Black and white photos involve more than just converting any old photo to monochrome in Photoshop. Only certain subjects work well in black and white. The art of black and white photography is surprisingly difficult to master.


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


1. Black and white photos: what are they?

Black and white photography is the art of using different shades of gray, ranging from white to dark, to create fascinating images. This genre has a very long history - as old as photography itself. By the time photographers captured the first permanent color image in 1861, monochrome photos had been around for 35 years.

Yet although the color was sexist, it did not replace the art of black and white. Color can be a distraction; it can be dull and lifeless. One of the tasks of photographers is to simplify an image, to distill a scene to its essence. Sometimes this essence is colorless.

Ansel Adams, discussing the differences between the two types of photography, said: “I can get a much greater sense of 'color' from a well planned and executed black and white image than I have ever achieved. with the color photograph. "

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


2. Black and white photos: The right way to go

Good black and white and white photos are first and foremost good photos, period. You won't be able to save a disastrous image by applying a "Black" filter on it, although this is a popular thing.

There are seven essentials to taking black and white photos, however, the most important thing to remember is first of all: you must have a reason for Black and White Photos. Not all subjects perform well in black and white. So, always ask yourself: why are you removing color from a particular photo? Why is it so important to photograph your subject this way?

Black and white photos can look great, but not always. You need to know in advance why you are taking a black and white photo rather than a color one. If you can't pinpoint a good reason, maybe your photo isn't meant to be monochromatic.


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


3. Black and white vs monochrome photos

You may have noticed that there are two common terms that refer to the “same” thing: black and white (B&W) and monochrome. However, while you may see these words used interchangeably, they are not the same!

The word monochrome means "of one color". So, monochrome photos can have a tint of color, as long as it is only one color. Real black and white photos have no color. They are completely black, gray and white.

The good news is that you can usually use either term without causing confusion. But if you want to be perfectly precise, it is best to use the term "black and white" for photos without tint.


4. Black and white photos: Equipment

Usually, when taking black and white photos, you just need to keep using the camera you already have; this will work for both monochrome and color images. But there are still a few camera equipment considerations that matter for black and white photography, which we'll cover below.


4.1. Black and white photos and cameras

Tout d’ abord, il est important de mentionner qu’il y a des caméras qui font uniquement des photos monochromes. Ils ont tendance à être très haut de gamme et coûteux, comme le Leica M Monochrome, which sells for € 8,000.

Why would anyone want to make such an effort for a camera that only photographs black and white? Monochrome-only cameras deliver sharper, cleaner black-and-white images than you can get with a color camera, so it's not like there's no benefit. For most people, however, the practicality of a regular color camera makes it the obvious choice.



4.2. Black and white photos vs color shooting and converting

Most cameras have a “black and white photos” mode, which raises an interesting question: is it better to take photos in color and convert them to post-processing, or go for monochrome mode from the start?

You should always take color photos first and convert them to black and white later in post production, simply because there is no real penalty for doing so. And, if you ever change your mind and want the color version instead, you always have the option to go back.


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


Plus, if you start with a color file, you gain flexibility, as you will still be able to adjust “colors” in post-production, even after converting to black and white. For example, you can darken the blue channel to make the sky darker in your monochrome images. This is not possible if your off-camera file is already in black and white.


4.3. JPEG vs RAW

The previous section was actually a bit of a false dilemma. Quite simply, it is irrelevant for many photographers in the first place. This is because - hopefully - you will be photographing files RAW rather than JPEG, and RAW photos taken with a color camera always retain color information.

If you haven't heard of the RAW vs JPEG debate, check out our specific article on the topic. But the basic overview is that RAW files have more information and image quality, while JPEG files are smaller files with less data. For obvious reasons, photographers looking for high quality images therefore tend to take RAW photos.

So, if you shoot in RAW format, you can turn on “monochrome” on your camera and start taking photos. The images will appear black and white on the camera's LCD screen, but when you open them in post-processing software, they will turn to color! The RAW file does not discard any of this data.

