20 Amazing Black And White Photography Examples And Tips For How To Create Your Own
Back when black and white photography was the only photography we had, every photographer was looking for the perfect subject, light, and composition in black and white.
With the world of photography now full of highly saturated colors and HDR effects, deciding instead to portray your subjects in monochrome can give them a classic, timeless look, and black and white photography remains a very romantic medium.
Ansel Adams once notably expressed that working in color photography was like “playing an out-of-tune piano.” Given he worked extensively in both mediums, it’s interesting to see that we mainly remember his iconic American landscapes in black and white.
“I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography,” Adams wrote in 1967.
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Even though Adams wrote that he foresaw the “beguiling medium” of color taking over the world of photography, he never left his preference for black and white. Perhaps if he had, his incredible black and white images would never have imprinted themselves in the public eye. He cherished his medium and saw the incredible potential of it to express both beauty, emotion, and light.
If you’re aiming to do more of this kind of photography, there are many time-honored tips you can benefit from using to make your images succeed at captivating the eye. So, if you’re looking to create high contrast black and white photography or monochrome photography, here are some of the ways in which the masters like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange achieved such stunning work.
Tips For Stunning Black & White Photography
1: Look Beyond Colors
When it comes to shooting in black and white, learning how to ‘see’ how you’d like your final image to look is a great skill to work on.
Seeing in black and white (or monochromatic) can help you determine where your viewer’s eye will be drawn and help you visualize the shapes, textures, light, and movement there will be in an image.
To really get a captivating shot, you need to look beyond the colors in a scene and try to imagine how things would be perceived in greyscale. Is your subject a significantly different value (lighter or darker in tone) than the background? Is your focal point and area with a highlight and dark contrast?
Asking yourself these questions will help you create better images in black and white. It may take some practice, so don’t worry if your first black and white shoots don’t work out the way you had hoped. You can also try converting some of your existing images into black and white to see what works and what doesn’t.
2: Select Good Subjects
As with color forms of photography, your subjects play a key role in the success of your images. Even more so with black and white photography, your subjects can make or break your shot.
If you’re working in digital instead of monochrome film, then removing the color from your images can completely change their effect. Removing color effectively removes an element that viewers use to interpret a scene, so the other elements in your image become even more important.
So, what do you look for when choosing a subject to shoot in black and white? There are several common elements to choose from, and they can be mixed and matched depending on your preferences and style of photography. These are:
- Forms and Shapes
- Textures and Detail
- Light and Shadow
- Lines or Elements that draw/direct the eye
You want your subject, or the focal point of your image, to stand out from the background and capture the eye in one way or another. By playing with contrasts, you can create this effect stunningly.
Our next tip for stunning black and white images? Underexpose them.
Yes, underexposing, or exposing a black and white image for a shorter amount of time than you would a color image, helps to create photography that stands out with high contrasts. By underexposing, you increase the amount of darker values in an image, which, in turn, lends more emphasis to the white/lighter areas.
For example, when shooting a stormy beach with clouds rolling in but not yet covering the sky, shooting with a normal exposure would result in a blown-out sky when converted to black and white. By underexposing 2-3 f/stops, the sky becomes grey, and your scene remains highly contrasted with the white surf in the foreground.
But what if your shot is a little too dark? Old-school film photographers discovered they could create high contrast black and white images simply by underexposing their shots and overexposing their film. Modern digital tools allow you to do the same by selectively lightening areas in an image. As a general rule, underexposing is preferable to over-exposure because you can generally adjust an underexposed image with photo editing software more easily than an overexposed one. Underexposed images also hold much more detail (even if you can’t see it) that, with a little tweaking in Photoshop, you can bring out again.
As a general rule, underexposing is preferable to over-exposure because you can generally adjust an underexposed image with photo editing software more easily than an overexposed one. Underexposed images also hold much more detail (even if you can’t see it) that, with a little tweaking in Photoshop, you can bring out again.
4: Go For Shape And Form
We mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth another mention: look for interesting shapes and forms in your subjects. Like great painters, great photographers saw the effects in a scene, not just the objects.
These effects can create their own shapes, such as a square of light coming in through a window and falling on a person’s face. Or the shape of a bright figure on a dark background. There are millions of ways in which to capture shape and form!
The best way to effectively capture shape and form is to look at light. Where is the light coming from, and what is it doing? Are there ways in which you could enhance or change the effects of the light in your shot, such as with reflectors or lights of your own?
Pay attention to the areas of darkness as well. Subjects that feature simple lines or strong shapes work really well for this too.
5: Play With Value Tones
High-contrast black and white photography relies on strong black and white areas to create a sharp, contrasting effect. But not all black and white photos need high contrast to be effective. Sometimes, the key to a great black and white shot lies in its grey tones.
