black and white photo of a single tree in the middle river Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

A Beginner's Guide to Black and White Photography

December 14, 2022

When you strip away the distraction of color, black and white images can focus on the world around us completely differently. It has a timeless appeal that can be both classical and modern and can be used to capture any subject matter.

This article will discuss everything about black and white photography, from what it is, when to use it, what subjects are best suited for black and white photography, and the various ways to create stunning black photos.

What is Black and White Photography?

Black and white photography is a type of photography that uses black and white tones to create a contrast between light and dark.

Since time immemorial, black and white photography has been used to capture some of the most iconic images in the world. Even after the introduction of color film, many photographers still preferred to shoot in black and white because it allowed them to focus on the composition and tones of the image without being distracted by color.

black and white female portrait with hair on face

Photo by Arun Sharma on Unsplash

Nowadays, black and white photography has made a comeback in the digital age. With the help of digital editing software, photographers can now convert color images into beautiful black and white masterpieces.

When and Why Should You Choose Black and White Photography?

There are a few scenarios where black photo is the best choice. These include:

When the Composition Is Strong

Here, you want to focus on the shapes and forms within the frame.

For example, suppose you want to photograph animals in their natural habitat, specifically those not colorful. In that case, specifically those not colorful, black and white can help bring out the texture and patterns in their fur or feathers.

It can clearly show some of the texture details you would otherwise lose if the photo were in color.

When Subject Has Intense Expression

black and white scenery of lake and mountains under snow

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

The lack of color can help to strip away distractions and place all the focus on the subject's face. This can help intensify emotions such as sadness, anger, love, or joy, thus creating a more impactful image.

When the Background Is Very Bright

In color photography, a bright background can often overwhelm the subject and make the photo look "washed out."

However, shooting in black and white can help to mitigate this problem by reducing the brightness of the background while still maintaining a clear image of the subject. This is especially useful when shooting outdoors on a sunny day.

When You Want to Shoot Subjects with a Defined Texture

Black and white photography is commonly used when shooting animals with fur or feathers. You can also use it with subjects with wrinkles, such as a rhino's skin. The lack of color brings out the detail in the texture, which can create a more interesting photo.

When the Color Used Brings a Different Mood

rose on the wall

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

While using colors can help create a certain mood in a photo, sometimes, it can also work against you. For example, if you want to show cold weather, but the colors in the scene are very warm, it can give the viewer the wrong impression.

In this case, black and white can help create the feeling of coldness you're going for.

To Create a More Artistic Image

Sometimes, the colors in a scene can be so distracting that they take away from the overall message or feeling you're trying to convey. In these cases, black and white can help to create a more timeless, artistic image.

For example, Ansel Adams' black photos of Yosemite are some of the national park's most iconic and well-known images. The lack of color allows viewers to focus on the shapes of rocks and mountains and the play of light and shadow.

What Subjects are Better for Black and White Photography

Not all subjects are created equal in black and white photography. Some subjects are better suited for this type of photography than others. Here are some subjects for black and white photography:


black and white picture of rocks in the sea

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

Landscapes are one of the most popular subjects for black and white photography. This is because we can find various dynamic elements in landscapes that create a beautiful contrast when converted to black and white.

You can look for different shapes, patterns, and textures in the landscape, such as mountains, forests, rivers, etc., that can make for an interesting black and white photograph.


a man's black and white portrait

Photo by Sergio de Paula on Unsplash

In black and white portrait photography, we can capture our subjects' emotions and expressions more intensely and intimately. When converting a portrait to black and white, we can further emphasize the mood and feeling we are trying to convey.

Still Photo

a bundle of flowers in vase with black and white color

Photo by Maksym Tymchyk 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

Still photos often have a lot of negative space and simple compositions that make for a striking image. In addition, black and white pictures tend to have a timeless quality that can make them very special.


black and white photo of bench under tree on the city street

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

The streets are an excellent subject for black and white photography. This is because they are full of life and energy. People are always walking around, cars are driven by, and interesting architecture. We can create a gritty and beautiful image when converting a street scene to black and white.