You can use this to your advantage. Suppose you are taking photos and plan to convert most of your RAW photos to black and white. If you enable monochrome mode, you will see a black and white preview on your camera's LCD screen, which can help you better visualize your image. But the key is that all of these photos are actually in color, as they are RAW files, so you don't lose any flexibility if you later decide you prefer the color version.


4.4. Filters

When you learn about camera equipment for black and white photography, you can find information about filters. With black and white film - or if you're shooting with a monochrome-only digital camera - it's important to use filters on the front of your lens to change the contrast and tones of your images.

Color filters

The choice of filter has a major effect on black and white photos. The blue filter blocks out red light, darkening things like leaves and soil. The green filter illuminates everything green. Finally, a red filter darkens the sky and other blue elements in the photo, while comparatively brightening anything red.

Despite the major differences noted above, digital photographers today rarely use color filters for black and white photography. The reason is simply that they have too much of an impact on color photos, potentially making retraining impossible. Additionally, you can mimic many of the same effects in post-processing by adjusting the individual color channels.

Purists always use color filters for their black and white photos, as the effects are not perfectly reproducible in software. But it's getting less and less common, and you probably don't need to invest in a color filter system for your own monochrome photography.


5. The seven elements of the best black and white photos

When shooting in black and white, you need to convey the essence of your subject - including its colors and other characteristics - through shades of light and dark only. The best black and white photos accomplish this by perfecting the seven elements below.


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


5.1. Black and white and shadow photos

One of the first things to remember when shooting in black and white is that the shadows have an oversized impact. These are no longer just darker areas of a photograph - they are major elements of the composition, and sometimes your subject itself.

Your treatment of shadows in black and white photography affects all other aspects of a photo's appearance. Are the shadows black with no detail? This signals a feeling of intensity and emptiness. Or, on the other hand, if your shadows are subtle and detailed, it can make the photography more complex overall.

Note that nothing in black and white photography requires regions of pure black to look good (or pure white, for that matter). It's a bit of a myth that you need a full gamut from deep shadows to crisp highlights before a black and white photo is optimal.

Instead, just do what works best for you, but keep an eye out for shadows in your frame. They often have a stronger "pull" in black and white than in color, and your composition may need to change accordingly.


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


5.2. Contrast

Many people think of contrast as just the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of a photograph. However, by this definition alone, this soft gradient has extreme contrast, as it contains both white and black:

Low contrast gradient
Instead, the contrast also includes a proximity component. The difference in brightness between two objects is exaggerated when they appear side by side.

Contrast is important in black and white photography because of the message it sends. Black and white photos have high contrast conveys a feeling of dynamic intensity - often, again, because of dark shadows. This is why photographers like to add contrast to monochrome photos. It helps the images to stand out.

Low contrast photos don't get as much attention, but their softer, muted quality can work just as well. Some of my all-time favorite black and white photos only have a few silver midtones, and their subtlety is what makes them work so well.

The key is that a photo's contrast level should make sense for your subject - which you can fine-tune, at least to some extent, in post-production. It might be a mistake to photograph a balmy spring day with intense contrast that distracts your mood. Likewise, if you are taking monochrome photos of a powerful landscape, high contrast is a natural choice to make the subject stand out.


5.3. Tones (dark and light)

Not all photographers use the word "tone" in the same way. Tones are the cornerstone of every black and white image. If you've ever heard the expression “high-key” or “low-key” in photography, you've probably seen examples of tones taken to the extreme.

While most photos aren't particularly bright or particularly dark - they fall somewhere in between - you still need to be careful with tones when taking a photo. Indeed, just like contrast, tones can send a powerful message about the mood of your photo.

While the differences are extreme, even tiny variations in the tones you capture can cause a photo's emotions to sway dramatically.

The most important thing to remember is this: The tones in your image - whether dark or light - should harmonize with the character of the subject itself. Use them deliberately to tell the story you have in mind.


