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Simple tips to make your black and white photos memorable

Thanks to today’s digital technology we can transform any image into black and white during post-processing, though it requires some knowledge and skill to achieve the best results.

Here are some simple techniques we recommend, both in-camera and during post-processing, to take your black and white photography to the next level.


Learn to see in black and white

One of the best ways to create strong black and white photographs is to see past colour. “Pre-visualise the world in black and white and you’ll find the best shapes and contrast hiding behind colours,” photographer Ian Robert Wallace suggests.

This can seem difficult at first, as our brains are so used to processing colour we almost take it for granted. But over time you can train your brain to substitute colour for black, white and grey tones in a prospective image. With a little perseverance you will be able to look at a scene and imagine the reds translating to a medium grey, yellows translating to a lighter grey, and so on.

Image by Jeremy Bishop

Let your camera see black and white for you

It can take time to learn to see in black and white. A Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera has a monochrome setting that can be an amazing training tool. By using this setting, you’ll be able to shoot your scene and analyse your tones, lights and shadows without extraneous colour information. This is also an excellent way to see form emerge in your images without the distraction of colour.

However, if you choose to shoot in RAW monochrome it does provide a good indication of how successful your image could look in black and white after post-processing.

Shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW offers greater control over your final image; its tone, colours, sharpness and noise profile during post-processing. You are able to decide how cool or warm your image is, bring back or crush shadow detail, saturate or drain the colour and find the best balance between sharpness and noise.

If you would like to learn more about RAW files and how they work check out James’ Spotlight article ‘Raw, actually’.

Look for strong compositional elements

In colour photography, our reading of an image is often based on how colours interact with each other. Complementary colours, such as purple and yellow, can compete for attention and create movement across a composition. Related colours, such as orange and yellow, can create a sense of harmony in an image like a sunset. These colour signals give viewers information on how to experience the image. When colour is stripped away, so is the information on how to read the image. Suddenly, an image of a sunset cannot be experienced the same way.

This is why photographers interested in improving their black and white photography need to pay special attention to the compositional elements of their images. Look at the lines within the image, the forms they create, and the textures within the image. Focus on creating strong compositions and look for areas of contrast so that the viewer’s eye can travel throughout the image.

Image by Serge Najjar

“Use the frame to focus on important details and don’t waste your time on the unnecessary ones,” photographer Serge Najjar advises. “The photographer’s aim is to deliver a strong message by bringing together details that may at first glance appear irrelevant but that can end up completing each other in one way or another.”

Shoot with the light in mind

With the absence of colour in an image, the light becomes more of a subject within the photograph. What the light reveals and what it does not reveal, becomes part of the story in the image. When shooting, pay attention to how the light falls on your scene and where it is coming from. Look at how it makes a particular subject pop, or how it can create shapes within an image.

Similarly, you want to pay as much attention to the absence of light in your photograph. More so than in colour photography, shadows help create depth in an image. Use it, and its balance with light, to direct the viewer’s eye and create movement in your photographs.

“Having a silhouette of a person or an object in front of a light background can create a strong contrast, but the silhouette or the object should be extremely well placed in the frame’s composition,” Serge Najjar continues. “This is what Henri Carter Bresson calls the ‘Decisive Moment’: the precision and timing should be spot-on, otherwise the picture loses its strength and power.”

Monitor grain/noise

In the days of film, the higher ISOs contributed to grain in a negative. Today, higher ISOs create similar patterns that we refer to as noise. While some photographers love grain for the ‘film noir look’ that it can create and sometimes even add it digitally in post, other photographers loathe it. What’s important is that it doesn’t detract from your photograph. Keep an eye on your ISO and use grain/noise sparingly, unless it helps create an intended mood in your image.

Image by Ian Robert Wallace

Try using filters

The right filters can make a world of difference in your black and white photography. Red filters will block blues, but allow reds through your lens, rendering skies a much darker and more dramatic grey. It also makes white clouds stand out more. Some red filters can also make red tones appear much lighter, almost white. Orange filters can have a similar effect, although less dramatic than a red filter. Yellow filters have the most subtle effect, giving tones a small boost of contrast.

Experiment with tones

Many people favour images with high contrast when working in black and white. This does not mean that high contrast images are better; images with flat tones can also be appealing. Your image needs to be compositionally interesting, and this is especially true when working with flat tones. The lines and movement in the image need to work extra hard when there are not strong whites pulling the eye and strong blacks grounding it in the image.

Image by Catherine Panebianco

Have a true black and white

When learning photography, most of us were taught that it is essential to have a true black and white in an image. This is to help avoid images that appear muddy. While photographs that break this rule can still be successful images, the rule is a good starting point when shooting black and white. Even if there are only small elements within the photograph that are a true black or a true white, it helps to enhance the rest of the shapes and textures.


Apply a Black and White Adjustment

A simple way to convert an image to black and white is to apply a Black and White Adjustment in Affinity Photo. This adjustment is non-destructive and can be applied by going to Layer > New Adjustment layer > Black & White. You can then use the sliders in the adjustment dialog to tweak the colour contributions in your image. For example, if you have a landscape image adjusting the cyan and blue contributions will change the tone of the sky, while adjusting the yellow and green contributions will affect the tone of vegetation.

Use Curves and Levels or dodging and burning

If the scene you captured didn’t have the right contrast, but the image is still compositionally strong, you can introduce contrast by using a Curves Adjustment along with a Levels Adjustment.

If you want to darken or lighten a specific area in your image this is where the Dodge Brush Tool and Burn Brush Tool come into play—dodging will lighten an area, while burning will darken it.

You can learn more about the dodge and burn brush tools in Affinity Photo by watching our tutorial video here.

Don’t forget hue, saturation and luminance

If you shot in RAW, don’t forget to take advantage of Affinity Photo’s HSL Adjustment. This adjustment lets you work with individual colours within your image. The impact can be incredible and can resemble the effect of lens filters. Experiment and see, for example, what the effect of changing the saturation or the luminance of the reds in your photograph will be. You may find that the more you saturate your reds, the darker grey they appear.

To conclude

Black and white is a gorgeous medium in which to work. Because you strip all of the colours out of your photograph, it can help you see the world in a new way and pay increased attention to the light and shapes that surround us every day. You may even find that the more you practice black and white photography, the better your colour photographs will become.

“A lot of times when starting out in black and white photography, you are so worried about being technically perfect,” fine art photographer Catherine Panebianco reminds us. “But maybe, just maybe, you aren’t photographing perfection…you need a bit of imperfection to tell your story. Black and white photography visually strips down your feelings to the core. Let go, experiment, and figure out what works for you in black and white. I wish I’d known sooner how beautiful black and white photography can be when you trust your gut, not your f-stop.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.