Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners

I love black and white photos — I always have. There is an inherent surrealistic quality to black and white images that I find both mysterious and immensely beautiful. Looking at a black and white photo is almost like a glimpse into some fascinating alternate reality — a glimpse into an unfamiliar world similar enough to our own, yet different enough that it contains and projects the promise of a certain sort of fantastic magic and mystery.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners

A black and white image, if done correctly, possess a power and visual impact that most color photography does not. A black and white photo is free from distraction — it contains only the essence of the image — the essence of the scene. It demands that more of the viewer’s attention be placed toward the subject of the image alone — to the story contained within the borders of the photograph.

It’s very common for new photographers to be drawn toward shooting their own images in black and white. Yet, many beginner photographers fail to realize that there is a real art and skill that goes into shooting black and white imagery. If you want your black and white photography to really carry the full impact that it’s capable of carrying — the same visual impact that you see in the black and white work of so many famous photographers whose work you’ve no doubt seen and admired by now, it’s not as simple as just shooting a regular, old color photograph and converting it into black and white in Adobe Photoshop without giving it much thought. There is, in fact, something of a specific skill you’ll need to learn for black and white photography in order to make your black and white photos really pop.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners #1

When to shoot in black and white photography:

The very first of the most important black and white photography tips for beginners you’ll need to learn is actually when to shoot in black and white, as opposed to color. Any image, of course, that can be shot in color can also be shot in black and white. However, only at certain times — with certain subjects and certain kinds of photographs — does a photograph really cry out to be shot in black and white.

Black and White Photography - Street Scene

Photo credit: © Mario Mancuso

I am, myself, primarily a black and white photographer. And, the rule that I generally go by is that unless color is needed in an image — unless there’s something about the photo for which I feel the need to convey the colors present in the scene to the viewer — then the image is going to end up being a black and white image.

So, if I am, say, shooting a beautiful sunset, or a meadow filled with bright red poppies, or something similar, my photo will usually end up in black and white. Practically the entire visual impact of any image of a sunset lies in the amazing colors of the clouds and sky, etc. So, a black and white photograph, in such an instance, would be pointless. The same goes for shooting flowers and any other image where the colors of the scene are likely to play a significant role in the enjoyment of the viewer, or the impact the viewer receives from viewing the photo.

So, when deciding whether or not an image is destined to be a black and white photograph, my advice is to consider that the image is going to end up in black and white as a default. Then, ask yourself if having color in the image would bring anything significant to it. Will it add anything to the viewer’s experience to see the colors in the scene? Don’t ask if the image would be better if it were shot in black and white — that’s backwards thinking. Adopt the mindset that black and white is the default — that black and white is the photographic norm. And, that color is a fancy add-on — an extra. Ask yourself, instead, if color would add anything of value to the image. If you determine that the colors in the scene are not in any way necessary, then stay with your default and bank on the image ending up as a black and white photograph.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners #2

Shoot in RAW mode.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners- Wray Castle, Cla

Photo credit: © Sage_Solar

Not every image that you think will work better in black and white actually will. I’ve been taking pictures for coming up on forty years now, and I’ve been shooting professionally for the last eighteen of those years. I have no idea how many millions of photographs I’ve shot in all that time. And still, to this very day, it’s very common for me to take a photo which, at the time I’m about to take it, I’m absolutely sure the image will end up being a black and white photo, only to begin processing the digital RAW file in Adobe Lightroom and deciding, during the editing process, that the image does work much better in color. And, of course, this process happens in reverse as well — often, I’ll be taking images that I’m sure will end up as color photographs, only to discover during post-processing that the image works much better in black and white. Even with all of my experience, my ability to predict whether or not a photo will work better as a color or as a black and white image is not 100%.

When to shoot in black and white photographySo, with that in mind, if you want to create stunning black and white photographs, here’s one of the most powerful, and simplest, black and white photography tips for beginners: If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW, then shoot in RAW, but, if your camera has such an ability, set the program mode to black and white!

What’s the purpose of this? Well, if your camera is set to shoot in RAW, then the image will be recorded with all color information intact. But, if, while set to shoot in RAW, your camera’s program mode is also set to black and white, the preview image on your camera’s LCD screen will display in black and white when you shoot the image. So, if your intention is to create a black and white photograph, having the scene appear in black and white on your camera’s viewing screen will aid you in determining how the image will look in black and white, and aid you in determining the contrast of the scene and the light values so important to a stunning black and white image. But, all of the image’s color information will remain fully intact and encoded into the image. So, when you load the image into Lightroom, or whatever you use to do your post-processing work, you’ll still have the option of finalizing the photo as a color image if it turns out that the particular image works better that way.