5.4. Shapes

Black and white photos are a collection of shapes, simple or complex. When you remove the color from your toolbox, the shapes become even more important as part of the story you are telling.

People are automatically drawn to shapes. If there is no color in an object, the only way to recognize it is by its shape. Imagine a monochrome photo of a lamp, silhouetted. The only tones in the photo can be white and black. There are no shadows or texture to indicate what the photo shows. But is there any doubt that you are looking at a lamp?

Shapes anchor and simplify a photograph. Some famous lookouts are photographed by thousands of people every year just because they contain a mountain or river with a nice shape. And do I even need to mention the shapes of people, immediately recognizable and deeply emotional?

With black and white photography, there is no color to make an image more familiar (or more abstract, if that is your goal). So, shapes are especially important - they are one of the primary ways a viewer can make sense of a photograph.


5.5. Texture

While shapes create the “big picture” of an image, texture fills in the rest. And, like all of the elements of black and white photography we've covered so far, the textures you capture have the power to affect the mood and emotions of a photo.

From smooth pebbles to coarse grass, from sleek aluminum to dull rust, texture is the foundation of an image's personality. It is very difficult to take harsh photos of a gentle stream, for example, largely because of the soft texture of the water. (But if you don't have such a lens, you can increase the contrast and capture deep shadows - balance out the soft texture by making the overall shot more intense.)

When you can't rely on color to form the emotional backbone of an image, texture is even more crucial. It just has a major impact on how your black and white photos feel.


5.6. Composition and black and white photos

Les meilleures photos noir et blanc ont tendance à avoir un objectif sous-jaccent – une indication que le photographe a délibérément capturé la scène de cette manière plutôt que d’une autre. L’image a une structure et un ordre. Ce n’est pas qu’un instantané. En d’autres termes, il a une composition forte.

The key in this context is that the elements in your photo will change black and white compared to color. If you take full-color portrait photos, for example, your subject may have keen eyes that greatly affect your composition. The same goes for landscape photography, in which case a golden sky can draw the whole image upwards. Either way, you'll have to compose your shot differently if you're taking black-and-white photos instead - and those are far from the only examples.

Other times, you may want to use the more imaginary nature of black and white photography to your advantage.

Of course, it's essential to compose your photos well, regardless of color or black and white. It is not something that changes when you convert a photo. Still, when taking black and white photos, it helps to think of the scene from a monochrome state of mind. When you do, you'll often find yourself making different decisions about your roster - and that can turn a decent plan into a piece of portfolio.


5.7. Emotion

On some level, emotion is the most important part of photography - which makes it the perfect way to round out this list. All the elements that we have discussed so far are important because they are tools of emotion; they help you define the mood and the message of your black and white photos.

Emotion is not a separate variable that you need to capture good black and white photos. Rather, it is the culmination of the tools we have discussed so far. Used well, the other six elements of black and white photography allow you to sculpt your emotional message in a way that resonates with viewers and shows them something worth seeing.


6. Post-processing

Let's see how you can post-process black and white color images using Lightroom, Photoshop, and other software.


6.1. How to create a black and white image in Lightroom

There are several ways to convert black and white photos in Lightroom, but the easiest is to just toggle the "Black and White" processing at the very top of the base panel, or just hit "v" on your keyboard.

You can also convert your photos from black and white by reducing the saturation to -100 or (with some cameras) by changing the profile under "Camera calibration" to monochrome. But these methods are not optimal, because they eliminate some options on the HSL tab to adjust individual colors in the black and white mixture.

Black and white mix

While the HSL tab is great for fine-tuning black and white photos, be aware that extreme adjustments often add high levels of noise to your images. This can be minimized somewhat in the noise reduction panel (especially “color noise” reduction), but it's best to keep your settings to a minimum.


6.2. How to create a black and white image in Photoshop

You have even more flexibility in converting your black and white photos in Photoshop than in Lightroom, as everyone has a different preferred method. Personally, I like to use the “Camera RAW Filter” in Photoshop CC, which opens the same editing options as in Lightroom and applies them as a filter. This is because I really like Lightroom's HSL settings for black and white photos!