Your photos don’t have to contain an even mix of tones either. You can have a mostly grey subject with just a few little hints of black and white. Or you can opt for a mostly white subject with small amounts of black and grey or everything in between!
6: Go For Graphic Composition
Composition is everything when it comes to black and white photography. Your images need strong compositions to really work in black and white.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a subject that doesn’t work for black and white photography when composed with good lighting. But there are some subjects out there that rely primarily on their color for impact. Or, you’ll run into lighting conditions that you can’t alter to suit your needs. For instance, a colorful autumn scene in the park may look dull or uninteresting when converted to black and white.
To make the most of the subject you’ve chosen while avoiding the ‘dullness’ that monochrome can impose on an image, choose your composition with intent.
What does this mean? Choosing a simple composition that features straight lines or dramatic angles that lead the viewer in will help your photos stand strong in black and white. Man-made structures work really well for this, and high contrast lighting can really enhance graphic shapes and shadows.
7: Avoid Blank Skies
Moving away from what you should do – now we need to cover a little of what you shouldn’t do when shooting in black and white.
It may be easy to assume that because you aren’t working in color, you can shoot black and white photography in any light or in any weather. While it’s true that with some skillful post-processing you can add interest and drama to a shot, you can’t turn it into a masterpiece if you start with a lackluster scene.
This is especially true for the sky in landscape photos. Unless your subject is already very minimalist (such as buildings against a pure blue sky), or your subject stands strongly on its own, having a large wash of plain grey in your photograph doesn’t add drama or interest.
If your image doesn’t rely on the sky for effect, then, by all means, you don’t need to obey this rule and shoot only when there are clouds. This rule mainly applies to outdoor and landscape photos that aren’t relying on color for their effect.
8: Know When To Keep The Color
Some subjects, such as yellow daisies against a green lawn, rely on their colors to stand out as a photograph. Sometimes, it’s just best to keep these subjects in color to avoid losing their essence and washing everything out in greys.
If you have a photograph where all the colors are similar in tone, it makes sense to keep it as a color photograph instead of displaying it in black and white. However, when your composition and lighting are strong but the colors are overwhelming, that’s when you want to try converting your image to black and white. You can then rely on the grayscale to simplify your image while enhancing its impact.
9: Watch B&W Movies
One of the best tips I’ve found for great black and white photography is to watch old movies in black and white. Movies like Casablanca or The Grapes of Wrath really showcase great black and white photography and create a world full of emotion and drama without a single stroke of color.
Older movies didn’t have the luxury of color to draw a viewer’s attention in a scene, so they did it all with light and contrast. Jealousy, love, hate, joy, death, or humor was conveyed with light! Learning from the old masters in black and white photography can vastly improve your own techniques in this classic medium.
10: Play Up The Contrast
Have we mentioned this yet? Strong black and white photography greatly relies on contrast to play up the scene. This is very different from color photography, where too much color and contrast combined can create an overwhelming image.
When color is removed, you have more room to maneuver when it comes to contrast. You can turn up the light areas so your scene is filled with brilliant light, or you can increase the shadow areas to fill your image with a dark, moodier emotion.
High contrast black and white photos usually follow the rule of picking one color over the other. Either you have a mostly light or a mostly dark image, and focal points are found in areas with the most contrast. This isn’t a rule that’s never meant to be broken, but when done correctly, it results in some spectacular imagery.
11: Don’t Ignore Flat Light
When it seems like a drab scene in color, flat light can actually make for some really interesting photography in black and white. Flat light doesn’t have a large range of exposure, but you can still capture dark and light areas with plenty of detail in between. Like I mentioned earlier, this requires you to look beyond the colors in the scene and focus on the elements.
Whenever you’re out shooting and you come across flat lighting conditions (light that is very diffused, such as on an overcast day), keep in mind that these conditions may be perfect for creating interesting compositions in black and white.
12: Pure White & Pure Black Areas
One of the most important rules in black and white photography is keeping areas of clean white and clean black in your photo. Is this a rule you can never break? Of course not. But it serves as a good starting point when you’re composing a monochrome shot. Without clean black or white areas, images can easily look “muddy” – meaning there are only varying shades of grey present.
If your black and white images tend to have this lackluster feel, try increasing the amount of pure white or pure black areas. Sometimes, all you have to do is make dark areas darker. By darkening the image in these areas, it plays an interesting trick on the eye, which assumes the light areas are lighter. This can be effectively done in post with simple tools like dodge and burn.
13: Try Using Filters
In black and white photography, using filters can make the difference between a boring and a fantastic shot. For example, using a polarizer or split grad can darken the sky in your shot for a dramatic black and white photograph.
This may take some practice to “see” when using a filter will create a great shot for black and white. The more you experiment, the luckier you’ll get!
