Black and White Photography – Creating That Perfect Image

  • By: John Lochert
  • Date: February 13, 2022
  • Time to read: 9 min.

Shooting Black And White

There is something about black and white photographic compositions that intrigue us. Color photos are obviously more aesthetically pleasing as the pictures tend to portray life as it is, but that same reason can work against color photos sometimes. The overabundance of colors in these photos can completely ‘blind’ us at times taking the focus away from the subject. This is why some photographers prefer to shoot in black and white predominantly.

When we talk about black and white compositions we tend to focus our attention to artistic photos only. However, there is a whole world of photographic opportunities that can be captured in black and white. Whether it is landscape, still life, street photography or family photos, black and white compositions never tend to mesmerize us. Devoid of colors they tend to bring back the focus on to the subject thereby highlighting it.

When it is fogy or misty most photographers would feel it is the perfect time to cuddle in a sofa reminiscing on the days gone by, but not the ones who shoot predominantly in black & white. Fog and mist are just a too irresistible natural phenomenon for these photographers to let go. These are the conditions when the natural shades of color blur out and if you prefer to shoot in black & white the results can be ethereal.

But it does not have to be landscape shots only. You can practice even street photography and the results can be simply out of this world.

Light and Shadow

A very interesting way to compose your pictures is to use the technique known as light and shadow. This technique can sometimes create negative space around the subject, a subtle indication of an undertone. This method was made famous by painters such as Caravaggio and of course the master Michelangelo in some of his compositions. Though it works in color, the effect is particularly good if done in monochrome. So if you have a situation where there are stark contrasting areas of light and dark, switch to monochrome.

Silhouettes are one example of where this works. Whether it is against the sun or against the ambient light or even inside a room, silhouettes always are an interesting compositional technique. You can also try side-lighting for that stark contrasty look for light and shadow compositions.

High-Key and Low-Key

High-key and low-key are essentially all about black and white photography. High-key photographs are usually well-lit. They have what we can refer to an overabundance of brightness. On the other hand, low-key effects are all about shadows, high contrasts and usually a single light source that plays around the form of the subject. High-key effects are usually captured with a lot of light, whether natural or artificial.

Low-key effects are best captured when you have a single light source and there is an absence of ambient light in the shot. Low-key lighting has been a favorite among many of Hollywood’s leading directors who played with a single light creating extremely contrasting effects. This same approach can also be taken for portrait photography, especially when you want to highlight the imperfections of skin, or the details in the frame using a smaller light source and or placing an otherwise big light away from the subject to create a harsh lighting effect.

Lines, Patterns and Contrasts

Since devoid of colors a photographer has to look for different ways to compose a photo and to put focus on the core subject. Lines, patterns and contrasts are just some of the ways that can be achieved. Since the only two colors that the viewer is going to see are white and shades of gray, contrasts play a very important role. One picture that immediately comes to my mind is the photo that Henri Cartier-Bresson took in Madrid in 1933; children playing in front of a bi building that had windows that stood out in contrasts of black against the white wall.

One of my favorite images ever is the image taken by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, of a boy riding his bicycle pass a flight of spiraling stairs in France. The image somehow captures the essence of street photography, lines, contrasts and serendipity all coming together in one image.

Leading lines is a much used rule in photography and one that is frequently used by landscape photographers. It uses an element in the frame to guide or lead the view into the image. That guiding element could be a road, a fence, a shore line or even a line of trees as long as they seem to lead the viewer deeper into the composition.


Textures look extremely good in a black and white photo. Some of the best portraits that you would ever see have been shot in B&W. this is again, because devoid of colors textures can jump at you. A freckled face, a piece of fabric that has fine woven patterns, a leaf, a flower are just examples of what you can do with monochrome.

Shooting HDR

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. The easiest way to create an HDR image is to combine multiple shots using a photo editing software. It’s a craze these days as more and more people are getting familiar with the power of Adobe Photoshop. Each shot will be exposed for a specific section of the frame. This is to ensure that the entire frame is perfectly exposed. Needless to say all the frames will be exactly the same except for the exposure settings. Another advantage is that the dynamic range of HDR images (both B&W and Color) are extremely high. The HDR effect on B&W images look extremely interesting.

The simplest way to take several images to create an HDR composition is to use auto exposure bracketing. Auto exposure bracketing is the process wherein the camera takes two or more exposures of the same scene but each time the settings are changed so that one image is over-exposed, one is under-exposed and the third is properly exposed. You can change how many exposures you would want and how much compensation to use each time.

