Tips for Making Black and White Photographs

When I first started learning about photography, I thought changing an image to black and white, just meant “taking the color out”.  As with anything related to photography, its really not that straight forward.  There are choices to make about tonality:  do you want to have dark “blacks” and white “whites” and many shades of gray in between (similar to Ansel Adams)?  Or do you want to have something more subtle and muted where there is little variation between the shades of gray (similar to Paul Strand)?  There are many more choices involved in making a powerful black and white photograph.

Black and white photography is exciting and should be pursued as a technique in it’s own right, not a fall back approach to save a photo that doesn’t seem to work in color.

Here are some tips to start you on your journey.

Take your photograph in color – do not use your camera’s black and white settings.  Taking a color photograph provides you with a full range of data and allows you to make adjustments during processing to boost colors – and ultimately tones.  It also allows you to change your mind, in case you decide color is the way to go for a particular image.

Before converting your photo to black and white ask yourself these questions:

Is color a critical component of this image? (a purple flower against a green background will usually to be more interesting in color than in black and white).  This is still life photograph of a scarf at the memorial in Manzanar.  Because the colors were muted and the shapes were strong, I think it makes a more compelling black and white photograph.

Do you have strong lines, shapes and forms in this image?  (a scene that has a variety of cacti may be better executed in black and white to accentuate the different shapes and forms).  The black and white image of a lone saguaro surrounded by cacti highlights the different shapes and textures.

Is there an emotion or mood you want to capture where color is a distraction?  This photograph of an old abandoned church in Creed Colorado is more dramatic in black and white with a dark and moody sky.

Process your color image before you convert to black and white.  Correct your exposure and any highlight or shadow clipping.  Now determine if you want a wide range of tonality or something more muted?  If it’s the former, adjust your blacks slider so you start to clip some of the shadows.  Adjust your brightness, contrast, or exposure slides to achieve a bright white.  This will require some back and forth as an adjustment in one area will change other areas.  For Photoshop users, I do this using the curves and levels adjustments.

Now you are ready to convert to black and white.  Depending on your software you many have many options:  Desaturate the image, change the image using the grayscale or black and white option, use a plug-in such as Nik (this is my preferred method because it gives me the most flexibility and easy to use).    I am using this colorful photo to illustrate the different black and white images you get with different approach (but I would not make this a black and white image – the color is too important here). The middle image is PhotoShop’s desaturate function.  The image on the right was made with one of Nik SilverEffects Pro presets.  Both images were created with just one selection.


Modify the colors or tones to emphasize or deemphasize qualities in an image.  Take these two black and white images of a rock formation in Death Valley. I applied a “virtual” red filter in this image to turn the blue sky black.  The red filter made the red rocks brighter and I thought the contrast was striking.  Here are two versions of the same image where I modified a color to get a different black and white tone.

These are just a few tips to get you started.  If you’d like more information about processing black and white photos I would recommend The Complete Guide to Black & White Digital Photography by Michael Freeman, or leave me a comment and I’ll do another post.  To see more of our photographs, go to

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