all-access pass

Get unlimited access to every class

Design, Photography, & Fashion

The Best Black and White Photography Tips

Written by MasterClass

Aug 3, 2018 • 5 min read

Written by MasterClass

Aug 3, 2018 • 5 min read

Ever since Louis Daguerre produced the first, eponymous daguerreotype image in 1839, photographers have been experimenting with light and exposure to produce fantastic results. While black and white images were prevalent throughout the turn of the century, due to camera film’s exclusive ability to produce imagery in monochrome, advances in photography equipment and technology made it possible to capture color images beginning with autochrome in the 1910s and graduating to full-color photography by the ’50s. The charm of black and white photography is not lost, however; masters of the art form like Ansel Adams have inspired generations of picture-takers to set their cameras to monochrome and shoot.

What You’ll Need

To begin taking black and white photographs, you will need a digital camera with monochrome settings, such as a smartphone or a DSLR. Canon, Sony, and Nikon all provide a range of good, beginner-friendly mirrorless cameras (which are DSLRs). There is no such thing as a best camera, but there are definitely photography tips to follow in order to get great images.

While it is certainly possible to take images in full color then apply a black and white filter, it is better to shoot the original in black and white so that you may adjust the settings, properly exposing the image in the moment rather than after the fact. This produces a more accurate result, since a photographer may control, in real time, the appearance of shadows, the contrast of light and dark, and the shape the subject makes in relation to the background — all subtle yet important details to crafting a perfect monochrome shot.

Different Image File Formats

There are benefits to shooting black and white images in different file types like RAW and JPEG, although beginners may feel more comfortable experimenting in the JPEG image format before moving to the more complicated RAW image format. RAW essentially means an unprocessed file that is rich with detail; RAW files provide a robust template for post-processing and editing since they capture more information than other formats, like JPEG or PNG. While you can edit JPEG images, JPEG files compress information, and as a result, details like brightness, white balance, and exposure can end up lost and your image quality, distorted. JPEG compression is not always a bad thing, as a compressed file takes up less space (ideal for shooting on smartphones). Since RAW files do not compress any information, this file format ultimately yields the best image quality.

If shooting with a DSLR camera, the option to change to RAW format should be available in the camera’s settings (usually under quality). Smartphones are also capable of shooting in RAW, however you will need to download supplementary apps like ProShot for Android and Halide for iOS to capture the extra information from the sensor. Adobe Lightroom CC is available across Android and iOS platforms, and provides a seamless transition between shooting and post-processing. Photoshop also offers a Camera Raw app that works well with creating original files on smartphone cameras.

Filters and Other Photography Tips

Both DSLRs and the native camera in smartphones, like the iPhone, offer monochrome filters; these design tools are found in the settings section along with other photo effects (like sepia). It is also possible to shoot the original photo in color first, then apply a black and white filter in online photo editors like Pixlr or mobile apps like VSCO or Snapseed, although this is not ideal since you might not see the effects in real-time and end up with an image that does not necessarily work in monochrome.

Consider the Subject

The first step to capturing beautiful images in black and white is choosing the right subject to photograph. Not all subjects are successfully photographed in black and white, since the emphasis is more on shapes, texture, and composition, and how the absence or presence of light and shadows changes the presentation of the subject. Eliminating color from an image creates a stronger emphasis on tonal contrast, which is the difference in shades from light to dark and their relationship to each other in an image. Portraits and landscapes benefit from monochrome due to their natural dimension, while subjects that rely exclusively on color gradients like sunrises or sunsets against a blue sky lose their effect when shot in black and white.

Since portrait photography and landscape photography are both simple and striking in black and white, these are the first recommended subjects for novice photographers to explore. When selecting a subject, assess the composition: how much is dark, and how much light? Are there interesting shapes to play with for maximal contrast? Could you manipulate the background or foreground, with canvas or other materials, to provide a contrasting surface, which your subjects will really pop against? When you’re thinking about contrast, consider both opposite and complementary tones, shapes, and textures. The goal is to find subjects that are in high contrast with each other or their environments. For portraits, a clean background such as a lightly textured wall or a drop cloth hung in a makeshift studio will allow the person or pet posing for your photograph to stand out. Look for the shine of light on your subject’s hair, or for the shadows created when they move around. You can encourage your subject to strike a pose or make shapes with their body, or opt for stillness. For landscapes, seek out geometric lines, interesting constructions, or graphic shapes found either in nature or in manmade structures. A solitary tree in a field with direct light from above, a rocky shoreline beneath a moonlit sky, or a severely angular building all serve as impressive landscapes when shot in high quality black and white.

Setting, Styling, and Selecting the Scene

Black and white is an inherently minimalist approach to photography; embrace that with austerity in styling and simplicity in setting. Detailed scenes like a farmer’s market with a plethora of vibrant produce in an assortment of bins do not serve as ideal black and white photographs, since the lack of color effectively eliminates the most interesting part of the shot. But a portrait of the farmer set against the white cloth of his stall, and the pattern the light and shadows make playing off his hat, would. While learning to differentiate between what makes a good black and white image and what works better in color takes some time, once you get the hang of it, a world of technicolor and silvertone will open up, ready to be photographed in entirely new and unique ways.

Photo Editing in Black and White

As with all photography, black and white images do benefit from post-processing, especially if you are shooting in RAW. Both Apple Mac and Microsoft Windows offer popular photo editing software by Adobe. Use the photo editor Lightroom or Photoshop to accentuate shadows or highlights, or try a tinted monochrome image replicating the feelings of old film photographs by pumping up the shadows in one layer and the highlights in another. Editing tools like dodge, burn, and curves allow for the amplification of mood in a variety of ways; try experimenting with the levels to highlight brightness or darkness. Since the image was shot originally in black and white, you have a solid baseline for getting creative with editing, with the option to revert to a more natural look at any point.

Black and white photography is a unique art form that depends on retraining your eye to see monochromatic relationships in the world. Neither natural nor easy, this requires a lot of patience and practice to become a pro. But with ample trial and error, the tonal qualities of subjects will begin to emerge, revealing an entirely new universe to explore.

Recommended for You

  • Chris Hadfield

    Teaches Space Exploration

  • Annie Leibovitz

    Teaches Photography

  • Gordon Ramsay

    Teaches Cooking I

  • Aaron Sorkin

    Teaches Screenwriting

  • Stephen Curry

    Teaches Shooting, Ball-Handling, and Scoring

  • Shonda Rhimes

    Teaches Writing for Television