July 18, 2024

Black and White Photography: A Beginner’s Guide


Photography, in its modern form, has been with us for almost two whole centuries. Taking pictures has changed how we see the world and how we experience life more than arguably any other modern technology.

And yet, until fairly recently, nearly all these pictures lacked color.

Of course, color film processes have existed since the early days, such as Lumière’s Autochrome and Kodak’s Technicolor. The latter is probably the most well-known example of early color film, thanks to its use in the 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.

Yet, for various reasons, color photography remained a relative niche all the way until the end of the last century.

Some may say that black and white photography was never anything more than a bothersome limitation. According to this thought, we in the digital age are now freer than ever to take better, more lifelike images. Finally can we leave the burden of monochrome behind! Beyond its role as a historical relic, it has outlived its use for us.

I would beg to differ. I would like to take some time today to get a much deeper look at what makes monochrome images special and why you, too, should consider dabbling in this art form yourself.

Contrary to popular belief, switching over to black and white photography coming from a world of color is not that straightforward! But don’t worry! The following guide will make sure to give you all the info you need to get started and have fun with all of the exciting possibilities that monochrome images can offer.

Why Black and White Photos Matter

Closeup view of a vintage Italian espresso machine. Dials, levers, and gauges visible in black and white.
Even everyday subjects can take on new shapes and forms when exposed in black and white. An example of still life photo in black and white.

First of all, let’s discuss one very important and controversial issue. Why should we, in the 21st century, still bother with taking photos in shades of gray?

This argument could take up not just an entire article, but a whole book just by itself. Hence, forgive me for compressing it a little for the sake of today’s beginner’s overview.

In short, black and white photography is important because color is one of the most crucial elements determining how the viewer perceives a picture. Think about it: why do we put filters on the vacation snapshots that we upload to Instagram? Because factors such as hue, color temperature, saturation, contrast, and color balance all affect the emotions and thoughts that the image stirs in us.

With black and white photography, these elements are not absent. Quite the opposite! Some of them actually become more crucial than ever.

It’s actually wrong in this sense to think of monochrome images as having ‘no color’. Instead, shooting in black and white simply means to translate these colors into a narrow spectrum of gray, white, and black.

So, while monochrome and color accomplish the same thing, they do so by speaking in different languages. This completely changes the game on color theory, which is partly why many find shooting in monochrome so tricky. But don’t worry, it’s not all so opaque as it may seem at first glance! Just like anything else in photography, black and white images are not just an art, but also a science that can be studied and learned.

Black and White Shooting Made Easy

Now, let’s take a closer look at how to actually take pictures in black and white. Depending on your gear, this may be entirely straightforward, or it may require a few handy tricks.

How to Take Black and White Photos With Any Camera

A bicycle sat next to a stone facade in an old, desolate alley. Black and white street photography with prominent red highlight on main subject.
By shooting digitally in color and then converting to grayscale in post, you can also achieve numerous creative effects, such as the one visible in the above frame. You can achieve even greater degrees of freedom by shooting in RAW, which allows you maximum control in development.

On most contemporary digital cameras, taking the plunge into black and white photography is thankfully quite easy. All you really need to do on most of the best DSLRs and mirrorless cameras these days is to switch to Monochrome mode. Some models may have a dedicated button for this. Others will rely on a rear-LCD menu.

If you are using a modern mirrorless camera, doing this will even switch your EVF and Live View output to monochrome. That allows you to view your scene in black and white before you trip the shutter!

Monochrome mode is not the only way though. There are a few alternative methods, some of which offer some unique advantages.

For instance, you can shoot in normal color and convert your images to grayscale in post-processing. This is especially easy to do when shooting RAW files as opposed to JPEGs. Since RAW format inherently retains all color data, you can even shoot an in-camera monochrome photo in RAW and then back-translate it to full color!

Translating to black and white in post offers a few advantages. Since you can fine-tune contrasts and color balance by hand, it gives you more control. This allows you to really tailor your output to each image and its intended mood.

For more information, read our article on setting your camera for black and white photos.