Yet, you also have plenty of other options. A common method is to create a “channel mixer” adjustment layer, which allows you to control the red, blue, and green channel of your black and white image.

You can also use a black and white adjustment layer, reduce saturation completely, or even open the photo in a plugin that converts to black and white. In short, there are many ways to achieve a black and white image in Photoshop, and it is helpful to try out some of these methods for yourself to decide which one you prefer.


6.3. Converting photos into other post-processing software

Nowadays, it is very popular to use dedicated third party software to convert your black and white photos. The most popular is Nik Silver Efex Pro, which many photographers already own, as it was free for a few years in a row. (It now costs € 70 as part of the Nik bundle, since DxO bought it from Google.) It works on its own or as a plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop.

Personally, I tend not to use Silver Efex Pro or other third party converter software because saving the black and white version eliminates the color information, which means there is no way to convert back to color from this point on. (Although you can always re-edit the original RAW for a color version.) Still, software like Silver Efex does a better job of handling extreme adjustments without adding noise, so it can be quite useful for some photos. And there's no denying that plugins like this have a lot more flexibility than Lightroom's built-in options.


7. Inspiration and ideas

If you want to take great black and white photos, go out and do it! The best way to improve your skills is to practice, both in the field and in post-production. Soon you will find yourself staring at the world in monochrome, visualizing exactly what the scene in front of you will look like in black and white. Here are some quick ideas to get you started.


7.1. Black and white portrait photography

Due to the accessibility of portrait photography, this is one of the best ways to start taking black and white photos. Pay special attention to the interplay of light and shadow when taking monochrome portraits. You can use careful lighting to sculpt the shape of your subject's face or draw attention to certain features, such as the look in their eyes or the texture of their hands. Done well, the results speak volumes.

Also, you can use black and white to distill your subject's emotions. If you are taking color portraits, the clothes in the photo may attract more attention than it should, diverting your message. Monochrome helps you focus on things like facial expressions and gestures.


7.2. Black and white landscape photography

Images of monochrome landscapes have a sense of brutality that helps them grab attention. They draw on the fundamental characteristics of the scene - light and earth - to tell a story. Along with this, it is common for countless colorful landscapes to become unruly, distracting from the message you want to convey. Often, black and white is the best solution.

Still, there will be times when the colors in a landscape are perfectly good, but the picture is always better in black and white. This is because, as a photographer, you often try to capture the essence of a scene more than just an accurate replica of what you saw. Sometimes this essence is more about shade, texture, shape and contrast than particular hues.


7.3. Street Photography and Black and White Photos

The last is street photography - perhaps the one kind of photography where people are more likely to photograph in monochrome than in color. Why ?

In a sense, this is due to the history of the street photography. People like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier captured street life exclusively in black and white, and their influence has spread to many people who take photos today.

But on a deeper level, color can distract from street scenes in ways that are rarer in other genres. If you want viewers to focus on some subtle visual interaction or pun that you've captured, you definitely won't want to take their gaze away from the action with pops of color (especially in cities, where position colors in the frame is often random). That's not to say that all good street photography has to be black and white, but it shouldn't be surprising that so many things are.


The black and white photography is difficult. You create a new challenge for yourself: take powerful photos without an important tool at your disposal!

If you take regular photos in color, you may be able to rely on vivid clouds at sunset to capture a striking image. Or, for portrait photography, you can make your subject more realistic by depicting their eye, hair, and skin color with a greater sense of realism.

None of this is possible with black and white photography. Instead, you have to work with light, shadow, and elements of composition to tell a story and capture the emotions you have in mind. While it takes practice, it is well worth it. Some messages are simply intended to be transmitted in monochrome.




Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO


Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO

Black and white photos - Photo credit Eric CANTO




Eric CANTO Photographe : Photos de concerts, portraits, pochettes d’albums.

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