How to take stunning black-and-white photos

How to take stunning black-and-white photosThis may seem like an unusual thing to talk about in the middle of the most colorful season of the year, but we're going to take a break from color theory and focus instead on the opposite: black-and-white photography. 

kmg 300 black and white buildingWhy black and white?
Why would you want to shoot in black and white when there's such gorgeous color in the world? Black-and-white photography is excellent for evoking certain moods. It can make the most mundane subject seem elegant and sophisticated, and it lends an air of mystery to any scene. Color, while lovely, can be distracting. Reducing a scene to black and white gives it a classic, romantic look. 

We're going to assume two things for much of this article: that you have access to Photoshop or some other image editing program, and that you either can't or don't want to shoot in raw format. Raw is the most powerful file format for digital cameras, but raw files are very large and tend to require special software to edit. If you are comfortable with it, raw offers much more versatility and control over your photography, including the ability to shoot in black and white but retain all the color information in the digital file. However, most users shoot in JPEG format, which is more universally known.

kmg 300 black and white babyfeetColor vs. black and white
Many cameras have a black-and-white mode, but it's generally much better to shoot in color and convert it to black and white after the fact in an image editing program. This allows you much greater control over your results, and you'll also have the color version to go back to if you decide you like it better.

Learning how to see the world in black and white isn't easy. We're so used to seeing and interpreting color that ignoring and looking beyond it is hard to do. But if you've ever watched a black-and-white movie, you know that without the context of color, it's impossible to tell, say, a green dress from a brown one. A hillside covered with bright autumn leaves that are obviously different colors might not show those obvious differences in black and white.

kmg 630 black and white mamaSo what do you look for, if not color? Pay attention to textures, shapes, and tones instead. The contrast between light and dark, smooth and rough, is what makes beautiful black-and-white images. A lovely sunset view, for example, looks gorgeous in color but lacks as much impact in black and white. However, interesting cloud formations contrasted against a dark sky can look quite dramatic. 

kmg 300 black and white cemeteryContrast and ISO -- friends and enemies
Use the lowest ISO setting you can for the light you're working with. While you might like the grainy texture of high-ISO photos, it's easy to add that sort of effect in post-processing. It's much harder to take the digital noise out of a photo than to put it in. Using a low ISO will let you capture more detail and the sharper lines and textures that make black-and-white photographs even more interesting. Of course, using a very low ISO means that you'll have to compensate with either long exposure times or wide apertures, which is something to keep in mind as you're composing your shots.

kmg 300 black and white elephantContrast is a black-and-white photographer's best friend and worst enemy. It's what lets you capture details and nuances without the benefit of changes in color. But too much contrast can be a bad thing. In general, it's advisable not to shoot black-and-white photographs on bright, sunny days, because the extremely high contrast will make your images lose some of their detail. As with the graininess of high ISO, you might be looking for that high-contrast style, but it's easier to put it in in post-processing than to try to recapture that lost detail.

kmg 300 black and white curvesAdvice for post-processing
In general, most software has a simple desaturate tool, but that's not always your best bet for post-processing. Ideally, you want a tool that lets you adjust the saturation levels of different color or tonal ranges separately. This will let you tweak your results until you achieve the most pleasing image. It's also fun to play around with selective color using these tools. A photo that's entirely black-and-white except for one spot of color, or vice versa, produces an interesting effect.

Digital imaging software is a wildly varied beast, and detailed instructions are outside the scope of this column. Search online for tutorials in your software of choice -- there are many learning portals on the internet, both official (produced by the software vendor) and independent (produced by software users). 

Color changes everything
Color (or the lack thereof) shapes our lives and tints the way we see the world. It's an interesting artistic exercise to practice seeing beyond the color. If you spend a few hours or days shooting in black and white, you will likely find yourself looking at the world in a whole new way.

[Writing and Image credits: Katherine Gray]

Thanks to our friends over at Tecca for submitting this post.  Find more How-to tech articles & Gadget news at Tecca.com.  And, as always, if you have a beautiful black and white photo, post it up on Steve's Facebook Wall, or hit up the Steve's Forums to talk about this article, ask questions, or anything photography related.