Black and White Film Photography: A Quick How-To

Close-up view of a compact 35mm rangefinder camera in black and white. Canonet compact camera from the 1970s with strap.
In the 1960s and 70s, cameras like this Canonet compact rangefinder were the main way in which curious amateurs got their first hands-on experiences shooting with full manual controls and through a sharp, fast lens. Despite the prevalence of quality lens coatings, even on affordable cameras such as this one, film prices during this era meant that most non-professionals mostly stuck to black-and-white 35mm for their day-to-day photos. Color exposures were reserved for special occasions.

Black and white film is where the story of photography really began. That is if you’re willing to exclude truly ancient technology like wet-plate photography, which, while fascinating, I am going to save for another day.

In some ways, practicing with black and white film is easier than going digital. All you really need to do is to get your hands on some monochrome film and load it into your camera. The whole process works the same way, no matter whether you use color film or not. So, if you already have some experience shooting color images in an analog medium, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

It’s a similar story with regard to metering, shooting, and developing. If you’ve handled an analog camera before, you have nothing to worry about. And if you haven’t, you’ll be pleased to know that jumping to color won’t present much of a learning curve in this regard!

Development is, in fact, even easier than with color film, since no blix is necessary. Just a simple developer, fixer, and a wash in plain water will do. Because it’s so much easier to develop at home using non-toxic ingredients, analog photography enthusiasts have traditionally flocked to black and white film even as color images have become much more affordable.

Understanding Color Filters

When converting an image to black and white, you will no doubt notice options to alter parameters such as color balance during the process.

Counterintuitively, these settings can actually affect the look of a monochrome image by a lot!

This hearkens back to what I said earlier – that black and white photography does not remove colors. It merely translates them into a narrower spectrum of grays, blacks, and whites.

With this in mind, how can we attain this level of color control when we forgo the convert-to-grayscale-in-post method? The answer is the same for both: we use color filters.

Light, fluffy clouds set against a dark backdrop. Skyward black and white photography using a strong color filter. Appearance of dark sky in daylight.
The powerful contrast separating the light clouds from the unnaturally dark daytime sky in this shot was only possible thanks to a carefully chosen color filter in front of the lens.

During the mid-twentieth century, when black and white photography was the gold standard of professional picture-taking, screw-on and snap-on color lens filters were some of the most common accessories around. Almost any photographer worth their salt would keep a few in their camera bag.

Today, these filters may be a less common sight on the street, but they remain available. The screw-on type is the most common today. It attaches to the front element of your lens just like any other conventional filter.

Each color filter affects the look of your images differently. A red filter can add extreme contrast to the sky to the point of nearly turning it black. A green filter can add a subtle, pleasant sense of separation between similar shades of light colors. Meanwhile, the yellow filter, often called the most versatile, adds a moderate amount of punchy contrast to almost any exposure.

As you can tell, color filters are very diverse and can come in handy for many different kinds of pictures. It’s worth building up a small collection based on the types of subjects you like to keep in front of your lens!

Mastering Composition in Monochrome Photography

An open road lined by forest on either side. Cloudy skies. Black and white photography.
Many compositional tricks you may have already picked up work just as well in black and white as in color. Here is a very nice example of leading lines in a monochrome composition.

When entering the world of black and white photography for the first time after studying in color, you will need to rethink just about everything. That includes composition!

Of course, basic compositional theory, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, applies no matter the medium. Still, monochrome images will make you question what you have previously learned about what makes a well-composed frame.

The Role of Contrast

View of a large underpass from below. High contrasts between light and dark. Circular opening above.
Contrast can not just be used to accentuate or underline. In this example, the photographer used strong contrasts to frame the composition and draw the viewer in.

The use of colors and contrast is especially distinct. Shooting in black and white, you will find yourself naturally drawn more to images exhibiting clashes of colors, light, and dark. These same extremes would likely not work in color.

In a grayscale world however, it can be precisely these stark contrasts, including high-key lighting with strong highlights, that can make for a very moving photograph.

Even in low-key light with soft accents, smart use of contrast can lead to deeply impressive black and white photography. Remember to also think of lens filters, as many of them can affect contrast ratios significantly!

Mood and Light

A landscape photograph in black and white of rolling sand dunes in a large desert.
In this shot, the sharp borderlines between sun-lit and shaded areas help bring out the loneliness and awe that the sand dunes inspire. In a color composition, this effect would be difficult to express using light alone!

