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How to Make a Digital Picture Black and White

Updated on January 5, 2013

Black and White Photography

"Strength"
"Strength" | Source

Black and White Photography is an Art Form

For some of us photographers black and white photography is the ultimate form of artistic expression. Black and white photography relies on heavily composition and texture. There are no distractions from saturated colour when viewing black and white photography. Black and white photography is suggestive, often evoking strong emotion. This art form is a new level of photography to learn and master. Now I have a way to go in the mastery of the art of black and white but I can share my current learning with you and some of what I have noticed can help you to bring your art to a new level.

The Subject for Black and White

Was your subject just meant for black and white photography? I’ve heard other photographers talk about seeing in black and white and this refers to how they expect the image to come out when finished. The process of seeing in black and white is often challenging for photographers. Seeing is definitely is a process that can be mastered if practised often.

Some steps to seeing in black and white are

  • Looking for textures
  • Isolation of the image
  • Knowing what colours translate into what shades of grey
  • Having adequate contrast
  • Paying greater attention to composition because black and white photography always emphases the rules of composition.

Using Polarizers

A polarizer can provide you with a bold image. Use a polarizing filter to improve contrast A polarizer will turn a sky dark in black and white adding contrast to the clouds. Polarisers work best when used at a 90 degree angle to the sun and your sky will be its darkest when you follow this rule. This means that in order to maintain an evenly dark sky you may need to make some improvements in post processing.

Overexpose not Underexpose

The temptation is to underexpose slightly (say a half a stop) to saturate colours. You want to do the opposite in black and white photography. Underexposure will produce low contrast muddy shots Generally when I over expose a shot by 1/3 to 1/2 stop I get the best results. My advice is to bracket your shots to get all the options on the table right away. You can’t always go back and shoot your subject again.

Fingers of the Giant
Fingers of the Giant | Source

The Colour Equation

It is handy to have a colour wheel with its black and white equivalents close at hand. While everything is changeable in Lightroom and Photoshop it is best to know that colours do play a role in the end product. For instance blue and red often turn out dark yellows are lighter and oranges are grey. Don’t forget that you can turn the black and white equivalents on their head in post processing but sometimes it is the work you do in the field that will yield the best results. Having said all of this please remember that if you are shooting against a field of green or a row of hedges you probably won’t get good results unless your subject is a colour close to white. Knowing colours means getting the right contrast at the end

Composition

Along with all of the rules of composition one of the more important ones in black and white photography is the use of negative space and isolation of your subject. Think in terms of an simple uncluttered contrasting background to your subject.

Conclusion

Shooting for black and white can be rewarding and frustrating at the same time. I can recall that most of my black and white on a popular photo sharing site gets fewer views than the colour shots. One of the higher views was on a colour shot that I purposely oversaturated. Go figure! Not everybody can appreciate the artistic work that goes into black and white but you will have the respect of other photographers.

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