When and Why to Use Black-and-White Photography (and How to Do It Right)

Photo by Jasmin Jade | Edited with "The Cosmos" Preset Collection

Black-and-white photography can feel like an intimidating area to explore, especially when you’re new to photography. Even though we have more ways to change a color photograph than a black-and-white one, the decision to remove color can feel like an entirely different world, in a way that other edits never will. Many people either avoid using black-and-white images or go overboard with them and convert everything to black-and-white. The ability to properly use black-and-white images is an important one for a photographer to have, so I’m going to break down when, why, and how to use black-and-white photography to get the best results.

When

For most photographers, black-and-white photography is a tool to use sometimes. Unless your personal style depends heavily on your use of vibrant color or your timeless monochromatic images, you want to be able to recognize which situations would benefit from the use of black-and-white and which ones would not.

Consider Your Subject

One of the first things to consider, in general, but especially with black-and-white photography, is your subject. If the subject is very colorful, like vibrant flowers, exotic birds, or bright murals or pieces of street art, then using black-and-white is likely to take something important away from the image. With other subjects, like landscapes, architecture, and portraits, the choice to use black-and-white can change the shot without detracting from it. Aim to use black-and-white only when it’s a choice that is appropriate for the subject and can add to the image as a whole.

Consider Your Setup

One of the advantages of digital photography over film photography is the ability to make decisions after the photo shoot; you can look at the photos and edit them in whatever way compliments them best. That said, it’s generally a good idea to have a final image in mind when taking the photos so that it can guide your choices in the setup. Black-and-white editing will do best with a photoshoot that was set up with the intention of using black-and-white photography. Consider elements of your setup that will be affected or highlighted by the use of black-and-white, like textures and lighting, if you want to at least have the option of using black-and-white with those photos later.

Why

No decisions made in your photography or your editing should be arbitrary; you should always act with purpose. And while “it looks nice” is an understandable motivation behind decisions about visual art, taking the time to think about it in greater detail can be what elevates your photography from good to great. Consider the purpose of the photograph on a deeper level to see why black-and-white is (or isn’t) the right choice for it.

Change the Focus

Black-and-white photographs are inherently simpler because they lack the element of color. This puts a greater focus on other elements of the photograph, and you can use black-and-white images to highlight an element that color would have distracted from. For example, your model’s bright red hat might stand out in the color photograph, but the intricate pattern of her dress will be more intriguing in the black-and-white version. You will see textures and shapes stand out in photographs without color, and different areas of the photo will contrast in new ways.

Change the Feeling

Because there was nearly a century-long gap between the invention of photography and the popularization of color photography methods, we associate black-and-white images with a very specific period of history. Even images that are clearly from the modern day, whether because of their high resolution or because of modern elements in the photo, acquire a certain classic, timeless feeling when black-and-white is used. Black-and-white photography can also make a photo feel more dramatic, since it is often associated with the early days of cinema.

Photo by Jasmin Jade | Edited with The Cosmos

How

There are certainly both effective and ineffective ways to use black-and-white photography, but since artistic decisions are largely up to personal preference, I don’t want to give the impression that there are any strict rules here. Instead, I just have a couple of important tips that will help you get the most out of your black-and-white photos, especially if the idea is new to you.

Shooting vs Converting

There are two ways to end up with black-and-white photographs: shooting with black-and-white film, and converting digital photos to black-and-white. Film photography certainly has its place, but my personal preference and strong recommendation for others is to use digital photography. Unless you have a very compelling reason for using film -- some photographers do, but the vast majority do not -- digital makes your life so much easier, especially when it comes to editing. Digital photography allows you to make decisions like whether and how to convert to black-and-white after seeing the images. You can even use black-and-white and color versions of the same photo, or different photos from the same shoot, for different purposes.

Editing

There’s a common assumption among non-photographers and new photographers that all black-and-white is “the same”. In reality, even without color, there are still infinitely many ways to edit and adjust your photos. Despite being objectively simpler, black-and-white images can be more intimidating to edit than color images, because most of us are more familiar with color when we start out. Fortunately, there are presets available for every occasion, including the timeless black-and-white look. This new preset collection is dedicated to monochrome and includes sixteen professional Lightroom presets. No matter what you’re hoping to achieve with your black-and-white photography, there’s a preset in there to help you find just the right base look. Then, all you have to do is make the smaller precision adjustments to get the perfect photos.

Conclusion

Black-and-white images have a longer history than anything else in photography, but too often they are neglected by twenty-first century photographers. It’s a tool that won’t take long to learn, but start slowly with it and utilize all the resources you can -- that means presets and even photography and editing education -- so that you can become comfortable with using black-and-white photography well and on the correct occasions.

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