How To Do Good Black and White Photography

Textures and patters translate perfectly showing how to take great black and white photographs with this cloudscape over the RMS St Helena, anchored in James Bay. Composition is rather extreme allowing the sky to dominate the frame.

Textures and patters translate perfectly showing how to take great black and white photographs with this cloudscape over the RMS St Helena, anchored in James Bay. Composition is rather extreme allowing the sky to dominate the frame.

PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS | Darrin Henry

Black and white photographs carry that nostalgic credential which gives them instant appeal, even more so today where the style gets a free pass to the ‘artistic’ table.

But there’s a dark side 🙂 With powerful digital software and in-camera options now so common, post production ‘effects’ such as black and white can be overdone and sometimes used to mask poor photography. Shock, horror!

I’m a ‘colour’ fan when it comes to photography, as some of you may well have realised by now, overall to me it’s just more fun.

A night time cityscape of Bangkok, in Thailand. The intricate patterns of shadow and light makes this cityscape work well in black and white.

A night time cityscape of Bangkok, in Thailand. The intricate patterns of shadow and light makes this cityscape work well in black and white.

But when it’s done well, I do love black and white. Pictures by some of the world’s top photographers is to die for, particularly some of the incredible art nude images. Editorial culture images in black and white are also highly evocative.

Okay then – how do we take good quality black and white photographs?

Here are some basic tips and guidelines you can follow that I find helpful for taking better black and white pictures.

Composition

We know composition is key in photography, but when shooting black and white it’s even more crucial. Without colour, photographers need to recognise variations in tones, spot how textures cast shadows and how shapes and recurring patterns alter light and shade. Good composition will frame these features to get the best from the shot.

Black and white photography works great for architecture under the right conditions. This sight of the Tennessee State Capital building in Nashville, USA, got us excited right away with the dark, brooding clouds building and warm sunshine across the towering limestone building. The architecture lines mix well with the natural textures and shadows, perfect for black and white.

Black and white photography works great for architecture under the right conditions. This sight of the Tennessee State Capital building in Nashville, USA, got us excited right away with the dark, brooding clouds building and warm sunshine across the towering limestone building. The architecture lines mix well with the natural textures and shadows, perfect for black and white.

Contrast is the key to this black and white photograph. Freshly caught fish just landed on the wharf in Jamestown, St Helena.

Contrast is the key to this black and white photograph. Freshly caught fish just landed on the wharf in Jamestown, St Helena.

Harsh Midday Light

Normally it’s photographers and vampires who avoid the midday sun. The golden hour, that glorious soft light in the morning and evening is generally accepted as what works best for pictures. But shoot in black and white and suddenly the harsh shadows inject contrast and drama that is difficult to achieve with colour under these conditions. Sometimes even a bare flash can create the same hard shadow effect. (Making use of shadows in photography is another topic we’ve blogged about)

Look out for textures and patterns when shooting black and white photography. Man made structures are often a good source of repetitive patterns, especially cityscapes, such as this office building in Cape Town, South Africa. This was taken from the open top of the double-decker red bus, city sightseeing tour as we drove between the buildings.

Look out for textures and patterns when shooting black and white photography. Man made structures are often a good source of repetitive patterns, especially cityscapes, such as this office building in Cape Town, South Africa. This was taken from the open top of the double-decker red bus, city sightseeing tour of Cape Town as we drove between the buildings.

Ideal conditions for black and white photography at the St Helena Airport. Repeat patterns of the car park lines, a deep blue sky with plenty of cloud textures, midday sunlight throwing sharp shadows and the beautiful curves of this VW Beetle. The trick with black & white photography is to recognise the conditions in colour (which is how our eyes we see the world) which translate well when colour is removed.

Ideal conditions for black and white photography at the St Helena Airport. Repeat patterns of the car park lines, a deep blue sky with plenty of cloud textures, midday sunlight throwing sharp shadows and the beautiful curves of this VW Beetle. The trick with black & white photography is to recognise the conditions in colour (which is how our eyes we see the world) which translate well when colour is removed.

Here bare flash units create the harsh shadows needed to make this photo work well in black and white. My dad happened to turn up while I was testing strobes outdoors which made things much more interesting when he agreed to model with his car.

Here bare flash units create the harsh shadows needed to make this photo work well in black and white. My dad happened to turn up while I was testing strobes outdoors which made things much more interesting when he agreed to model with his car.

Blue is the new Black – Colour Tones

Recognising tones is vital for black and white photography. A deep blue sky translates to black when colour is removed. Red and greens have a similar effect. But yellows and lighter shades err more to white. Obvious you may say, but we seldom think in these terms when viewing a scene with the naked eye in vibrant colour. Practise recognising these tonal translations and you will start to recognise when a good black and white picture is waiting to be snapped.

