digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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How to See in Monochrome and Create Good Black and White Images

What makes a good black and white photo? How do you know when to convert an image to black and white, and when to keep it in color? Is it best to shoot in monochrome mode or convert later on the computer?

These are all questions I get asked frequently. So here are a 7 tips to help you sort out when to shoot black and white, when to convert from color, and what to look for to create more dynamic black and white images.

#1 – Look for scenes with good contrast

Black and white images look best with a lot of contrast. Often when I convert a color image to black and white, I add contrast and clarity, boost the curve, push the white/black sliders – or a combination of all three. To have the appearance of an image full of depth and richness, you need to have good solid blacks in your image, and pure white. This article on using the basic sliders may help you, but with black and white I take it even a step further.

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Color version of a shot of NYC taken at midday.
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Black and white version with the contrast pumped up to make it more dramatic.

Even midday lighting can work well in black and white

Like the cityscape of New York City above, even when shooting in the normally harsh lighting conditions of midday, you can capture great black and white images. Look for contrast on buildings (with one side in the light, one side in shadow), texture, and shadows. Do not be afraid of shadows in your images, especially in black and white photography. The lack of shadows is what can make your black and white images look drab and flat.

Another example of a shot done in bright sunlight. The direction of light provides good texture on the statue and the darkened sky provides drama.
Another example of a shot done in bright sunlight. The direction of light provides good texture on the statue and the darkened sky provides drama.
Color shot of sand dunes in the Sahara desert. This image works well in both color and black and white.
Color shot of sand dunes in the Sahara desert. This image works well in both color and black and white.
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You don’t get the golden feeling of the sun on the sand here, but rather a completely different mood. Neither is right or wrong, it’s all about what you want to show.

#2 – Convert to black and white when color is distracting

Sometimes it’s best to convert to black and white (or shoot in monochrome mode) when color in the image is distracting in some way. Maybe there is something in the background that’s brightly colored and drawing attention. Or maybe the subject itself is a color that isn’t appealing. This is a good time to do a black and white conversion.

This red brick wall wasn't showing the texture as much as I wanted in color.
This red brick wall wasn’t showing the texture as much as I wanted in color. The red is just too overpowering.
Black and white simplified the image to match mo of my vision for the shot.For me it was about the shadow and texture, not color.
Black and white simplified the image to match more of my vision for the shot.For me, it was about the shadow and texture, not color.
Same here with this lovely Peruvian lady. Her red shawl and outfit are great but I wanted focus on her face and her character. I think that shows more in the black and white version.
Same issue with this lovely Peruvian lady. Her red shawl and outfit are great but I wanted the focus to be on her face and her character. I think that shows more in the black and white version.

Or the white balance is off and can’t be fixed.

Perhaps there is a mixture of light sources such as daylight, fluorescent, and tungsten. That will make a mess of the white balance, and sometimes it’s impossible to correct. Such was the case of this image show in Las Vegas below.

The different colored lights being projected here are impossible to balance. If you like this look it's all good, if you don't, though . . .
The different colored lights being projected here are impossible to balance. If you like this look it’s all good, if you don’t, though . . .
Converting to black and white make this scene feel less "Disneyland" to me and more real.
Converting to black and white makes this scene feel less “Disneyland” to me and more real.
Another Vegas image. This interior just feels too busy to me in color. It's overpowering and doesn't give me the look of opulence I was going for.
Another Vegas image. This interior just feels too busy to me in color. It’s overpowering and doesn’t give me the look of opulence I was going for.
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To me, this feels more like an old-time fancy cigar bar or saloon. That’s what I wanted!

#3 – Use black and white to create a mood

Black and white photography can be a bit nostalgic, dramatic, and moody. Use that to your advantantage. My background is in the darkroom, processing my own black and white film and making my own prints by hand. It’s tactile and while doing black and white now is less so, I still love the mood it can create. You can transform an ordinary scene or object into something dramatic just be converting to black and white.

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Modern shot of a camel in the desert. Great side light produced some really nice texture on his fur. The contrast in the image was begging for black and white treatment, or so I thought!
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Now in the black and white version, doesn’t this feel more timeless to you? Like this could have been taken 50, or 100 years ago?
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I loved this abandoned old boat in Peru with the birds roosting on it, but the lighting was dull and for me it leaves the image lacking something.
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Add a black and white conversion, and a split tone to add a tint of color and voila! Moody, spooky, ghost ship!
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This image of a mosque in Casablanca, Morocco has very little color to begin with and lots of contrast. Good candidate for b/w.
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Black and white adds to the mood already present here.
The black and white with split tone in sepia (browns) transforms this image of a blacksmith into an antique looking photo.
The black and white with a split-tone in sepia (browns), transforms this image of a blacksmith into an antique looking photo.

