Creating photos in black and white

Flickr photo by misschristi1972. (Converted to black & white.)

What makes a box of crayons interesting? As I remember it, we judged Crayolas based on the numbers of colors. Whether your box had 8, 16, 32, or 64 crayons, we learned that with more options, we could create more nuance and impact in our drawings.

What if that same crayon box came with only shades of gray? How much fun would that be?

We might not be able to imagine enjoying monochrome crayons but stripping color from your pictures could add a whole new layer of impact to your photography.


A great black and white photo is first a great photo

Back when I learned to take pictures, we only used one kind of film -- black and white. My instructors taught us about all the principles of photography and gave assignments to help us understand the lessons better. Here’s what they never did -- taught us to see in black and white.

You know why? Many of the elements that make a strong black & white photo are the same principles that work in any photo -- color or not. Here are questions I ask when evaluating any photo.

Exposure -- Is the photograph exposed correctly? Is the subject well lit? Is there the proper amount of light to create the mood or tell the story? Are there any blown highlights or overexposed areas that are distracting? Are the darker or shadow areas so muddy that you lose detail?

Composition -- Is there a clear and compelling subject? Does everything else in the frame work to complement or lead the eye to the subject? Does the action lead my eye on a clear path around the photo? Are there any distracting elements in the photo?

Focus -- Is the subject or main part of the image sharply in focus? Is enough of the subject in focus? Is too much in focus? Is the image free of camera shake?

Impact -- Does it pass the ‘so what’ test? Is it clear what compelled you to take this photo, to save it, to share it? Is there a story?

Emotion -- What do I feel when I look at your photo? What are the subjects of your photo feeling? Can I sympathize? Empathize? What’s my reaction?

In any photograph -- black and white or color, you have to start with the basics.


What is unique to a black and white image?

When you strip away color from a photograph, the other characteristics become more noticeable. You might find yourself focusing on elements that might have been obscured by the splashes of red or green.

If you know these elements stand out, use them to create stronger images.

  • Shapes & Patterns -- Lines, shapes and patterns are a staple of great composition. Without the distractions of color, the geometry often becomes more prominent. In the black & white photo of the crayons, you might notice the repeating pattern. Would you have noticed it in color? Perhaps, but only after you took notice of each color. In monochrome, the pattern takes center stage. Find the shapes and patters.
  • Texture -- I wonder what that subject feels like? Does the photo make it easy for me to imagine? In a black and white photo, texture can become easier to visualize. Look for opportunities to show us how something feels.
  • Light & Shadows -- You usually find more impact focusing on the light or shadows of a scene in black and white photography. Your camera is designed to give you an average of the entire scene in its default mode. In black and white, you can create more impact by making either the light or shadow more prominent. Using spot metering can help.
  • Tonal Contrast -- The range of light to dark in an image is often called the tonal range. Without color, you can choose to use a more graduated range, with lots of gray tones in between. For more drama, you can also go for a stark difference between blacks and white. 


The why factor

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is ‘why?’ Why is this photo in black and white? Is it important to the message? Was a color too distracting? Does it enhance the mood? Create an effect? Tell a story? Why are you doing this?

Some images need to be in black and white. Sometimes you choose it to mask technical flaws. Sometimes you just feel it makes the image right. Trust your artistic instinct for this one. Just be deliberate and intentional about your choices.

Once you’ve decided how to best express your vision, dip into your crayon box and pick your best gray. Color away.


Learn more about Creating Black & White photography in our Free Photo Webinar

Want to learn more about creating in black and white? Join my December 10, 2013 Free Photo Webinar. We’ll dig deeper into what makes a great black and white photo. We’ll look at some examples of how we use each of the principles above. We’ll talk about the best ways to convert a color image and the benefits of shooting straight to black and white. I’ll even have some resources to help you continue your learning path.

Register now to join us.