And, of course, if you’re serious about creating photographs that are the absolute best they can be, you should be shooting in RAW mode anyway — always — whether your intention is to produce a black and white image, or not. If you’re not shooting in RAW, your images wont be all they can be.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners #3

Train yourself to see the world in terms of light values.

Black and white photography is a very different animal than color photography. With color photography, there’s two things that make up the image: Light values, and color values. Light values being the different levels of light and dark in the image, and color values being the different shades and hues, and their varying intensities, of all of the different colors contained within the image. With black and white photography, of course, you don’t need to worry at all about color values.

Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners - Jonathan Kos-Read

Photo Credit: © Jonathan Kos-Read

Beginner photographers might think this would make black and white photography easier than color photography, since there’s less that you have to worry about getting right. In fact, it doesn’t. It actually makes it more difficult. The reason being that with color photography, if you’re not spot on with one of them, the other will cover for it to some degree. Does your color image lack sufficient contrast to really make the photo pop as well as it absolutely could? If it does, and you’ve got some real eye catching colors in there, then the lack of contrast wont be nearly as noticeable. Viewers will be dazzled by the colors, and your lacking contrast may not completely kill the image. However, with black and white photography, the light values are all the viewer is going to see — they wont be made to consider color values at all. So, a black and white image that’s lacking in the proper rendering of its light values will stand no chance of being saved by dazzling colors. If you get the light values wrong, the picture will be wrong — period.

Shoot in black and white or convert?So, in order to consistently take truly stunning black and white photos you should learn to see the world in terms of light values. Train yourself to be aware of them and to consider them in any scene you happen to view. Just look around yourself — look at the world around you — wherever you may be — and try to force your brain into ignoring the color values in the scenes you’re viewing. Pay attention only to the light values — to the relationship between light and shadow. Photography, of all types, is primarily, first and foremost, the capturing of light. Or, more specifically, the recording of the visual range of light and shadow. The word ‘photography’ literally translates into “light writing.’ So, be constantly aware of light — of the visual range of light and shadow. Look around you and try to see the world in black and white. Ignore the colors. Pay attention to only the differences between light and shadow.

Here’s one of the best black and white photography tips for beginners I can give you, and you likely wont hear it anywhere else but right here, from me: Do you want to become a real expert in taking black and white photos and be assured of having your black and white photography really, truly just blow people away? Then here’s what you do: Find and sign up for painting lessons that teach the painting methods of the old, Flemish masters. Especially, look to sign-up for lessons in the what’s called the “Grisaille” technique or method, or possibly another method known as the Venetian technique. Or, at the very least, if you have difficulty in locating, or devoting yourself to, such instruction, sign up for a life-drawing for beginners class, or workshop, or two, or three.

Black and white photography tips - candid photography

Photo credit: © Ines Njers

To the old masters, light values were of the utmost importance in painting — it was practically everything. And, they trained themselves, incessantly, to accurately take account of, and faithfully render light values in a scene. Only after they crafted a painting in a single, monotone color — and the light values were all they could be and absolutely faithfully represented — did they then glaze over their black and white painting with thin, translucent color paint glazes in order to sort of stain the image with color.

So, in learning this technique of painting, great emphasis is placed on teaching and training the student to accurately recognize and ‘see’ light values in a scene. Of course, you don’t need to train yourself in such painting methods to such a degree that you become a master painter yourself. But, taking a few lessons will go a long way in training your brain to see the world in a different vision. And, the new way your brain will actually function will almost assuredly cause you, as an almost unconscious byproduct of your training, to create black and white photos that absolutely blow people away with their visual impact.

Tips on taking black and white photos for beginnersSo, what about you? I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the art of black and white photography. Do you have a love for black and white imagery? If so, what is it about black and white photography that appeals to you? Or, do you have some of your own valuable black and white photography tips for beginners that you’d like to share? If so, we’d really appreciate reading what you have to say! Please, use the comment box provided below to share your thoughts on black and white photography, and/or any of your own black and white photography tips for beginners that have proven useful to you in creating your own black and white photographs.

Have a great day, and happy shooting!

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