#4 – Shoot in black and white to help you see light better

If you have trouble seeing the direction of light and how it works with your subject when you are shooting – try putting your camera into Monochrome Mode. If you shoot in RAW format you still retain all the color information if you decide to use it later. But what it does it allows you to see the preview on your camera’s LCD screen in black and white. That means all you will see are tones, light and dark. Invariably, if you shoot this way for a length of time, it will help you “see” the light better.

Images like the one on the left can be tricky to see the direction of light and where is it falling on the subject. Notic how in black and white that's easier?
Images like the one on the left can be tricky to see the direction of light and where is it falling on the subject. Notice how in black and white that’s easier?
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This photo was ALL about the light! The Parthenon in Rome is amazing and the light even more so. I got a crink in my neck looking up at the hole in the dome for so long. But I was fixated on this light – look at it! Can you see it?
Date created May 2011, Title: Aspendos, Photograph
See how the light comes in between each opening in the arches here? Look at the ground, can you see the shadows? Look closely.

For more on this topic, try this challenge: Monthly Challenge – Shoot in Monochrome Learn to See Light. The challenge is over now but the lesson is still there to be learned.

#5 – Convert to black and white on the computer for more control

Having said the last point about shooting in Monochrome Mode, so why not just shoot that way and leave it in black and white? The reason is that when you pull it into Lightroom or Photoshop you still have all the color information to play with. That means you can selectively darken or lighten certain tones in your image, such as darken all blues (darken the sky) or lighten yellow and orange tones (lighten skin tones). That gives you a lot more control over the final look of your black and white image.

By converting this image to black and white in Lightroom I could darken his blue robe and lighten the orange sand and his face. Otherwise in a pure desaturation they'd be the same tone.
By converting this image to black and white in Lightroom I could darken his blue robe and lighten the orange sand and his face. Otherwise, in a pure desaturation mode they’d be the same tone.

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Because I shot in RAW and processed in Lightroom, I can control how the blue sky and yellow building reproduce in black and white in this shot.

I will cover this subject in more detail in a future video tutorial!

#6 – What subjects work well in black and white

Another question I get is, “Are some subjects just better suited to black and white?” Well – yes! And some work well in both, so that leaves it up to you and your artistic vision to make the call.

Some subjects that can, and often work well and black and white include (there are of course others, this is just a few that come to mind):

  • Portraits
Portrait of an old coal miner.
The same image is more nostalgic in black and white, timeless.

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Fuji X-T1 shot in low light at ISO 1250, f/5 at 1/6th with a 32mm lens. B/W conversion in Lightroom CC.
Fuji X-T1 shot in low light at ISO 1250, f/5 at 1/6th with a 32mm lens. B/W conversion in Lightroom CC.

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Berber girl in Morocco.
  • Architecture

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  • Street photography

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  • Characters (performers)
  • Antique subjects like old cars

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  • Flowers (this one can go either way)
  • Shadows

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  • Things with lots of texture

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  • Silhouettes

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  • Details
The color really isn't needed here to see what's going on. It neither adds nor takes away from the subject and the story.
The color really isn’t needed here to see what’s going on. It neither adds nor takes away from the subject and the story.

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  • Subjects that haven’t got much color anyway
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The subject for me here was the light. The faint color was irrelevant so I got rid of it.
This one I like in both color and black and white but the mood and feel change.
This one I like in both color and black and white but the mood and feel changes.

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This is inside an all white church. Not much color here and it just looks dirty. So . . .

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#7 Which work better in color?

While there is no hard and fast rule, some things generally work better in color such as:

  • Sunrise/sunset
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Just not the same is it?

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  • Landscape (but not always, think Ansel Adams!)
  • Flowers (but can also look great in b/w)
  • Food (gray meat is generally not a good or appetizing thing)

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  • Neon

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  • When the colorful object is the subject
The stained glass is lost in black and white and I played with the tones and couldn't make them all look different, separate.
The stained glass is lost in black and white and I played with the tones and couldn’t make them all look different, separate.

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Blue City just isn't the same in gray tones!
Blue City just isn’t the same in gray tones!
The colors ARE the subject here.
The colors ARE the subject here.

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The soft pink tones of the sand in predawn light are lost in black and white.
The soft pink tones of the sand in predawn light are lost in black and white.

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  • Fireworks

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Conclusion

Hopefully, that gives you some idea of when to shoot in black and white, and what subjects or scenes work well in monochrome. Please share your black and white shots in the comments below, and if you have any questions – ask away!

Cheers,

Darlene-1-250x130.png

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