Getting Crisp, Clean Black & White Photos With Your Digital Camera

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"Modern Rails" by D. Travis North

I love photographic works in any way shape or form that I can get it.  A well done gallery is a feast for the eyes, and I have been known to spend countless hours observing the works of others.  But nothing holds my attention more than a crisp, clean black & white photograph. Getting it right is a challenge.

Black and White is much easier on film,” a friend lamented to me one day.  That’s a matter of perception, of course.  The real difference is that film exposures are exposed twice:  Once in the camera on film, once in the dark room on photo paper.  The process was such second nature, we didn’t think much about that.  Digital makes it easier to forget some important steps.  For that reason, I felt that it would be beneficial for you all to share some of my own tips and tricks:

  • Shoot RAW – There are times where there is a debate about RAW vs. JPEG/TIFF shooting.  This is not one of those times.  You will need to edit in post, there’s no way to avoid it for b&w, so you might as well keep as much information as possible intact.  That means shooting RAW.  If you don’t, you will have a very narrow margin for error.
  • Expose it Right In-Camera – B&W is more finicky than color and you will have much less room for error in post-processing, even if you’re shooting in RAW.  The better your exposure in-camera, the better the final product will be.
  • Shoot in Color – Yes, you heard me correctly.  I’ve been a lens filter guy for a very long time, but even I will give up the color filters for Photoshop.  Photoshop lets you tweak the color levels as part of your conversion far more than a physical filter can.  But to do this, you must start with a color image.
  • Use the “Black & White…” Non-destructive Adjustment Layer – There are 101 ways to do anything in Photoshop.  But when it comes to Black & White, none is more powerful than the “Black & White…” adjustment layer.  You will have control over every color range as part of your conversion.  You’ll be able to lighten up the greens or darken the reds.  What was once possible only with colored lens filters is now possible in post.  And this level of control is not available through the hue adjustments or the mode settings.
  • When in doubt, overexpose – In my experience, it is much easier to create blacks than it is to create whites.  Overexpose slightly, and you won’t lose detail in the dark areas.  You may lose some definition in lighter areas, but that is much easier to get back in post.  Please note, however, that there’s no returning from a blown-out image.  Overexpose too much and you’ve lost that detail for good.
  • Use a Circular Polarizer Filter – Light bounces off stuff in ways that you don’t necessarily want.  Errant light reduces contrast and sharpness in b&w photos.  That’s where the Circular Polarizer (CP) comes in.  It’s designed to reject light that isn’t coming straight into the lens.  Glare is reduced, detail is retained in dark areas and the whites are truly white.  A CP increases exposure time, but it’s worth using always – even indoors.  And yes, CP filters can be quite expensive, but well worth the money.
  • Tweak Your Levels in Post – This is a step that is almost unavoidable.  Even the best in-camera exposure won’t make whites and blacks pop like you want.  Use the “Levels…” non-destructive adjustment layer to tighten up the dynamic range a bit and get true blacks and true whites.
  • A True Test:  Blacks adjacent to Whites – How do you know when the exposure, the dynamic range and the contrast are just right?  Check the areas in the photo where small white areas are next to small black areas.  For example in the photo above, check out the speckles in the stone and the white stones adjacent to the dark (black) shadows.  The whites shouldn’t look muddy and the blacks shouldn’t look faded.  If either isn’t perfect, tweak your levels until you get it right.

It is my hope that with some of these tips and some practice, you’ll be able to produce some crisp, clean black & white photos.  If you’ve got some tips to share, please leave a comment so that others can learn.  If you have a photo to share, be sure to post it in our Flickr Pool and/or add a link in the comments below.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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