Tips for better black and white photography (Part one)

What makes for a great black and white image? Interesting shadow details, interesting textures, repetitive patterns that have variations, dramatic lighting and shadows that transform into extraordinary creatures of the night? Or is it simply the capture of a visual story that you really care about? 

Whatever it is that appeals to you, black and white photography is an artform all of its own and something every photographer should explore.

In this article, I have chosen some common subjects to show you how different black and white images are from their colour origins. My idea is to get you excited about practicing your photography now so you can apply this knowledge to future photography shoots, taking what you learn along the way to develop your personal style.

The subject of this image is the light coming through the window in this beautiful shearers’ hut in Central Otago, New Zealand. To see this light, I have sprayed a product called Atmosphere Aerosol into the air and waited for it to swirl around to resemble smoke. The room would have been quite static otherwise. 
The emotion has been emphasised by adding this soft contrasting texture. Canon 5D MKIV, TS-E24mm f/3.5L II lens. 1/50s @ f8, ISO 320. 
The subject of this image is the light coming through the window in this beautiful shearers’ hut in Central Otago, New Zealand. To see this light, I have sprayed a product called Atmosphere Aerosol into the air and waited for it to swirl around to resemble smoke. The room would have been quite static otherwise. The emotion has been emphasised by adding this soft contrasting texture. Canon 5D MK IV, TS-E24mm f/3.5L II lens. 1/50s @ f8, ISO 320.

Early days

The early black and white film photographers were very passionate about their art, and they built a foundation of photographic aesthetics that still applies to much of photography today.

Perhaps it is the “look” of film with its inherent grain, its contrast and its limited tonal range that we chase with our digital cameras. To understand these principles, study books on the work of some of my black and white favourites such as Harry Callahan, Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sally Mann, Mario Giacommelli, or current superstars such as Michael Kenna. 

One useful technique is to scan through the plethora of inspiration on the internet and take notice of the images that your eye locks onto – what is it about the standout images you are drawn to?

Or, just look at the Mono Awards winners. But remember that although there’s sure to be plenty of inspiration there, just because an image is recognised in a competition doesn’t mean you should try to copy that idea and use it straight away.

Instead, my advice is to use this inspiration to help you find your own path, then stay on that path to see where it leads you. After all, what matters is that you make choices for yourself, not choices to please others or to follow a fashion.

In-camera creative modes, like the BW setting here, really assist with visualising scenes in black and white. 
In-camera creative modes, like the BW setting here, really assist with visualising scenes in black and white.

Setting up your camera

One of the great advantages of modern mirrorless cameras is their “what you see is what you get” electronic viewfinders. It means if you set your mirrorless camera to capture black and white images – typically found in picture profiles or creative styles – your viewfinder will change to a black and white view of the world. Doing this is a great way to identify suitable black and white subjects in real time.

Better yet, you can also keep both a colour and black and white version of your files if you change your settings to shoot a large JPEG file as well as a RAW file. If you use Adobe Lightroom to catalogue and edit your image files, in the preference page you must tick ‘see RAW and JPEG side by side’ otherwise it will only import the RAW files and everything will change back to colour.

Exposure

The correct exposure for a colour image is not necessarily the correct exposure for a black and white image. This is because we can overexpose light areas in black and white images and underexpose dark areas with much less negative effect on the final image than we can with a corresponding colour image.

But generally speaking, it is good to have a range of tones from black through to white in your black and white imagery. Once you’ve worked out the composition for your photo, a good technique is to make a bracket of three different exposures: the normal exposure, then another at +2 and another at -2 stops.

This can be achieved with exposure compensation or by changing the camera’s drive mode to automate the bracket.

With backlit subjects, exposure +2 stops will “open up” and reveal the interesting detail in your shadows. When the tones in your subject are primarily dark, look for some subtle highlights to add interest to this darkness – exposure -2 stops is a good starting point.

Finally, choose a white background when you’re editing. This will give you a comparison to help you steer away from a grey (read: bland) tonal pallet.

