Elements of Great Black and White Photos

Black and White Lotus Flower

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For a long time I couldn’t understand why anyone would shoot in black and white; to me, black and white photos were uninteresting and a historic style only out of necessity. As technology advanced and color photos were possible, I questioned why anyone wouldn’t want portray the scene exactly as it was. I’ve grown to appreciate B&W photographs and realize that comparing black and white images with color images is like comparing the book to the movie – two different art forms that tell the same story in dramatically different ways. Black and white photography is an underrated art form that brings more to the world of photography than we realize.

Black and White Photography vs. Color Photography

White Sands in High Contrast Black and White
Pink and Yellow Sunset in White Sands National Park - Las Cruces, New Mexico

Black and white photography is an intentional departure from reality that leaves more to the imagination. Aside from the obvious color differences, black and white photography is a unique skill set that embraces hard light, shadows, and other photographic elements that many styles of photography avoid. Shooting black and white opens up a new world of unique photo opportunities outside of the golden hour.

Too many colors in an image can distract from the focal point, so removing color emphasizes the composition and structure of the scene. Learning to shoot in black and white can also improve your color photography because is forces you to focus more on the scene’s characteristics rather than relying on color to set the mood of the image.

Black and White Vs. Monochrome Photography

Monochrome photography uses different shades of one color, but it can be any color, not just black and white, which uses different shades of black, white, and gray. A black and white photograph can be monochrome, but not all monochrome images are black and white. The most common use of monochrome is sepia, which uses warmer tones.

Seven Critical Elements of Black White Pictures

Black and white photography is more than just the absence of color, so applying the same techniques as color photography may not always achieve equivalent aesthetics. A compelling black-and-white photo relies on the contrast between lights and darks relies on these seven elements.

Shadows

While many photographers avoid shadows, black and white photography embraces the darks and lights that shadows cast which become critical elements and contribute to the tone, texture, and framing of the scene. 

Songbird sitting on tree branch black and white Silhouette

Contrast

Contrast refers to the transition from light to dark in an image. Hard light is an abrupt transition between lights and darks and creates an intense and dramatic feel and makes the subject more prominent. For a subtler, gentler feel use soft light, which is a more gradual transition. 

Shape And Form

Use the contrast between edges to represent an object’s shape, which is how an object looks in 2D. Use shadows to create depth and show the object’s form, which is how the object looks in 3D.

Tones

 Tone refers to the shades of blacks, whites, and grays. Contrasting colors such as green and red may be in a similar tonal range and create a flat black a white image. 

Mist at Lower Yosemite Falls Vista Point Trail in black and white

Composition

Photo composition always applies no matter what style of photography you are using; you can’t save a poor photo with black and white. 

San Pedro Cactus Black and White

Texture

Texture in photography intensifies the details and uses depth and contrast as a visual representation of how something would feel if you touched it – soft, wet, rough, etc.

Emotion

Without distracting colors, there is more emphasis on the tone and contrast used to portray emotions which intensifies the emotions of a scene. Images with darker tones give a feeling of sadness or loneliness, high-contrast images are intense and dramatic, and lighter tones are more light-hearted and cheerful.  

Learn To See In Black And White

  • Use the monochrome preview most cameras have to help you visualize a scene in black and white. 
  • Look for contrast. Whether it’s a large range of grays found in landscape photography or an abrupt transition from light to dark found in architecture, look for contrast that helps your subject stand out.
  • Look for details, texture or patterns. The same details that would go unnoticed in a color image become more prominent in black and white photography instead of getting lost in a sea of color.
  • Look for sharp and bold shapes that make the subject stand out or patterns where color distracts from that oddly satisfying appeal of repetition.
Spiral Windows In Black And White At The Biltmore Estate

What Subjects Make Good Black and White Photos

An image reliant on colors in the same tonal range, such as sunrise/sunset, the image will appear flat; so images where color is the subject matter are not suitable for black and white photos. While most subjects are good for black and white photography, street photography, landscape, textures are the most impactful.

Famous Black And White Photographers

Ansel Adams – The biggest name in black and white photography who is most famous for his landscape photos of the American Southwest.

Bert Stern – Famous for his minimalist fashion photography and is credited with being one of the last people to photography Marylin Monroe.

Lee Jeffries – Famous for his of pictures homeless people from around the world.

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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