Recognising colour tones when shooting black and white photography and how they translate is a useful skill. The deep blue sky above St Helena in this picture translates to a lovely black, offset by the cloud textures and foreground strands of grass.

Recognising colour tones when shooting black and white photography and how they translate is a useful skill. The deep blue sky above St Helena in this picture translates to a lovely black, offset by the cloud textures and foreground strands of grass.

Repeat Offender – Textures and Patterns

I mentioned this earlier, but textures and patterns are the cornerstone of black and white photography so it’s worth ‘repeating.’ I often ask models to bring wool garments to a shoot as they catch the light and throw tiny texture shadows. The parking lines along the street or rows of windows along a building facade are typical patterns to keep an eye out for when shooting black and white.

Inside the Cape Town Luxury Icon Apartment block throws up an amazing black and white architectural photography opportunity. Here the lines and patterns lend themselves to a dramatic black and white image.

Inside the Cape Town Luxury Icon Apartment block throws up an amazing black and white architectural photography opportunity. Here the lines and patterns lend themselves to a dramatic black and white image.

The Black and White Headshot

Portraits often work well in black and white. A few years ago we did headshots for actors in London who wanted the final work produced in black and white. By stripping away the colour element in portraiture, the character of the human face stands alone, more focused and prominent. Actors use black and white for a better connection with potential employers.

Black and white photography is very popular for professional headshots and portraiture. Without the distraction of colour, the character and expression of the face becomes far more prominent. This portrait of Cyan was captured during a portfolio shoot in London. Lighting is subtle but carefully arranged for gentle shading and tone.

Black and white photography is very popular for professional headshots and portraiture. Without the distraction of colour, the character and expression of the face becomes far more prominent. This portrait of Cyan was captured during a portfolio shoot in London. Lighting is subtle but carefully arranged for gentle shading and tone.

Black and white photography with studio model shoots can deliver very clean, crisp pictures, especially using a white backdrop and styling the outfit carefully. On this shoot with Amy we played around with the pose quite a bit to show off the outfit as much as possible.

Black and white photography with studio model shoots can deliver very clean, crisp pictures, especially using a white backdrop and styling the outfit carefully. On this shoot with Amy we played around with the pose quite a bit to show off the outfit as much as possible.

Go Against The Grain – Setting ISO

Finally, set your camera up to shoot with a low ISO. Noise is more evident in black and white imagery. If you want a grainy effect add it later in post production with suitable editing software. In fact, lowest ISO should always (usually) be a priority, even in colour. Obtaining the cleanest, purest master image means a lot more choice later in how the final image may be edited and presented.

This is Dobby, whose natural colour and texture make her a perfect candidate for a black and white portrait (in landscape orientation here). A well placed treat helped hold her attention long enough to capture this picture!

This is Dobby, whose natural colour and texture make her a perfect candidate for a black and white portrait (in landscape orientation here). A well placed treat helped hold her attention long enough to capture this picture!

How To Shoot Better Black and White

It all takes practise and a lot of trial and error. Practise, practise, practise – it’s a simple formula that works for nearly everything in life, including photography.

This shot of workers enjoying the sunshine over lunchtime in London, England, is a great example of black and white photography in architecture. This picture works great in black and white because of the strong light, bold lines from the buildings and the lovely textures across the cloudy sky.

This shot of workers enjoying the sunshine over lunchtime in London, England, is a great example of black and white photography in architecture. This picture works great in black and white because of the strong light, bold lines from the buildings and the lovely textures across the cloudy sky.

And don’t forget, everything here is advice; a guide. Don’t be afraid to break the rules in photography and experiment if your instincts kick in; some of the best photographs come from taking a chance!

Good luck!

Black and white model photoshoots give pictures a classic look, but once again, textures,  patterns and shadows all help to enhance the style. Of course, a stunning model like Emma-Jay certainly makes the photographer's job easier! The full series with Emma can be seen in our Breeze 2 e-magazine.

Black and white model photoshoots give pictures a classic look, but once again, textures, patterns and shadows all help to enhance the style. Of course, a stunning model like Emma-Jay certainly makes the photographer’s job easier! The full series with Emma can be seen in our Breeze 2 e-magazine.

Just in case you prefer colour, you may be interested in our post on How to Improve Your Colour Photography.

6 thoughts on “How To Do Good Black and White Photography

    • Thanks Patsy. Mr Patrick must have been a model at some point, he didn’t need to be told twice to pose! Thanks for the comment. Cheers 🙂

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    • You’re welcome Di, lovely to have your comment. Hope all’s going well at the Tangled Webb Art Gallery, now there’s professional and personal. Can’t wait to visit again someday 🙂 Cheers

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    • Hope your trials are going well JLB 🙂 I know you like the b&w. Will have to work on a colour photography post for you I think. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

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