Key Elements of Great Black and White Photos


"Modern Rails" by D. Travis North

Black & White Photographs are among my favorite style – both to observe and to create.  Shooting for black & white is challenging.  You immediately eliminate one of your building blocks of design:  Color.  That’s one less tool that you have to compose with.  But working in black & white can be quite rewarding as well.  Personally, I am drawn to the beauty that is created by black & white.  If done well, it can help the viewer to focus on textures and shapes as opposed to symbols.  There is great beauty in black & white photography, but to do it right…you need to account for a few key elements:

  • Exposure – Exposure is always important, even in color.  But when it comes to black & white, it’s even more important.  In a photo devoid of color, there is a very narrow margin for error.
  • Contrast – A good black and white photo should have absolute whites, and there should be absolute blacks.  Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right in camera.  So long as your exposure is correct, you can tighten up the contrast in post-processing.  TIP:  Shooting in natural light?  Circular Polarizer and Neutral Density Filters help you to get great contrast between colors.
  • Dynamic Range – In other words…there should be some gray tones as well.  The more grays you can work into the photo, the better.  This is where your color filters (either physical filters or photoshop both work well) will help you to separate colors from each other.  TIP:  Unless you’ve got a lot of experience with film, there’s very little reason for new photographers to use physical color filters.  You have more control in post-processing with your editing software.
  • Composition – Color is obviously eliminated, but you still have five building blocks to work with.  Each carries more weight in the final composition now.  Texture, especially, becomes magnified without color.  Don’t let this be a hindrance, use this to your advantage.
  • Patience – If you’re not used to shooting black & white, expect to make some mistakes.  You will need to get the knack for seeing a color scene as if it were black & white.  You’ll need to learn how some colors will appear in black & white, and the only way to learn is through practice.  For practice purposes, if your camera has a black & white mode – use it.  I don’t recommend using that mode for production as you eliminate a lot of the control you would have at post-processing.  But it’s a good way to learn how to visualize a scene – just check it on your camera’s screen.

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.

Comments are closed.

Shutter Photo: Photography Education, Inspiration and Wisdom. Since 2008. (Copyright © 2008-2014)