I have to confess to you — I’m an ambivalent photography lover.
My love for color knows few bounds (unless we’re talking oversaturated images or horribly processed HDR). Color dazzles the eyes, prompts emotions, inspires.
And yet, my heart splits in two when we turn toward black-and-white photography.
Not just any black-and-white photography. I’m talking breathtaking, dramatic, glossy black-and-whites, the kind a master of the medium can make.
To me, great black-and-white photography requires an artist’s touch, a deft use of light and shadow that conveys both beauty and mystery.
Now, for you, my fellow writers, you don’t need to be Ansel friggin’ Adams to begin making stunning black-and-white images. But it does take a few skills to begin making great images, and those are what I want to share with you today.
When used intentionally, and that word is important, great black-and-white photography is going to grab attention, get people to stop scrolling their social media feeds, begin to notice your work.
Anybody can take a black-and-white photo. It takes someone with a knack for dramatic art to make a beautiful black-and-white photo, and who better than a writer to get all noir on their Instagram feeds?
Contrast your subject with a dark background
When you give black-and-white image making a try, you are in essence drawing a person’s eye to the subject. And in theory, the subject should be the brightest object in the photo.*
*DISCLAIMER: Yes, there are exceptions to this, but since you’re just starting out, give me a chance to show you this technique, and then we’ll try something different.
When I go to make a black-and-white image, I’m looking for where I can get the best light on a subject with the darkest possible background. The contrast between subject and background is crucial here.
Whether we’re talking natural light, the soft light by a window, or adding a flash, I want that subject to stand out, to basically glow off the photograph. Which brings me to the next point.
Whites that glow and blacks that dramatize
When you bring a black-and-white image into the editing process, whether on your desktop or on a cellphone app, play around with tools specific to whites and blacks.
There are several ways to do this, but I’ll refer to Adobe’s most-excellent Lightroom program as an example.
Once I’ve determined an image is ripe for making a black-and-white, after removing all the color, I look to the sliders you see below labeled “Whites” and “Blacks.”
There are a whole lot of ways to use those sliders, but for today, let’s keep it basic. For me, I like whites that essentially glow; not too brightly (I don’t want to lose details) but just enough.
So I’ll take the “Whites” slider and move it until I’m satisfied.
I also enjoy “Blacks” that add shadow and mystery, and so just like with the “Whites” slider, I’ll take the “Blacks” slider and move it until I’m satisfied.
There are other, more sophisticated ways to use Lightroom to achieve these ends, but for now, give these a try. You’ll probably find them or something close to it on any mobile editing software.
Keep it clean
The less detail in your black-and-white image, the better it’s gonna be.
That’s true for almost any kind of photography, color or otherwise, but that’s especially so in black-and-white. The light is going to pick up details, so you want it to pick up fewer rather than more because simplicity will increase the drama of your image.
Now, there’s flexibility on this. Patterns make great black-and-white images. So do landscapes, building architecture, and so on.
You’re in control. Make a choice on how much detail you want to show. I happen to believe less is more here.
These are tips to get you started. There plenty more — camera filters, HSL (which stands for “hue, saturation, and luminance”), and so on.
But with these tips, you should be able to start making better black-and-white images. Let me know how it goes and if you have an example, share a link in the comments below.
Dave Pidgeon is sometimes a photographer, sometimes a writer, sometimes a writing photographer, and sometimes … well, you get the idea. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife, Alison, and their three sons. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.