What makes for a good Black and White Photograph?

Freeman 2008, p.514 states that ‘Without colour, photographs automatically acquire formality of composition and tone, irrespective of the content.’

I am beginning to see a pattern with all of the research I have been conducting surrounding black and white photography …

‘… Most of the general tips on how to compose or frame a good shot apply just as well to black and white photography as they do when shooting in color – however the main obvious difference is that you’re unable to use color to lead the eye into or around your shot …’ Rowse (n.d.)

 ‘… The key to successful black and white images is a combination of finding the right subjects, the right lighting and some simple camera techniques …’ Rutter (2013).

‘… Look for Contrast …’ Rowse (n.d.)

I could probably go on and include pages of quotes surrounding black and white photography, but I am not going to bore you with that today, and if you are keen to find out more for yourself, just run an Internet search …

So, what does make for a good black and white photograph?  The consensus here is content, and I agree with this whole-heartedly as some subjects work really well and others just do not.  Knowing that this topic was on the horizon, I have been looking at black and white imagery and at the world around me, to determine what I think would make a good black and white scene to take.  This can be a little tricky to determine, but once you get the hang of things it is easier than I first thought.

Black and white photography has the potential to make any photographer better, even if you mainly shoot colour.  At the least, it will stretch your creativity and make you see the world differently.  It could also refine your way of seeing in some very positive ways.  Sheppard (2013)

There is a general list of things to be on the look out for when considering an image for black and white:

    • Composition; tones, textures, lines and points of interest are all common requirements when composing any image, but in black and white photography these take on more importance as without the aid of colour to guide the viewer through the image, our composition need to compensate for this.
    • Tonal Contrast; here we should be looking for contrast within the lighter parts of our image in order to highlight the character of these areas.  It is good to use light and shadow, especially placed closely together, as this will increase the tonal contrast of the shot.
    • Light; dependent on the type of shot you are looking for, will depend on the light you should shoot in (much like with colour photography).  For punchy images with lots of shadows and textural detail, shooting when the sun is high in the sky works really well.  The hardness of the bright sun will create long shadows and bright, contrasting light areas within the frame.  On the other hand, for images that are a little softer, dull, overcast days can also work really well.
    • Grey Shades; having a good understanding of how colour translates into shades of grey will help to control contrast within a black and white image.
    • Texture; photographing texture can make for some very interesting images, but by placing different textures together or within close proximity can make an image stand out further.  Smooth next to rough, soft next to hard – you get the general idea.
    • Lighting; not to be confused with light, a cleaver use of light can help with the contrast within an image.  Using sidelight or backlighting can introduce very bright highlights to an image, which will stand out more against the grey tones of a black and white within the frame.
    •  ISO; be careful when it comes to ISO settings as to much sensitivity can introduce noise, which in turn may not look good in a classy looking black and white shot; although, if noise is your thing, and a more rough and ragged look is what you are looking for, then turn that baby up!
    • Depth of Field; narrow depth of field can work well in black and white imagery, especially if teamed up with back or side lighting as mentioned above.

One final thing to point out here is choice of shooting options and every article, book or online blog has suggested that to get the best black and white images, one should shoot in RAW.  Yes, of course we know that RAW gives us the best post-processing options available, and it takes only a few keystrokes to convert an image in say Photoshop or Apple’s Aperture; but there are two main reasons for following these suggestions …

1) If, like me, you shoot in RAW, there is an option in camera to change our preference to shoot in black and white (or monochrome).  By doing this we are able to view the black and white image on our LCD screen during the photo-shoot, but when uploading the files to our computers, the RAW file will still be available in colour, and those few keystrokes are then needed to convert the image to black and white.  This gives you the option of having both a coloured and black and white image if you wish.

2) Even though most DSLR’s give the option of shooting images in Black and White, it is wise to shoot in colour and convert the work to black and white during post processing.  Even though the camera will produce a reasonable black and white image for you, if you convert a coloured image you have lots more tonal range to play with and the ability to produce an even better images than previously.

Even though when shooting RAW we have the ability to play with the settings in our post-processing software packages, it is always good to get as much of the image right at the time of shooting as possible, and Sheppard (2013, p.1) states that:

There is a secret to getting the most out of black and white, and it is not about the newest black and white software.

This statement rings true with all photography as we should be striving to get our images right first hand, even if, as in the case here, we still need to convert the RAW file to black and white post-processing – as taking the best possible photos we can is what we, as photographers, should be striving towards.

Below are a couple of image I have taken in colour, and using Photoshop, I have converted them to Black and White – just to see what they look like.

The first image is of my great nephew while we were playing peek-a-boo during the recent heat wave.

Here is the original coloured photo.



When looking at the histogram for this image, you can see that there is quiet a lot of contrast in the frame, which should convert quiet nicely to a black and white shot.

Peek-A-Boo Histogram

Peek-A-Boo Histogram

This image looks good in black and white as the contrast is not too harsh, but there is enough to bring interest into the shot.

The composition stands this image in good stead, as you cannot help but wonder what he is looking at through his mum’s legs.

Peek-A-Boo [Black & White conversion]

Peek-A-Boo [Black & White conversion]

I think I may even prefer this image in black and white ….

My second image is of summer flowers in the back garden, which you would think could stand up well to the conversion to black and white, but I have received quiet different results.

Summer Garden

Summer Garden

Just by looking at the histogram produced by this shot, you can tell that this will not make a great black and white photo as although there is data across the range of the histogram, the tonal range is not as prominent as seen in the previous shot.

Summer Garden Histogram

Summer Garden Histogram

The reason why this image has not converted well to black and white is the range of colour within the frame, and although in the coloured image they stand out and complement each other well, in the black and white image this is just lost to a mass of evenly toned grey.

Summer Garden [Black & White conversion]

Summer Garden [Black & White conversion]

In addition, there is not much contrast in the shot, so there is no transference of shadow, texture or striking information to hold the viewers attention.

I like the coloured image, but do not like the converted image at all.

So, now I have seen what works and what does not work well, it is time to take the bull by the horns and work through the exercises associated to this project.



Freeman, M,  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) 5 Black and White Photography Tips [Online Article].  Available at: <http://digital-photography-school.com/5-black-and-white-photography-tips&gt; [Accessed 24 July 2013].

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) Key Ingredients for Black and White Images [Online Article].  Available at: <http://digital-photography-school.com/key-ingredients-for-black-and-white-images&gt; [Accessed 24 July 2013].

Rutter, C.  (2013) Get Superb Summer Black & White.  Digital Camera Magazine.  July 2013.  P34-45

Sheppard, R.  (2013) The Lost Art of Shooting Black-and-White [Online Article].  Available at: <http://www.outdoorphotographer.com/how-to/shooting/the-lost-art-of-shooting-black-and-white.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=OPeNewsJuly_071713&gt; [Accessed 25 July 2013].


Freeman, M,  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) Starting Black and White Photography [Online Article].  Available at: <http://digital-photography-school.com/starting-black-and-white-photography&gt; [Accessed 22 July 2013].

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) 5 Black and White Photography Tips [Online Article].  Available at: <http://digital-photography-school.com/5-black-and-white-photography-tips&gt; [Accessed 24 July 2013].

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) Key Ingredients for Black and White Images [Online Article].  Available at: <http://digital-photography-school.com/key-ingredients-for-black-and-white-images&gt; [Accessed 24 July 2013].

Rutter, C.  (2013) Get Superb Summer Black & White.  Digital Camera Magazine.  July 2013.  P34-45

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One Response to What makes for a good Black and White Photograph?

  1. Pingback: 6 Essential Features of a Good Black and White Photography - Kaamra | Kaamra

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