What are the secrets behind editing black and white photography? Try these twelve simple tips and make your monochrome edits breathtaking.
Offset Artist Andrew Lever got his start in the darkroom, where he printed his own photographs. That experience taught him the basics of black and white editing, and he continues to use those tools today. Though he now shoots digital, he frequently turns to legendary film photographers like Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, and David Bailey for inspiration.
We live in a digital world, but black and white remains ever-present on Instagram under popular hashtags like #blackandwhiteisworththefight and #blackandwhiteonly. And as any black and white photographer will tell you, the elements of an unforgettable image haven’t changed at all. Whether you’re using a mobile phone or a 35mm film camera, it all comes down to luscious blacks, clean whites, and gorgeous grays.
We asked a group of talented artists about how they create timeless monochrome images using Photoshop, Lightroom, and similar editing apps. Below, they tell us the most common mistakes photographers make when it comes to black and white editing, and they also share their best tricks for avoiding them.
1. Not having enough contrast.
Image by Lisa Tichané. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon 35mm f/1.4 L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f2.5; ISO 1250.
“The most common mistake I see in black and white photography is the lack of contrast,” Lisa Tichané says. “Black and white is all about light, shadows, and the contrast between them. Simply converting a color image to greyscale will most likely produce a dull, flat result, so you need to edit your image specifically for black and white.
“There is no magical editing rule, and everything depends on the image. A good start, however, is to create a custom ‘S’ curve to add more contrast, trying to deepen the shadows and brighten the lighter parts of the image. Using the clarity slider can also add mid tone contrast and bring out the textures in the image.”
2. Introducing too much contrast.
Too much contrast can be just as destructive as not enough. “Adding heavy contrast can cause a loss of detail,” Luciano De Polo explains. “A professional black and white picture should maintain a wide range of grays. If the original picture is already good, then it can be enhanced with only a few adjustments in post-processing.”
3. Ignoring the gray tones.
Image by Iulia Pironea. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f14; ISO 100.
“The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that in a black and white photo, there should only be blacks and whites,” Iulia Pironea says. “It’s all about controlled levels of gray. Any photo editor, like Capture One or Lightroom, warns you about high levels of black and white, so keep an eye out during the editing process.”
4. Not shooting RAW.
Image by Noa Mar. Gear: Fujifilm X-T20 camera, Fujinon 18-55mm D lens. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f8; ISO 400.
“Whenever possible, I shoot in RAW so that I have full control over the contrast in my photos,” Noa Mar explains. “When I edit RAW files in Photoshop, I can increase contrast and make parts of the picture darker without seeing any banding. To accentuate specific parts of the picture, I also find it useful to work with the ‘dodge and burn’ technique in Photoshop.”
5. Not exposing for the shadows.
Image by Bridget Piazza. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, 85mm 1.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/800 sec; f2.5; ISO 250.
“Everything I learned about making a beautiful black and white photograph I learned from my high school photography teacher, Mr. Kepner,” Bridget Piazza explains. “Back then, we only had film, and I spent most of my teenage years in the school darkroom. Mr. Kepner would say, ‘Expose for the shadows, and make sure your colors are crisp.’ I see a lot of black and white photographs with murky in-between tones. If the blacks aren’t strong, and the whites aren’t crisp, the images suffer.”
6. Ignoring the histogram.
Image by Andrew Lever. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Nikon 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/800 sec; f3.5; ISO 125.
“The histogram tool makes it easier for the photographer to bring out all the tones in an image,” Andrew Lever explains. “In general, an ideal black and white image will have rich blacks, a good range of mid-gray areas, and good whites without the highlights being burnt out and lost.
“If the black tones are too dark and muddy or the whole image is too light, the histogram can help. One last thing to remember is to look at the picture and trust your eyes as well. You’ll know when something does not look right.”
Image by Edi Chen. Gear: Canon EF70-200mm f/4L USM camera, Canon 5D Mark III lens. Settings: Focal length 91mm; exposure 20 sec; f14; ISO 100.
Edi Chen also stresses the importance of checking your histogram. “It’s difficult to spot the bright and dark areas using your eyes alone because they will change according to your screen model and the lighting in your environment,” he explains. “Understanding those dark and bright areas are what will separate your subject from the background, and the histogram is the easiest way to get them balanced nicely.”
