Three Tips for Improving Your Black & White Photographs
It's no secret that I love a good black and white photograph. I've thought many times of switching completely to black and whites, and not ever producing another color photograph again - that's how much I love them. But part of why I love them so much is because I see in black and white so much better than I see in color. That "seeing" takes years of practice to master, but I wanted to give you a few solid tools, right now, that you can start using to improve the look of your black and white photographs.
Strive for black blacks, and white whites
This isn't a major secret - it's pretty much the first line of advice for anyone teaching someone how to make a good black and white. But I still see an awful lot of images that are mid-tone heavy - which is really just another way of saying "too much gray." Those mid-tones and grays have their place - they add complexity and nuance, but only when there are much darker, black tones, and much lighter, white tones, to play off of. No one wants just cake... and no one wants just icing (okay, fine, I'm totally in the "icing only, please" camp, but bear with me) - the magic of a beautiful cake comes when those two things play off each other. Think of the grays like the cake - they are likely going to provide the structure of your image, simply because in most cases, most tones are going to be in that gray range. But the icing is super important - and the icing in this case is the blacks and the whites. You don't need much of it to make a giant impact, but man, who wants cake without icing? About as many people as who want only mid-tone heavy, flat images.
Actionable Tip #1 - Launch your Lightroom right now, and change your background color to white. Most people tend to be able to see the darks well, but the lights trip us up. By changing your background to white rather than Lightroom's default gray, you help give your eye a true white to compare to. You can do this by going to your Develop module, then either right- or double-click on the background next to the image, and then click “white.”
Actionable Tip #2 - I turn on the "blinkies" in camera when I shoot, so that I can quickly and easily see which areas I've blown the highlights. I do this because on my Nikon d750, the files are amazing and I can recover shadows like you wouldn't believe. But I can't get back the highlights once they are gone. Likewise, I almost always double check the "blinkies" in Lightroom as I'm editing, but for a different reason: I want the computer to help me double check that I have black blacks and white whites present. I want that constant reminder as I'm editing a black and white photograph to strive for that awesome contrast and depth. Because those are the things that bring my photograph to life. You can do this by going to your Develop mode, and looking at the histogram at the very top right. There are two small triangles, one in each of the upper corners. The one on the left shows the blacks, the one on the right shows the whites. You can turn them on permanently by clicking on them, or you can simply hover on them to get a quick look. Either way, you'll see the blacks turn bright blue, and the whites turn bright red, on your image. Those are your black blacks and white whites. While I don't generally love the look of an image that is totally one or the other, strive to leave a few of each of those bits in each image.
Find the contrast
This piece comes into play more when you are shooting rather then editing. All the editing in the world can't take a flat image and bring it to life after the fact. People are always asking me how I edit my black and whites - but in my mind the editing is the easiest part. I literally have a handful of self-built presets that I start with, and then I make a few very, very minor tweaks with the adjustment brush to bring it to life. That's it. I love editing my black and white photographs because it takes such a short time. You can grab a free copy of my very favorite black and white preset free copy of my very favorite black and white preset here.
The hard part comes before I even take the photograph - it's about finding contrast tones that play off each other, and then choosing to photograph those moments over others. Some people are really great at seeing color, and using color theory as a compositional tool. I'm not - but I'm realizing that I am really good at doing the same basic thing, but because I can see tones, and I can anticipate which tones will work the best later when I do convert. I know that some people recommend flipping your camera into black and white view so that you can see these tones while you are shooting - I've never found that to be very helpful because most in-camera black and white conversions and unbelievably dull and flat, and I couldn't see what I needed to see. If you have the ability to adjust your in camera black and white preset, crank the contrast a ton and that might help. Or, just learn to look for a few of the things I look for:
- contrasting tones - think a kid wearing a light shirt against a dark wall, or an underexposed subject against a lighter background
- rim light - you get a phenomenal amount of contrast out of rim light, and it's often exactly what you need to get your subject to contrast from the background
- shadows - embrace them! I can't say it enough - shadows are what bring an image to life
- texture - think stripped leggings, highlights in hair, a fur lined hoodie, etc.
Don't force it
Probably the biggest mistake I see people making with their black and white photographs is converting an image to "save" it. Meaning that there is something off about the color version - maybe a color cast on someone's skin, an unflattering color, or a distracting color - and so in order to save the image, they convert it to black and white. While there is nothing wrong with doing this, especially if it saves an image you would otherwise throw away... it isn't going to help the strength of your black and white portfolio. There is a huge difference between a portfolio that is full of truly strong black and white photographs, and one that has a few black and whites that work okay. I rarely, rarely try and "save" an image by converting it to black and white, because in my mind not only have I not really saved an image if it should be in color, but I've also just ruined a potentially good black and white. All else being equal, any time I show a black and white image somewhere - be it on Instagram, in my portfolio, or delivered to a client - I want to only show images that are amazing because they are in black and white, rather than images that work a bit better than they do in color.
I know that's bit of a philosophical perspective, but I also know that that is a huge reason why my black and white photographs are so strong. Your strength as a photographer often comes down to what you present in your portfolio. A photographer who gets lucky while shooting - but can find those gems and only shows them - will appear way stronger than a photographer who really works for every image, but then shows them all, the good and the bad. Don't underestimate the importance of curation when it comes to your work, especially if you are a working photographer, or someone trying to get into a peer reviewed portfolio program. If you feel like you are trying to hard to make a photograph "work" - you probably are. Go take another one. But take one that will work as a black and white from the start. Despite how we often feel, you haven't actually taken your last good photograph. You will make more, and being choosey about them will make your work feel far stronger then anything else.