Ways to Create Stunning Black and White Pictures

Creating stunning black and white pictures is what most photographers aim for. While this may be challenging to some, especially the newbies, it is not challenging once you know how to do it.

Use a High-Contrast Scene

Your picture will look flat and boring without a high contrast between the black and white tones. Look for scenes with strong lights and darks, such as:

  • a person standing in front of a window with the sun shining in
  • a dark room with a single lightbulb.

Such scenes have more noticeable shadows and highlights, which will translate into a more interesting black and white image.

Use the Right Camera Settings

black and white image of a camera on white sheet

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

When shooting in black and white, it's essential to use the right setting on your camera. This will ensure that the picture comes out as you intended it to. Here are some black and white settings for your camera:

  • Set your camera to auto-white balance: This will ensure that the whites in your image are truly white and not tinged with any color.
  • Choose the right shutter speed: Choose a slow shutter speed if you shoot a static subject, such as a landscape. This will allow more light to enter the camera, giving you a brighter, more detailed image. If you are shooting a moving subject, like a person or animal, choose a faster shutter speed to prevent blur.
  • ISO: The ISO setting on your camera will determine its sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive it is. For black and white photography, it's best to use a low ISO setting, such as ISO 100. This will help reduce pain and produce a sharper image.

Apply the Rule of Thirds

The theory behind the rule of thirds is that by placing the subject of the photo along these lines or at the intersections, you will create a more balanced and pleasing image.

a landscape photo of tree in the lake surrounded by hills

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Ensure you turn on the rule of thirds when you compose your shots to visualize it and plan your composition accordingly. Identify the Light Sources

Light sources such as the sun, headlights, or lightbulbs can effectively create a spectrum of shades of gray. Please pay attention to the different light sources in the scene and how they affect the photo. For example, you can use the sun to backlight a subject and create a halo-like effect.

Make Use of Textures, Patterns, and Shapes

Look for subjects that have interesting textures, such as a weathered wall or a rippling body of water.

You can also use patterns to create leading lines or frame your subject. For example, you can use a row of trees to frame a sunset or a set of stairs to lead the eye up to a building.

black and white sky in ancient city

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

Moreover, you can use shapes to create visual interest. Look for subjects with strong shapes, such as a winding road or a cluster of rocks.

Check Your Camera's Histograms

You generally want the histogram to be evenly distributed from left to right. If it's skewed to the left, it means the photo is underexposed, and if it's skewed to the right, it is overexposed. Checking the histogram ensures you make the necessary adjustments to your exposure before taking the photo.

Bonus Tips for Black and White Portraits

Pay Attention to the Lighting

The lighting can make or break black and white portraits, so it is essential to pay attention to it. For a highly contrasty and dramatic effect, try using a hard light source, such as the midday sun or a bare flash. This will create high-contrast portraits that have rapid tone gradations.

Keep Your Eyes Sharp

emotional black and white portrait of a girl with hair flying high

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

In any portrait, the eyes are the windows to the soul. Use a small aperture such as f/8 or f/11 to ensure that the eyes are sharp. If your camera has eye autofocus, use it to ensure the eyes are always focused.

Use the RAW Format

This will enable you to have an unmodified, uncompressed file of your image with all the data intact. You can convert the RAW file into a black picture in your preferred editing software.

Bonus Tips for Black and White Landscape

Pay Attention to the Contrast

Adjust your camera's post-processing settings so that it can be able to highlight the contrast in color. Contrast is key in black and white photography, as it can help to make your photos pop.

Use Leading Lines

truck front on the farm with distant trees

Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash

You can look for roads, fences, rivers, and other objects that can act as leading lines and use them to your advantage.

Take Shots in Long Exposure

The main aim is to look for movements in the scene, such as waterfalls, clouds, or even stars in the night sky.

This will require you to use a tripod to keep the camera still for an extended period. But the results will be worth it.


Black and white photography is an excellent way of uniquely capturing the world around us. It can highlight the contrast between light and dark or create a more ethereal look.

Knowing the various ways to create stunning black and white photos, go ahead and experiment with this fascinating technique.

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