7. Neglecting the white balance.
Image by Monica Carlson. Gear: Canon 6D Mark II camera, Canon 35mm 1.4L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f2.5; ISO 640.
“I think a common mistake is assuming that the white balance of a black and white image is not important,” Monica Carlson explains. “A compelling monochrome image will have a variety of tonal ranges that help create contrast.
“When you convert an image to black and white, various hues in the frame will be allocated to different shades of gray. These shades will change as we adjust our white balance, and the contrast of the image will, in turn, also change.
“It is important to choose a photo that has a range of tones which will add depth and interest. A frame full of mid tones will translate into a flat and boring black and white image that lacks contrast. Once I have chosen my image, I always make a quick adjustment to my white balance before making a conversion in Lightroom. Once converted, you can slide the temp and tint sliders around to see how they affect your image.”
8. Forgetting the “Black & White” adjustment layer.
Image by Ulrika Kestere. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF24-70 f/2.8L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/40 sec; f4.0; ISO 200.
“Instead of removing saturation in camera RAW or using the ‘Hue/Saturation’ adjustment, I use the ‘Black & White’ adjustment in Photoshop so I can work with each color separately,” Ulrika Kestere tells us. “I then use the ‘Unsharp Mask’ and the Levels adjustment to get the right contrast. I’m not a big fan of too much contrast, but when it comes to black and white pictures, you have to add more than you do on your color images.”
9. Not getting it right in-camera.
Image by Summer Kellogg. Gear: Canon Mark IV camera, 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f1.4; ISO 1000.
“It is tempting to believe that an image can be ‘saved’ simply by turning it black and white,” Summer Kellogg tells us. “However, elements of light, composition, and texture are just as important in a black and white photo as they are in color, if not more so. Striking a delicate balance between light and dark in a black and white image can be tricky, so it’s important to be aware of all the elements coming into the lens.
“Ask yourself, ‘Where is the light entering the frame? Is it too flat? Do I see a nice dance between shadows and light?’ Over time, these considerations will become second nature.”
10. Over-processing the images.
Image by Candy Kempsey. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikon 24 1.4G Lens lens. Settings: Exposure 1/500 sec; f1.8; ISO 160.
“The most common mistake I see when people edit black and white photos is usually too much contrast or too much clarity or both,” Candy Kempsey explains. “I have seen this in my own work and have learned to take my time and use a lighter hand. It’s like painting—you can use too much paint sometimes and ruin your work. Slow down. Every artist is different, but try not to rush to edit and share. There is no award for that.”
11. Overlooking history.
Image by Luciano De Polo. Gear: Rolleiflex 3.5 B camera, Tessar 75 3.5 + Rolleinar 1, Kodak TMax 400 ISO film.
“Learn from the masters of photography,” Luciano De Polo suggests. “Their black and white film photographs still touch us because of their content. It’s all about the right framing and the timing of the shot, not about aggressive post-production. My advice is to minimize photo editing and to focus more on the shot. Use the work of the masters—Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, Elliott Erwitt, etc.—as a point of reference.”
12. Ignoring your gut.
Image by Monica Hart. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Sigma 24mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f2.0; ISO 500.
“Photography and editing are subjective,” Monica Hart explains. “When I shoot, I look for a decent contrast in highlights and shadows. My monochrome work has black blacks and white highlights—nothing muted, no blue or yellow undertones. I prefer my images to have strong contrast, but others may prefer a more airy, muted look.”
Everyone’s style is different, so find what you like, and expand upon that. Following the “rules” shouldn’t come at the expense of artistic expression, so learn as much as you can, and then follow your instincts.
Top Image by Monica Carlson.
Learn more about black and white photography here:
- Black and White Photography: Understanding Shadows and Color
- How To Colorize Black and White Photos In Photoshop
- Converting Color Photos to Black and White: Which Pics Should You Do?
- Create a Colorized Effect with a Color to Black and White Gradient
- Shooting Black and White Candids: Photographer Stephen Lovekin Shares Red Carpet Insights