Let’ say that you want to shoot a landscape scene. The scene is dominated by a mountain that does not have direct sunlight, meaning it is in the shadow. There is a patch of forest that appears just below the mountain and is properly exposed and then the rest of the image is occupied by the sky which purple-blue. There is also a foreground area that is underexposed. If you want to shoot a single image that is perfectly exposed it would be difficult to balance the exposure for this tricky lighting condition. The correct approach would be to take at least three exposures. One of them to expose for the mountain, one for the sky and one for the foreground. The final task would be combine the three exposures in Adobe Photoshop or any other photo editing software to create the HDR image.

Using Filters to Get That Perfect Balanced Exposure

The magical capabilities of Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom notwithstanding, there are certain effects or results that you need to get right in the camera itself. This is because Photoshop or Lightroom can only enhance or eliminate elements that you captured in the image. If the details were not recorded in the first place they cannot be ‘enhanced’ or ‘cancelled’.

E.g., when shooting a waterfall or river the reflection of the water and that of the shiny surfaces around such as leaves and flowers can be a major problem. These highlights will appear as the spikes towards of the right of the histogram chart and will have no discernable details in them. If you take an image it is impossible to correct these highlights later in post-processing and extract details. You will need to get the exposure correct in the image itself.

Filters are the best way to get the exposure correct in most cases. If there are patches of highlights and shadows in the image you can try to get a balanced exposure using a neutral density filter. An under-exposed photo can still be salvaged and details can be retrieved but it is impossible to do the same for an over-exposed photo.

Neutral density filters are mainly of two types graduated and normal. Graduated neutral density filters have a clear part and a treated part that blocks light but the degree of light stopping will decrease as you move from one edge to the other. If you raise a graduated neutral density filter against your eyes these two parts are easily discernable. Some of the filters are of a hard-stop variety meaning the boundary between the clear and the treated area is abrupt. The other variety is soft-stop where the boundary is a bit more subtle. Normal neutral density filters, on the other hand, stop light by the same degree across the filter.

Neutral density filters are marked for their light stopping power. A Hoya filter, e.g., is marked as NDx2, NDx4, NDx8 etc. a NDx2 filter has a light stopping power of 2 in other words it halve the amount of light that enters the sensor for the given settings. In other words that also means you could use either a full-stop slower shutter speed or a full-stop faster aperture for the same lighting condition by using the filter. Similarly, the NDx4 filter quarters the amount of light that enters the scene. Meaning you could use a 2-syop faster aperture or 2-stop slower shutter speed for the same scene.

All neutral density filters are available in circular and rectangle shapes depending on the type of filter system that you are using. The most popular are the circular types because they don’t require any additional contraption to attach on to a lens. The rectangle types need a filter holder in which the filter slides in and a filter holder adapter which fits around the lens.

For removing reflections and glares from the photos the best tool is to use a circular polarizer. A circular polarizer is two pieces of glass that are joined together. You attach the polarizing filter at the front of the lens. Turning the filter front element allows you to cancel out glare. You can watch at the back of the camera using live-view as the glares are first reduced and then again coming back as you keep turning the filter. These filters are primarily used for cancelling glare but they are also good for attaining saturated colors by cutting through haze, thereby making blue skies bluer and green forests greener.

Post-Processing Your Photos in Black & White

There are certain things to keep in mind when shooting in black & white though. The camera’s built-in image processing can sometimes produce the wrong shades of grey. In fact black & white photography is all about getting the different shades of grey right. If you let the camera decide you may end up with shades of grey that is unacceptable. E.g., when shoot a beautiful field of flowers and a green field in the background the results can appear the same shade of grey in the final image. You may not be able to correct it later on resulting in an image that is flat and boring. The best approach is to shoot in color and in RAW and then process in black & white in some photo editing software to get the right shades. That way you can also use the color RAW data to convert it into a color jpeg later on if you need it.

Using Adobe Lightroom 5 to post-process your images in black and white

Adobe Lightroom 5 is a quick and ready solution for you to process your images in black and white. Well it is good for processing any of images really, but we shall be discussing only about how to use the B&W tool.

Open any color image in Adobe Lightroom using the import tool. Go to develop tab. Click on the B&W option on the development panel. The image will now convert to monochrome grey. All values of the red, blue, orange, yellow etc. tones will be set to Auto initially. This is what the software thinks is the best adjustment. Double-click on each of the color tone and set it to ‘0’. Now click on the small bug tool at the corner, hover it on a grey tone on the image and drag it up or down to adjust the tone. Let’s say you have an image of a forest. There is an overabundance of green color in the image plus browns and patches of other colors. You can hover over each of the tone and then change the exact grey tone you need. This separates the grey tone that represents each of the color tone in the image.

The best thing about Adobe Lightroom is it has a lot of default presets which helps you to do quick editing very easily. You can even create your own customized presets or download additional presets from third party vendors.

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