Black and White Photography Tips For A Classic Look

Black and white photography is timeless. From the early works of Ansel Adams to the more contemporary cityscapes of Henri Silberman, it exhibits a classic elegance that is undisputed.

But you don’t have to be Adams or Silberman, or any one of a hundred other ‘greats’ to shoot great B & W—no, you just have pay attention to the same things they do.

Black and white photography is different from color photography in that the human eye only sees the differences between lights and darks, not the varying hues of colors. Because of this, the eye can focus on the patterns, shapes, and lines that are a natural part of our world.

But how do you take better black and white photographs? There are four main tips that make it easier to capture that awesome photograph with a minimal amount of effort.

Black and white photography tips #1 - pay close attention to the contrast between light and dark. The eye sees only two things, color and contrast. Without color, photography relies on the differences between light and dark to convey a powerful image.

Explore the world around you and look for natural contrasts—light subjects against darker backgrounds, and darker subjects against lighter backgrounds.

Look for contrasting shapes, such as rounded pebbles against brick sidewalks. Also, look for different hues of colors. When captured in black and white, differing hues end up coming across as differing shades of gray. This can give a photograph depth and definition.

In the image on the right, the building contrasts sharply with the lighter window and with the clouds above. In a color version of this picture, the weathered blue of the building was very similar to the blue of the sky and the image lacked necessary depth. The shadow of the awning above also makes a nice contrast against the lighter sky background.

Tip #2 - Be Aware of The Light

Black and white photography tips #2 - always be aware of the light. Because there is no color for an eye to focus on lighting plays an even more crucial role in B & W photography. All aspects of lighting should be considered—direction, intensity, shadow—it all plays a big role.

The direction of the light will provide differing highlights on a subject. The intensity of a light source can lead to ‘white-spots’ in a photograph. In a B & W images this can be a fatal flaw. White spots will appear as empty spaces in the image. The photographs below illustrate this principle.

In the image below on the left, the photographer did not allow for the afternoon sun facing directly on the metal building. As a result, instead of the gray hue of the lower building being visible in the photo, it was bleached white—as was the cloud and sky in the background. The building appears to be floating on a white background.

The image on the right, however, shows the differing hues that can be found when the light is accounted for. The clouds above give a softening effect to the varying shadows and hues in the old hotel below.

Shadows play an important role in B & W photography, too. Shadows falling across the main subject will ruin an image, but utilizing the shadow as part of the subject, is effective and evocative. In the image to the right, shadows give depth and emotion. Without the shadows, the image would appear flat and boring.

Keeping an eye out for the source and direction of lighting is as equally important in B & W as it is in color photography—if not more so.

Tips #3 - Watch Your Background

Black and white photography tips #3 - watch your background carefully. A background that is too loud (with a lot of distracting features) will detract from the subject. A plain background or one with only a few relevant features makes for the best image in a black and white photo.

Also watch for extra appendages, items that when the film is developed will appear to be growing out of the subjects background.

If the background is too distracting, try to turn the subject or simply move them until you find a background that is more suitable. If that is not an option, use a smaller depth of field. In a photograph with a shallow depth of field, only the main subject is highlighted, and the remaining ‘background’ objects become blurred.

The photographs below are examples of differing depths of field. The photograph on the left has an extremely shallow DOF, while the landscape on the right has a high DOF.

Tips #4 - Watch Lines, Shapes, Textures And Patterns

Black and white photography tips #4 - watch lines, shapes , textures and patterns. Because B&W photography does not have the color necessary to convey the image, the geometrical components must do it for you. You want the varying hues and tones to tell the story and nothing does this better than the basic shape of your subjects.

Lines that are repetitive, or that directly contrast with one another make an eye catching image, as do shapes that are opposites. Free-form clouds over a row of exact buildings show the contrast found from shapes.

Textures themselves can often lead to a startling affect, as can patterns found either naturally or made by man. The following images below show a variety of ways that geometry can play a part in an awesome photograph.

In the photograph to the left, the lines of the steps contrast nicely with the lines of the rails and the shadows the rails cast. In the photograph to the right, the free form clouds make a nice compliment to the more precise lines of the traffic signs.

The image below of a tree to the left shows an example of nature-made texture. Texture in a black and white photo should make the viewer feel as if they could trace the subject with their fingers and actually feel each nook and cranny.

On the right, the close-up of a zipper shows how patterns can be very eye-catching. It is contrasted by the lighter fabric on one side of the zipper and the darker fabric on the other.

Black and white photography is elegant, artistic, complex, and beautiful. Certainly, equipment knowledge is important, but paying attention to what you are ‘exposing’ your film to will pay off with that startling image that is in itself both simple, beautiful, and perfect.

Contrasts, lighting, backgrounds, and geometry are so much a part of a wonderful photograph that simply knowing what they can do, can—and will—lead to better black and white photographs—each and every time.

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Comments 2 comments

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Camping Dan 7 years ago

Thanks for the great B&W tips. For the longest time I only did color images but lately I have been into old barns and I love them in B&W.

catchadream profile image

catchadream 4 years ago from Lakeland, Florida

Thanks for the info, great tips to keep in mind with B&W photography.

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