When Learning to Shoot in Black and White, You Can’t Just Guess


Black and White photography can provide some stunningly beautiful images that have a classic feel…if done really well – to shoot in black and white (or the mindset) entails more than just a quick conversion in Lightroom.

There was a time when all photographs were done only in black and white, and people were still able to see the different tones (i.e. the tonal range) in black and white. There is immense beauty in black and white photography and it's important to show tonal variations in black and white too.

What we have here is some quick tips for you on how to create beautiful black and white photographs. This applies to both photography and the conversion process.

Quick Fact:

Remember an important fact to be kept in mind while using the term monochrome (varying tones of one color); all black and white photographs are monochrome, but not all monochrome images are black and white!

Did you know about the Zone system of exposure that was developed by Ansel Adams and his friend Fred Archer?

Ansel Adams was known for his famous black and white landscape photographs. You may already know, he was very particular about capturing as much dynamic range in his images (from the deepest black (shadows) to the brightest whites (highlights)).

So he developed this system for metering and exposure that made him stand out from other photographers of his time. His images stood out so beautifully because of the range of tones that they had between the color black and white.

shoot in black and white
Image by Ansel Adams, Manzanar War Relocation Center, California -1943 – Library of Congress

Tip Number 1: Learn to Use your Histogram

Keep a check on your histogram to see that you have a full range of tones before you start the process of black and white conversion, or if you are shooting black and white, make sure that your histogram has enough details for you to bring out the perfect tonal range in your photograph.

Black and white photography is not about capturing just the color black and the color white, but about capturing all the other shades of gray that lie in between black and white!

Look for yourself at the difference in histograms when you change contrast and exposure in an image.

shoot in black and white
Pay close attention to the histogram. Just look at the histogram for the picture with a correct exposure; you will see there are a good range of tonal variations!

shoot in black and white

Tip Number 2: Understanding Tonality

You need to choose a scene that has contrasting tonal values. Yes, tonality matters. What happens if you disregard this? You'll simply end up with flat images that will look and feel lifeless with not much to look at.

Truth is, not all images will look good in black and white and you may have to tweak them a bit in the conversion process so that they don’t look flat.

This also tells, do not use automatic black and white settings in your camera, but instead shoot RAW in color and do the conversion manually so that you can tweak up the image later to bring in the tonal range.

What is Tonality?
It's the lightness of the image and is very important while shooting black and white. Colors that look very distinct may actually look the same when converted to black and white!

If you don’t quite understand, look for yourself at the conversions below! Amazing isn’t it? (Basic automatic conversion in Lightroom)

shoot in black and white

But a slight variation of the above colors can create good tonal variations as seen below!

shoot in black and white

Tip Number 3: Choosing a Good Photograph for Conversion to Black and White

So from the above two tips, what do you gather? You need a photograph that has plenty of shadows and highlights, good tonal ranges and some textures wouldn’t hurt at all, but create a striking black and white photograph.

So, choosing an image that will create a decent black and white photograph is important and that doesn't mean that you cannot make a good conversion from other pictures, but it simply means that it will be more difficult to achieve it.

Look at the images below along with a default black and white conversion to see how they turn up!

Check out these examples:

The image on the right has some tonal values and beautiful textures whereas the image on the left, although a beautiful landscape, lacks tonal range and textures!

shoot in black and white


Further Resources

Further Learning

If you wish to learn more about histograms, how the Zone System works for photographs along with useful and step by step illustrations to convert photographs into beautiful black and white pieces of art, you really should check out Kent’s “Better Black and White” premium photography guide.

About Author

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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