One of the great things about both digital cameras and post-production editing programs is the ease with which you can modify and alter colors before committing to the finished frame.

However, when it comes to converting color imagery to black-and-white (B&W), not all photos are created equal. While some color photos will look more intense in B&W, others will fall flat. Pick the right candidates for conversion by learning these five features of great black-and- white photography.

Strong Composition

Color allows us to differentiate between a variety of subjects and points of interest in an image. But when you turn an image to B&W, there’s no color to guide you around the image. That’s why it’s important to choose images that have a strong subject, often one that is isolated so that it stands out from the background. An easy way to do this is to look for images that have simple backgrounds that allow your subject to appear prominent.

You can also look directly for foreground interest. A prominent subject at the front of the image creates compelling visual hierarchy and stops the photo from looking flat, especially if the foreground subject contrasts sharply with the background.

This image’s empty sky and miniature scale background allow the skateboarder to command the entire frame.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are a common tool in all types of imagery, as they’re an easy way to create dynamic composition. They work extremely well in B&W photography by providing a geometric quality and preventing against the flat look that many B&W images fall victim to.

In this image, the lines of the crosswalk lead the viewer across the street, while the vertical lines of the tree trunks and tiki umbrellas guide the viewer’s eyes upwards.


Contrast: Simply put, the difference between the lightest white and the darkest black and one of the vital components of good B&W photography. In the darkroom days, photographers used to add varying amounts of contrast using light exposure and filters. Editing software can achieve the same effect, but you must start with the right kind of image.

High contrast images (think bold colors, bright highlights, and dark shadows) tend to work best in B&W imagery. Start by looking for images that have bright sunlight, or for portraits in which the subject’s face stands out from their hair and clothing.

In the above photo, the bright sunlight cast on the fisherman creates a dark black shadow; his silhouette looks even more powerful in black-and-white.

Interesting Skies

A pristine blue sky can look fantastic in color imagery but deathly dull in B&W. For a B&W landscape photo to work well, you need the right kind of sky—one with plenty of clouds and colors. The varying tones of white and grey in the clouds will keep the photo from looking flat by adding dimension and heightening contrast.

The cirrus clouds in the above image add an unusual texture to the sky, elevating the black-and-white version to surreal heights.

Defined Shadows

While shadows can interfere in color imagery, they play a huge role in B&W photography. Long shadows, created when the sun is low in the sky, will add interest to your images. Shadows with textures, patterns or shapes will produce strong black tones distinct from the background. If you have a color photo with distracting shadows, try black-and-white conversion for a moody, novel effect.

Distinct shadows, mixed with a plume of dust, make for the whimsical black-and-white photo above.

Shutterstock Editor lets you instantly transform images using an array of filters and crop settings. Each image in this article was converted to black-and-white using Shutterstock Editor. Find images perfect for B&W conversion, quickly desaturate them using the Carbon filter, and download them directly to your desktop—no extra steps necessary.

And for more expert tips on black and white photography, check out this post!