The parallel rays of sunlight that found the gaps in the cloud were the keys to making this simplistic landscape emotive. There is enough detail in the dark menacing tones to just make out the silhouette of a tree. This is compositionally balanced by the thin strip of sunlight that shines across the field. Canon EOS R, EF-100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens @ 340mm. 1/800s @ f10, ISO 200. 
The parallel rays of sunlight that found the gaps in the cloud were the keys to making this simplistic landscape emotive. There is enough detail in the dark menacing tones to just make out the silhouette of a tree. This is compositionally balanced by the thin strip of sunlight that shines across the field. Canon EOS R, EF-100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens @ 340mm. 1/800s @ f10, ISO 200.

Editing

Photographs should create or capture a feeling. The trick to doing it well is to make these feelings more intense for the viewer. In camera, you can typically adjust the picture profiles recipe by adding extra contrast and selecting an appropriate filter for your subject.

Remember that once you take the colour out of a file the tones can look quite grey and similar. With landscape photography, try to use a red filter as this will help make your blue skies darker and add contrast to the surrounding clouds. With portraits, a yellow filter can help create a normal skin tone. 

In post, consider exploring the filter sliders in your chosen software programs to see how each of the coloured filters affect your conversion to black and white, too. Some colours will get lighter and some darker.

Here, I have framed the mountain range between
a darkened frosty foreground and sky. Neutral density graduated filters are the tools used to do this, either attached to your lens or while editing your files in the computer. Think about the story in your images, too. If this image was cropped into the single mountain, it would tell a different story. Canon EOS R, 35mm focal length. 1/500s @ f8, ISO 100. 
Here, I have framed the mountain range between a darkened frosty foreground and sky. Neutral density graduated filters are the tools used to do this, either attached to your lens or while editing your files in the computer. Think about the story in your images, too. If this image was cropped into the single mountain, it would tell a different story. Canon EOS R, 35mm focal length. 1/500s @ f8, ISO 100.

Simplicity

Like in all great imagery, simple compositions are often the most powerful, and this is even more important in black and white photography.

The key is to make a statement about one main subject, not a string of subjects. If you are unsure, try looking through your viewfinder. If you need too many words to describe what’s in the frame, perhaps it is too complicated.

Try to ask yourself what the subject is before you click the shutter. Look to separate that subject from other subjects in the frame and make sure there are no distracting bright spots or areas, especially near the edge of the frame. 

Make sure you focus on the subject and choose the best depth of field for that subject.

Zooming into the scene with your telephoto lens or walking in closer with your feet can also transform a scene. Keep it simple, strip away anything that doesn’t add to your image, and watch for the right light for the subject at hand.

Practice, practice, practice

You’ve likely heard this before. If you want to learn a musical instrument, daily practice is paramount to moving forward to the next level. Photography is no different.

Find places you can photograph on multiple occasions so you can experience them in different conditions. Weather can make a huge difference to the feel of a location. The key is to slow down and make considered photographic studies of your chosen location.

It’s important to find subjects and/or scenarios to photograph that you have an affinity with. Is it places, people, animals, abstract or straight photography? Shooting subjects you are interested in will keep things interesting.

Mentors

Ask for feedback on your work by other photographers who you respect.

It’s amazing how much more you will learn from others who have travelled the same path as you and who can give constructive feedback. The new age of Zoom video conferencing one-on-one feedback sessions is revolutionising this process, where both participants can share their screens and discuss images.

Finally, remember that every great image has something special about it. It might be its strong graphic qualities, or perhaps its delicate textures. 

Work out what that something special is, and then in your processing, work to emphasise these qualities. That way the viewer will know what the image is about and, importantly, how you feel about it.

We'll share part two of Jackie's tips next week, as well as look at some example images and how they've been edited.

About the author: Jackie Ranken is an Australian born, multi-award winning landscape/art photographer who has lived in New Zealand since 2004. She has over thirty five years’ experience within the visual arts and has been an international awards judge since 2002.

She combines her art practice with teaching and is a presenter in workshops and seminars internationally. Her passion is the creation of multi-layered narratives via in camera multiple exposures and intentional movements. Allowing play and serendipity into her creative process gives her personal freedom to break rules and push the so-called boundaries of traditional image making processes.

Since 2001 she has won many prestigious photography awards which have culminated in making her a Grand Master of both the Australian and the New Zealand Institutes of Professional Photography. She is a Canon Master and EIZO Ambassador.