have something interesting and inciting to view. Try combining a variety of textures, like a glossy pen next to a textured sheet of paper sitting on a dirty desk for instance. The right textures combined together will help to add interest and appeal to your photograph.
A strong composition is even more important in black and white photography than in color imagery. Remember composition elements such as the Golden Ratio and Leading Lines when composing your image. These elements will help pull viewers in and keep their interest in the absence of color.
6. Lighting, Lighting, Lighting
This of course is of vital importance in black and white photography. Lighting is always important, however, in black and white photographs, proper lighting can make or break an image. Good lighting can help increase the contrast within your image providing more interest to your portrait or it can be used to create drama, mystery, and moody contrasts within the image.
7. Slightly Overexpose
This is more of a personal suggestion. But I always slightly over-expose when I shoot. It helps bring all the tones up a little so you don’t loose any details in the dark shadows. Of course, you don’t want to over-do it and blow out your whites, but a slightly over-exposed image can be tweaked more easily to suit your needs.
8. Avoid Noise
Sometimes grain can add to an image, but always be intentional about your use of it. Many people will shift a poorly created image to black and white to hide the noise in their image from poor setting choices. If you are intentionally shooting to create a black and white image, be very conscious of your settings and choose them wisely. Most of the strongest and most well known black and white images are crisp and sharp. So don’t let your ISO get too high.
9. Shoot in Color then Convert to Black and White
Many digital cameras now have the option to shoot in black and white. Even if you know you’re going to be converting your image to black and white – always shoot hem in color first! When your camera internally converts your color image to black and white – all kinds of detail and information is lost in the conversion. Rather than risk a sub-par creation – shoot your image in color and convert it to black and white on your computer where you will have much more control of the finished product.
When converting your photograph to black and white, pump up your contrast. Whether you use an action, level layer or curves in your conversion, your black and white photograph can handle a lot more contrast than a color image. Make your blacks a deeper black and your whites a brighter white. You can always pull up a histogram in photoshop to check your levels but you will want a healthy looking mountain in your histogram to have a strong image.
Stephanie lives in Central IL, is married to her best friend, Ryan, and enjoys the company of her crazy pups, Kit & Lucy. She is the owner of Green Tree Media Photography and is passionate about photography.
Stephanie received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and design from Millikin University. She worked for Jones & Thomas, an advertising agency in Decatur, IL for 3 years doing both design and photography before starting up her own business as a natural light and lifestyle photographer.