10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs

Piet Van den Eynde

Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom Certified Expert Piet Van den Eynde offers his top ten ways to make better black and white photographs, both in-camera and in post-processing.

1. Wait for the Light or Create It

Photography is writing with the light, and that light is even more important in black and white. If the hard light or backlight I like isn’t there, I try to recreate it. For the 100th anniversary of the World War I, I photographed in the old military cemeteries where I was drawn to the texture of the memorial with the cut-out names. But the lighting was too soft for my taste, so I set up a flash with a grid on it at a 45-degree angle to mimic a beam of sunlight. Black and white was the obvious choice for post-processing the dark grey stones, and I chose a contrasty style to further build on what I had introduced with my lighting.

I regularly use flash to create light that I think the scene needs rather than to use the light falling on the scene. The shaft of light adds a bit of drama, complementing the setting.

2. Lines, Shadows, and Shapes

I love working with natural backlight because of the strong shadows and lines it creates. By subtracting colour, you have to rely even harder on the basics to make a strong image. I like to stake out a scene with great light and then wait for the foreground to arrive.

I noticed the sun creating strong diagonal shadows on the passers-by in this alleyway so I sat down and waited for the right subject(s) to walk into the frame. In order to catch their stride at its best, I set my camera to Continuous High Speed and chose the best shot of the burst from the comfort of my monitor.

3. The Power Of Patterns

In photography, patterns are good, but interrupted patterns are often better. In this image, I chose a long focal length to compress the perspective so that the crosses would fill the frame. I used the low morning sun as a rim light (right), and caught the reflection of a mosque in a new office building (left). I like the contrast between old and new, or alternatively, between business and religion.

Patterns are good (right), but interrupted patterns are even better (left); they appeal to the imagination and challenge the viewer intellectually.

4. Texture

As with almost everything in photography, texture has to do with your lighting. Raking light that’s almost parallel to your subject will reveal texture which especially good in black and white because it helps to add a three-dimensional feel to what otherwise becomes a two-dimensional image. You can always increase the texture in Lightroom, but what isn’t there to begin with cannot be amplified in post-processing.

This is a variation on my using flash to mimic the setting sun technique from item No. 1 above. The natural light didn’t do much to bring out the texture, so my assistant used a flash, modified by her hand to keep the light from being too direct. I then increased the clarity even more in post-production.

5. Time: Play with the Conventions

Black and white images are more disconnected from the real, Technicolor world. Filters or post-processing allows for turning bright sunny skies into moody, dramatic ones. This freedom allows us to experiment more with the other building blocks of our photos as well, such as time. For some reason, you rarely see those typical cityscapes where white headlights and red taillights become mere streaks of light in black and white; colour seems to be the tacit convention. That is exactly why I converted the image below to black and white. By taking away the red, the image becomes more balanced.

Although not a long exposure, I still left the shutter open for about 5 seconds to allow light trails to build up. In colour, this is so popular that it’s become a cliché, but you rarely see these images in black and white, which was reason enough for me to convert it.

6. More Colours for Easier Black and Whites

The more colours in your original image, the easier and more powerful it can be when converted to black and white. Whether you use Lightroom’s Black & White panel or Photoshop’s Black & White Adjustment layer, don’t rely on the default conversion and don’t start dodging and burning right away. Depending on the number, saturation, and diversity of the colours in your image, you can often go a long way by dragging the conversion sliders to restore contrast between colours that were converted to similar greyscales by the default conversion.

A standard Lightroom Black & White conversion yielded a flat result (left). By carefully dragging the sliders in opposite directions, I was able to restore the legibility of the text on the truck’s door and brighten the driver’s face (right).

7. The Importance of Going Local

Although there’s much you can do to selectively brighten or darken parts of your image with the Black & White panel, you’ll sometimes need the local control of the Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, and Radial Filter. In the analog days, the difference between a mediocre print and a great print was often in the careful dodging and burning performed by Master printers.

Two black and white conversions: without local adjustments (left), and with local adjustments (right). A detailed analysis of how I achieved this using Lightroom only appears in PHOTOGRAPH magazine, Issue 4

8. Mix and Match your Black and Whites

I rely on presets to speed up my black and white conversions, but I also experiment, finding that it sometimes takes more than one preset to get the look I’m after. When that happens, I use Photoshop’s layer masking capabilities to combine the edited images into one.

I combined three Silver Efex Pro presets via Photoshop layer masks to create the final image: one for the general background; another for the texture on the father’s arms; and one for the baby. Image © Christophe Renodeyn

9. It’s Hip to be Square

I find the square aspect ratio to be a perfect fit for black and white. One of the luxuries of modern system cameras is that you can set them up to shoot black and white square JPGs, and because of their electronic viewfinders, that’s also what you’ll see. And by shooting raw at the same time, you’ll have a raw file in the original 2:3 aspect ratio so you can also process it in colour. The square preview helps with composition and identification of potential subjects.

I used selective focus to make the statues of the soldiers in the background look even eerier. I also used a small dash of flash to further accentuate the cross in the foreground.

Lightroom typically applies the aspect ratio that you chose in the camera to your raw file, but if you choose xxx in the Crop tool, you’ll regain access to the original 2:3 aspect ratio file.

10. HDRBW: High Dynamic Range Black and White Images

I once had a heated discussion with a rabid HDR opponent. To him, HDR was the exponent of all that was wrong in photography today. Too much focused on the effect, not enough on the content. Our conversation continued by me showing him a couple of my black and whites. He loved the contrast and the tone in them, at which point I had to tell him that they were HDR images converted to black and white. Truthfully, HDR is just another technique; it’s a brush in the toolbox. In my eBook, Pushing Light, I point out that black and white HDR is over a century old, first made when France’s Gustave Le Gray made two glass plate exposures of seascapes and combined them into a single high dynamic range print.

I find that HDR images are better in black and white than in colour due to the oversaturated colours generated by HDR.

This image is a black and white HDR panorama (for which I used a tripod). At every position, I made three shots, two stops apart. I first created the individual HDR’s, merged to a panorama, and then converted the result to black and white. 

To learn more about creating black and white conversions, check out my Black & White Develop Presets and Dodge and Burn: Leading the Eye with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Piet Van den Eynde is a Belgian freelance photographer, author, and trainer specializing in Adobe Lightroom. When he's not teaching or writing, he travels the world on his bicycle photographing the people he meets along the way. See more of Piet's work on his website


Craft & Technique Lightroom & Photoshop Piet Van den Eynde

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  • Great article and thanks for sharing!

    Keith on

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