Tips for better black and white photography (Part two)

Black and white photography is a unique art form that requires retraining your eye to look at light and contrast in different ways. In the second and final part of her series, award-winning photographer Jackie Ranken shares her tips to help you create more engaging images.

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 part one of our black and white photography tips we looked at the history of black and white photography as well as techniques for shooting. Now, let's look at some example images. 

Environmental portrait

On a sunny day when the light is hard and contrasty, I look for people to photograph who are in the shade or who are backlit. This helps keep the skin tones smooth and the person won’t be squinting or have a shade across their face (from a hat).

The initial shot of the man on the bike was unsuccessful because he was merging against the building in the background. Since he seemed OK with me photographing him, I moved forward and squatted myself down in his shadow and increased the width of my zoom lens to include the interesting foreground shadow.

I used manual exposure to capture the expression on the man’s face – automatic mode set at (0) may have created a silhouette.

My straight conversion to black and white (above) shows the sky being a very bright, hard white tone. To create tone in these whites, I processed the file through a plugin called NIK Silver Efex Pro 2, using a variation on the recipe called Antique Plate.

This dedicated black and white software will help you adjust tonal values, emphasise textures, control contrast, add film grain, structure and fine structure.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens @ 24mm. 
1/40s @ f8, ISO 200.❂

My advice is to practice making many variations of the same file, save the results with some notes attached about the process you used to create them (or even better, make prints of your variations and write notes on the back of the print) then come back to thesefiles or prints after about a month to review them with a fresh eye. Decide what works for you and keep learning. 


Many of us make photographs to tell a story or to remind ourselves of being in a place. I made this photograph because I knew I would likely never be at this location again.

What was special about this beach was its length: 90 miles long (that’s a long way on foot). But I’d also noticed at the entrance to the shore was a big sign alerting passing vehicles that the tide rises quickly and many cars that venture onto the sand never return. To me, this photo tells that story.

In the black and white conversion, I have given emphasis to a car’s tread marks that end with an approaching wave. The lines are the X-factor that made this composition work.

You can see in the colour version how dark the sand was (the west coast beaches on New Zealand’s Northland are like this). On processing the file, I have made these areas much lighter using a Layer Mask.

Canon EOS R, RF24-105mm F4 L IS USM lens @ 24mm. 1/1000s @ f8, ISO 200. -0.33EV.

This is because the eye will always be attracted to areas of light and areas that have more contrast. Layer Masks allow you to make local changes to selected areas of an image, and can be useful for emphasising areas of an image and communicating to
a viewer where you want them to look.

When using Layer Masks, be aware of adding too much structure to a file because it can make very distracting thin white lines between areas of brightness and darkness. A feathered brush can help with this.

Learning the processes in editing takes practice no matter what software you are using. Life is full of moments such as this. I know the more often I have my camera out, in my hands ready to shoot, the luckier I will be.

High Key

Look for the essence of the subject by using a telephoto lens, or use your feet to get in closer.

When I made this photograph of a lily pond, the sun was almost perpendicular to the subject, creating what could have been 
a distracting highlight on the water. I found an angle where the highlight was just off the edge of the top of the frame.

To avoid flare, I shaded the lens from the sun with my hand.

This would have been a good occasion to bracket my capture, to brighten up the mid tones and make them white (+2). But correcting the exposure in editing did the trick.

I pushed my exposure to the right to give emphasis to the repetitive shapes of the lilies. This makes the image look more like a drawing and enhances its graphic qualities.

Notice how this brightness has made a few of the leaves transparent, creating an important tonal element, introducing a few grey tones and adding variation to the shape repertoire.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. 
1/800s @ f16, ISO 250.

I’ve explored cropping this into square and vertical formats to make it simpler, but in the end decided I liked it best just the way I framed it at the start. Notice in the comparison of the colour to black and white conversion, I have removed a few distracting leaves around the edge of the frame.


Using a tripod here meant that I could carefully look around the viewfinder to organise my composition and “move” distracting pieces of grass out of the way.

Looking straight down helped to keep the focal plane flat across the subject so that everything I wanted sharp would be sharp. I focused on the widest part of the kelp and found an interesting shiny highlight on the edge of the leathery plant.

Because the sun was low in the sky, it kissed the edge of the kelp creating an interesting shadow above it (looking like a mountain range). Compare the processing from the colour (right) to monochrome (left), which had added contrast and darkening.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon TS-E 24.0mm f/3.5 L II lens. 1/100s @ f5.6, ISO 320.

In the final processing of the file, I simplified the image by cropping to the square format, darkening the edge of frame and stamping out any distracting highlights or grains of sand.

My photographs are my interpretation of the light that initially passed through my lens. It’s what I do with that light that makes photography such a wonderful passion for me. What will you do with your light?

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.