Black and White Photography Tips

Why would you want to shoot Black and White photos?


There is no denying that a black and white image can have something special that a color image lacks so here are some black and white photography tips to get you started.

Probably the first thing to know about B&W photography is that today it’s a ‘discipline’: in other words it involves specific limitations.

These limitations are no longer a necessary part of photography because with digital you can shoot and print to your heart’s content in glorious color. So why do black and white?

Once upon a time B&W was popular because a photographer could produce prints in a dark room (bathroom, basement, dedicated space) using a system of light sensitive films, papers and chemicals.The basis of non-digital photography involved the use of silver nitrate.

Silver discolors (darkens) in light and stops or shades light, so pre-digital photographic images were ‘negatives’ created by exposing a sheet of transparent film treated with an emulsion of silver nitrate to light, washing off the unexposed or unaffected silver particles, and then printing a ‘positive’ of the image by shining a light through the negative onto paper coated with silver bromide.

Later, the silver particles were applied in three dyed layers – cyan, yellow and magenta (you can make any color from combinations of these) – and special papers and processes produced color prints or slides from these negatives by separating each layer and printing it.

Color done this way was expensive and tricky (precise temperature of the chemicals was a big factor), so most photographers, before the advent of digital, stuck with B&W which was simple, inexpensive and very do-it-yourself and took their color stuff to a lab.

Newspapers are printed in black and white, many magazines are too. Some of the most famous photographers (Bresson, Capra, Adams, etc) worked in black and white photography and gave it a good name.

But why do you want to shoot (or produce) black and white pictures?

What does a black and white photograph have that a color photo doesn’t?

Mainly tonal gradations, if you like gray, and a ‘dramatic’ graphic feel.

It’s true that some pictures look more ‘immediate’ and gripping in black and white but it’s a largely a taste thing.Here are two images – one in color and one in B&W:

You tell me which one is better.



How about these?



Or these:



See? It’s a matter of taste. I prefer the black and white version of this one, but some people like the pearly colors in the sky.Did I shoot those shots in B&W and Color? Nope – that would take two cameras or some very tricky finger work. I made these into black and white in image editing software.

You can do the same, read on…

Black and White Photography Tips continued…

Black and White Photography Tips p.2

Black and white works in shades or tones of gray. You need a pure white and a pure black somewhere in the image to anchor your tonal range.


Too little tonal separation and you have a ‘flat’ image.


Too much and you have an image that is more like a poster – too ‘hard’ or too contrasty.


Black and white photos makes you focus your attention more on shapes, forms, lines etc. You have to think with and compose by forms, scenic elements and contrasts.

Black and white photography also sometimes improves an image by removing the distractions of color from the scene.


This is already a ‘busy’ image – there is a lot happening in it– the rain, the rider, the motion, the sign, the background – too much going on to easily get the visual ‘joke’, but when you remove the color the eye takes in the main cues faster:


Here’s a geometric composition. The color is unnecessary and somewhat detracts from the overall effect (um, what effect? Hey, go take your own shots!)



You see life in color so you can just shoot away at nice scenes and then check them for B&W values in the computer later. Image editing software has this function usually under IMAGE > Mode > Grayscale.

Caution! ALWAYS save your original color file because you can’t put the color back once it’s gone.Once you convert a color file to B&W, run auto-contrast (ENHANCE > Auto Contrast) to get the contrast right or correct the contrast manually (ENHANCE > Adjust Lighting > Brightness/Contrast. All colors convert to shades of gray and a straight conversion without adjustment can leave you with a ‘muddy’ looking B&W image.

Black and white photos can add or intensify a mood (like loneliness or isolation if you’re into that kind of thing) that color misses.



Black and white can give an old-fashioned or historical feel to an image.



If you want to roll time backwards…

Here are some “real” black and white photography tips…


If you want to get really good at this stuff, Check out Beginner Digital Photography Here

Black and White Photography Tips p.3

Making your own black and white pictures the good old fashioned way can be fun. It’s VERY hands on.

There’s something magical about sliding a sheet of white photographic paper into the developing tray and watching the image form before your eyes. That magic can offset the messy chemicals and smells.To create your own (no computers) black and white photo prints you will need:

1. A camera that uses film – non-digital. There are thousands of these for sale everywhere in second hand shops because the owners switched to digital.

2. Black and white film. You should be able to find this. Kodak made TRI-X which was a very good all-purpose B&W film. Ilford made good B&W films too. Get a film with an ‘ASA’ of 400 – useful for most applications.

3. Buy a kit of the basic chemicals. You need a:

  • developer for the film,
  • a different developer for the prints,
  • a stop bath (to stop the development from continuing,
  • a fixer (to fix the image so it doesn’t darken or fade when exposed to light.

4. Somewhere to wash the film and prints. The chemicals are caustic to a degree and if they are left on the film or the print eventually the film or print will discolor.

5. A film spool. This is a little gadget that you feed the film onto (in the dark) before you put it into the film developer. The spool stops the film from sticking together.

6. An enlarger. This projects the negative onto the print paper and focus the image so it’s clear and sharp. Start with a simple one.

7. Printing paper. These are graded usually in terms of contrast with 0 being very flat and low contrast, up to 4 or 5 for very high contrast. Some modern papers are variable contrast.

8. A set of at least three plastic trays. They will need to be the size of the paper you are using, to hold the chemicals. Best to get these where you get your chemicals.

9. A safelight. These are usually orange or yellow, red is OK too. Best to buy a commercial one. The print paper is only sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum (white light) so you can work with a safelight and not keep slamming into things in your…

10. A Darkroom. This is a room which is… dark. It can be your bathroom if you want an early divorce, or you find some small room, ideally with plumbing, that can be made light-proof.

  • Cover the windows with black plastic.
  • Make a light trap – this means hang a heavy curtain a few feet inside the door, or if you want to build stuff make a dog leg entrance and paint the walls black. Light travels in straight lines and not around corners.
  • Or just put a lock on the door, and remember to check that all your light-sensitive materials are closed up before you open the door.
  • Some kind of ventilation is a good idea.
  • Stand in the room for five minutes to see if it’s really dark.

11. An ability to read and follow written directions. B&W film is pretty forgiving, but temperature of the film developer and print developer is a factor, also timing is important especially for films. You can’t use a safelight for B&W film because it is sensitive to all the spectrum, so you have to be accurate in your developing times.

12. Some way to wash the prints. You need to wash the chemicals out of the paper’s coating or emulsion. You can use the bath, or a very gentle cycle on a big washing machine, changing the water several times.

To dry the prints you can hang them on the clothesline, indoors in best, away from dust. Or lay them flat on a towel.

13. A sense of adventure. Printing is trial and error.

Put the (dry) negative in the enlarger. You can use test strips – a strip cut off a sheet of print paper that you expose in full (say for 5 seconds). Then cover 2/3rds of the strip and expose for another 5 secs. Then cover half the strip and do another five.

This gives you exposures on the strip in 5 second increments and will tell you approximately how long for the best exposure. Also if you have the right contrast.

14. Hands or fingers. By using your hand to shadow the print during exposure, you can ‘hold back’ or ‘dodge’ parts that are too dark, or burn parts that are too light and crop to improve composition.

Or you can just do all that in image editing software with digital images. It’s up to you.

If you want to see incredible black and white photos, Google “Cartier Bresson.” This guy worked almost exclusively in black and white and made photography into an real art form.

You can do the same!

If you really want to learn how to take great photos, black and white or otherwise, and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a learning resource.

It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.

Click Here to Beginner Digital Photography for Yourself