There are two ways to create black and white photography: shoot in black and white from the outset, or edit color photos to convert them in production. There are benefits to both techniques, but it’s editing that gives you more liberties and control to ensure that your photos turn out perfectly.
If you shot in black and white before the digital era, you were stuck with the resulting photos — editing wasn’t much of an consideration. But thanks to an abundance of digital software options, it’s easier than ever to learn how to use black and white filters, and to steadily improve with them.
With so much possibility at hand for any given image, we consulted with a few experts about when (and why) to turn a color photo back to the basics of black and white. Here are some lessons for photographers at all skill levels to think differently, and perhaps more critically, about producing black and white images.
1. Less Is More
Eliminating distractions is the key to shooting black and white, advised Ryan Mills. Mills proudly shoots with an old camera, a Sinar F 4X5 rail camera that shoots large format film. He shoots a wide variety of photos, but it’s with portraits that his black-and-white prowess shines through. The equipment he uses requires him, and his subjects, to remain patient and calm — his subjects must sit still and hold their poses for some time while the shot is set up and taken. Yet, it also reinforces the need for intense focus on one thing. Try to avoid including other objects that can appear “camouflaged,” as Mills put it.
Still, the charm of many portraits comes from unstaged shots. A short delay between when Mills hits the button and when the picture is captured produces some wonderfully candid images of childrens’ restlessness. “It creates something different” in how it presents people, said Mills.
2. Unlock What’s Missing
Erika Huffman fell in love with black and white photography from an early age. She was drawn to the tones. “I’m thinking in black and white” on a shoot, she said. “I don’t remember things in color.” When photographing a person, Huffman said, it’s as much about showing emotion and expression as demonstrating what’s not there: “Everybody can appreciate a beautiful sunset, but taking a picture of a sunset is never going to be as beautiful as taking a picture of a person.”
You don’t have to reserve your black and white format for portraits or candids of people, though. “Follow what feels right,” Huffman preached. The key to taking a great photo, she said, isn’t about lining up the right person or location; it’s a reflection of the practice and commitment that poured into it.
3. Concentrate on Shadows
“Pay attention to your shadows. Black and white really requires shadows,” Mills cautioned. Is it too bright? Too dark? Mills has worked with color photography, too, and understands which colors work better in black and white. He started out with film, in color, and confesses that he “didn’t understand black and white” at the time and “thought it looked ugly.” However, once he invested himself and witnessed the impact that black and white can have on certain subjects, he became a believer in the art.
Beyond basic lighting, the skin tone and other physical features of subjects will affect the look of the final product; for example, pale skin often looks overexposed in black and white. Mills is working on a black and white project that follows up with the same young models each year, exploring the changes in their appearance as they age. The elderly, whose faces are etched with time, can have great impact in both color and black and white photographs.
When shooting portraits, study your subject’s complexion. Aim for texture in your photographs: it’s little details like freckles, laugh lines, and crow’s feet that tell the stories of still portraits.
Shutterstock Editor lets you instantly transform images using an array of filters and crop settings. Each image in this article was converted using Shutterstock Editor’s Carbon filter. With the right subjects, shadows, and focus, you can take color images back to black and white basics.