Even though color photography dominates nearly every gene of photography, strong black and white photos have a timeless and emotive quality that can be hard to replicate with color.
When color is removed from an image, it is easier to focus on the subject of your photo and can be an especially powerful when it comes to portraits.
Removing color can also remove the distraction of a busy background and can make an image easier on the eye that has colors that don’t quite go together.
Black and white images also instantly give most images a documentary or photojournalist feel. By using black and white for an image rather than color, it is also easier to create a timeless image that stays away from trendy editing techniques like “light and airy” or “dark or moody” that while beautiful today, may appear dated a decade or more from now.
Creating a strong black and white image, however, is not as simple as just removing the color.
Here are some techniques to use to ensure you have a great black and white image that will stand the test of time.
Make sure you have strong blacks and strong whites.
Look at some black and white images carefully and you will find that many are really variations of gray than black and white. In order for a black and white image to be strong, it has to have some true blacks and true whites.
There are various ways to do this, but one of the easiest is to simply drag the blacks slider in Lightroom to the left to deepen the blacks and move the whites slider to the right to brighten the whites. Be careful that you do not clip the blacks or whites in any essential parts of the photo, such as the eyes or skin, but clipping in non-essential parts of a photo is generally considered acceptable.
Adjust individual color tones:
Even black and white images have a mix of color tones. After you have gotten your image to a point where you have strong blacks and whites, it’s time to start adjusting individual portions of your photo. One of the easiest ways to do this is by using the HSL (hue, saturation, luminesce) sliders in Lightroom. Even though you are working with a black and white image, Lightroom shows you the mix of colors used to create black and white for your image. There is no need to guess which colors need adjusting. Decide which area of you photo you want to target, click on the target icon next to “Black and White Mix,” then place your cursor over the area you wish to adjust. Use the up and down arrows to lighten the tones contained that area and the down arrow to darken the tones. The HSL sliders can be used to brighten skin, darken backgrounds, and generally add interest to your photos.
Don’t ignore white balance:
Another way to adjust tones in your black and white photos is to pay attention to white balance. Even in black and white images, making images warmer can brighten skin tones and make them appear less gray. Many photographers tend to ignore white balance in black and white photos, but making some simple adjustments can have a huge impact on your final image.
Get a Range of Grays:
Even though it is essential to have strong blacks and whites, a strong black and white image will have a rage of grays as well. Use the HSL sliders to change the tones in areas of your image to get a wide range of grays. Shooting in RAW will help preserve data in your photo to give you more options in editing.
Shoot in the Right Light for Black and White:
Know ahead of time what kind of photographs will look good in black and white. Photos shot in flat light are generally not good candidates for black and white conversion, unless they show strong emotion or the color is distracting. Photos shot in directional light generally look great in black and white since they naturally have depth and show texture. Photos with strong light sources and a lot of contrast also tend to look stunning in black and white. Photos with dappled light, harsh light, dramatic light, strong shadows, and pockets of light are also good candidates for conversion to black and white.
Know Which Subjects Will Look Good in Black and White:
Good lighting is essential for strong black and white photos, but sometimes the subject matter will look great in black in white even if the lighting isn’t ideal. Some examples are photos showing strong emotion in which color can distract from the moment, photos with busy backgrounds that could not be avoided, and photos where colors are competing with one another (such as if one subject is wearing a red shirt and another is wearing a green shirt), or photos where colors (such as bright neon) may be distracting. Images with strong texture and patterns are also good candidates for strong black and white photos.
Don’t Rely on Black and White to “save” photos:
If you have an image where the white balance is tricky to get right or the lighting was just pain awful it may be tempting to simplify your editing by converting the photo to black and white. There will undoubtedly be times a photo taken in less than ideal conditions will look better in black and white then color, but this does not mean it will be a strong black and white photograph. If you are shooting in awful light that you think will look horrible in color, try to compensate by ensuring your images contain some of the other elements that will make a good black and white photo, such as strong emotion, interesting patterns, or a lot of texture.
With black and white photos, going a little father with your preferred adjustments may have a big impact. Moving the clarity slider up will really bring out the texture in photos that looks great in black and white. Adjusting curves a bit more than you usually do will have a big impact. Adding more contrast will help bring out variation. Don’t be afraid to push adjustments to the extreme and walk them back until you reach your “sweet spot.”
Be creative. For example, the split toning feature of Lightroom can help you add depth to your black and white photos and give you a signature look. For example, Ansel Adams added purple to the shadows of his black and white photos. Although subtle, this undoubtedly contributed to many of his photos being instantly recognizable. Speaking of Ansel Adams, don’t be afraid to experiment with subject matter either. Many photographers would not think of converting landscapes to black and white, but as Adam’s work shows, landscapes can be stunning in black and white.
Learn to See in Black and White:
With a little practice, shooting for black and white will become second nature. Spend a week shooting with your camera set to monochrome and study each photo to determine which look good in black and white and why. Alternately, import your photos into Lightroom or Photoshop as black and white images and then decide which to convert to color rather than the other way around.
With a little thought while shooting as to which photos will look best in black and white and a little practice with post-processing techniques, you can start making strong black and white photos quickly and easily.