Post-Processing Recommendation: If you haven’t already tried Google Nik, you’ll want to download it and experiment with Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2. This software is one of the best out there for creating dynamic black and white images, and their ‘Structure’ tool is awesome for making black and white magic happen!
14: Utilize Levels & Curves
Speaking of photo editing tools, it pays off to know how to use your photo editing software to make adjustments in black and white. One of the best ways to play up the drama in Photoshop or Adobe Elements is to utilize Levels and Curves.
You can make slight adjustments in Levels to push your blacks to deep black, or you can use Curves and the Brush to lighten selective elements that you want to really stand out. Making subtle changes or enhancements with these tools can result in an absolutely gorgeous black and white photo!
15: Look For Light & Shade
Light and shade are sometimes all you need to create a memorable photograph. Whether it’s a high-key photograph that contains clean, light tones and very little dark areas, or a subject mostly in shadow (for example, the Antelope Canyon in Arizona), if you pay attention to light and shadow instead of objects, your photographs will turn out better.
If you happen to be shooting outdoors and conditions aren’t ideal for color (very bright sun, few or no clouds), then instead of heading home for the day, consider how your subjects will look in black and white. A bright sun will cast very strong shadows and reflect on light surfaces. In color, this can result in blown out lighter areas and dull shadows, but in black and white, it may be just the sort of contrast you need.
16: Create Low-Key Lighting
So what about the other end of the spectrum? Successful low-key images have little or no light except on the centerpiece or main subject of the image. They tend to have very dark backgrounds with either natural or controlled lighting to create this effect.
If you want to achieve the ‘underexposed look’ with portraiture, make sure to control your lighting so little light falls onto your background. This can be done by using a flash or continuous lighting (such as a reading lamp), or by searching out and shooting in areas of shadowing if you’re in a natural light setting.
With the point made earlier about underexposure, scenes made up mostly of shadows and midtones give your images a sense of mystery and make for some very intense imagery.
To make your image even more low-key, you can use the Levels adjustment in Photoshop. Dragging both the grey slider and the black left-hand slider in the Levels window to the right of the histogram darkens the midtone areas and shadows. If you want to keep selective portions of your image from going too dark, you can mask out this adjustment in those areas.
17: Shoot Into The Light
Using backlighting, or shooting in the same direction as your light source, creates some wonderful silhouettes for black and white photography. Backlit photos usually work because the exposure range is outside of what your camera can handle. Shooting into the same direction as the light, you can either expose for the foreground (making your background overexposed on purpose) or expose for the background and get those interesting silhouettes.
With backlit and silhouetted photos, try to avoid applying HDR in your post-processing. These images have appeal because they can leave certain elements up to the imagination.HDR takes away some of the mystery in these images by adding in all the details our eyes are searching for.
18: Utilize Toning
Not all black and white images are pure black and white. Sometimes, there’s a very slight amount of color, which is known as an image tone. Common types of toning include sepia (great for landscapes and portraits), or blue toning (great for a “cold” feel such as winter scenes or street photography).
You can use virtually any color to tone your images. Most photo editing software contains tools to give your images subtle tones to help bring out a certain effect or mood. It’s definitely worth playing around with tone when you’re converting your images to black and white.
19: Shoot RAW + JPEG
To get the best monochrome conversion for your photographs, it’s important to shoot in RAW so you can edit with as much information as possible. But many cameras have a monochrome mode that can give you an indication of what your image will look like in black and white, which sometimes isn’t available in RAW shooting mode, but rather RAW + JPEG.
If you struggle to visualize how your scenes will look with color removed, then shooting in this mode will help you get a feel for finding the best ways to compose a photo for black and white.
20: Look Out For Sharpness Contrast
Another technique you can utilize to really help define your black and white images is something known as sharpness contrast.
You can do this by using a telephoto lens with a wider aperture while allowing for space between your subject and the background. Be careful when choosing your focus point, as this will be where the eyes are immediately drawn. A good choice for something like portraiture or wildlife photography would be the eyes.
By shooting in this way and utilizing depth of field, you can really define your subject and make them stand out in black and white. Make sure to watch out for unwanted tonal contrasts in your background, such a lighter areas, as these will distract the eye away from your main subject. When this effect is done well, it creates a very strong monochrome photograph.
Sometimes, all it takes is one tiny adjustment here or there that can make or break a photograph. Using techniques like simple compositions and strong contrasts can bring out the beauty in even the most ordinary of subjects when done in black and white.
One final note is that when it comes to black and white photography, there are no hard and fast rules for getting the perfect shot every time. Each situation is different and different photographers will shoot images depending on the effect they want to achieve.
Rules are meant to be broken, as the saying goes. Keep these tips in mind when shooting but don’t be afraid to go with your own intuition and see where it takes you!