If there is one word to describe how light affects monochrome images, it would be mood.

We can use light for composition similarly to how we would use leading lines in the environment, for instance. This can really come in handy for visual storytelling, lending emotional weight to scenes that would not quite hit viewers the same way in color images.

The way light drapes and frames a subject’s face in portraiture is another area where mood dominates. Even more so than in color, you can use carefully staged light on your subject to express their emotions. This makes for more punchy, moving portraits for sure!

An Example: Time of Day in Outdoors Photography

photo of buildings in black and white.
Nighttime photography can look stunning in black and white. If you have a tripod on hand to keep the shot steady, I can only recommend it!

Remember that time of day may also impact your black and white photography significantly.
As in color, the phase of the sun can hugely impact the atmosphere of your image. Beyond that simple fact however, monochrome photography follows some rules of its own.

Take for instance, the ‘golden hour‘, which is very popular with landscape and portrait artists who shoot in color. Surprisingly, it’s not actually so crucial in grayscale to shoot during this time! In fact, sunlight during this hour can appear overly washed-out and muddy. Conversely, midday sun, often shunned by color photographers for its extreme contrast, can actually be a real boon to monochrome shooters looking for dramatic, high-key shots.

Therefore, try to reconsider your approaches with regard to mood and light.

Don’t try to think too hard about replicating what you have been taught in the past. Rather, try to engage with what you have been taught and use it as a baseline to create images with the punch and special character that you seek!

Tips for Better Black and White Photography

Two lone fishing boats, one empty and one manned. A desolate landscape shot in black and white with a lonely atmosphere.
Depending on local weather conditions, water can be an amazing compositional tool to exploit in black and white photography. Here, the appearance of the lake almost functions as a mirror, cutting the frame in two! Note also the perfectly defined and neatly contrasted clouds achieved via color filters.

Nobody has ever gotten out of bed one day as a masterful black and white photographer. Like any art form, it takes dedication and lots of practice.

Towards that end, the following chapter will introduce you to some general tips and tricks for finding your footing. Of course, feel free to adjust and tinker with this advice as you see fit! There is no one-size-fits-all approach in any area of photography, and all of the following is simply meant to guide you along a path of self-discovery and experimentation.

Training Your Eye for Black and White

Close-up portrait of a clarinet against a dark cloth background. Black and white photography of a musical instrument.
Product photography is one genre that to this very day continues to be shot in black and white to a significant extent, even commercially. This is partly because a monochrome exposure can easily bring out fine lines and details, showcasing dramatic beauty in finely-engineered shapes and hand-crafted instruments. Use this fact to your advantage to create stunning shots like the one above.

A crucial part of any monochrome photographer’s journey is to train your eyes to see in black and white.

To some, this can be rather literal. As I mentioned previously, many mirrorless cameras with EVFs (electronic viewfinders) nowadays will let you switch to a dedicated monochrome mode. This will not just adjust the colors output of your exposures. It will also convert the actual EVF screen to grayscale.

Some photographers may find that this visual aid can help them imagine how their scenes turn out in black and white before they trip the shutter. Of course, this all depends on your personal style and creative process.

Others will be more inspired by studying black and white photography by the old masters. I myself have also found plenty of inspiration from classic black and white movies!

And yet others will take the greatest lessons from simply shooting a lot of photos.

One common method involves producing alternate version of every exposure in monochrome and in color. You can then compare your own work against itself to see how the two media evoke different feelings and results.

Try Something New

Chances are that you probably already have a list of favorite photographers and preferred genres and styles. Most of us do, after all, and that is a great thing! However, what you should refrain from doing is to try and replicate what some of your role models have done.

Though appealing, chasing after the great masters in this way can and often will lead to rather uninspired, cliche photography. Even if it may be technically competent, such works cannot help you truly master your craft or generate new ideas.

Beautiful portrait of the interior of a vintage Triumph TR3 roadster. Black and white car photography with a glamorous look.
Studying black and white photography is the perfect excuse to go out and experiment with subjects and scenes you have not previously worked in. How about a beauty shot of a vintage car interior like this one?

To really grow creatively, you will need to try out brand-new ideas and play with perspectives you may not have considered yet. After all, that is what is so exciting about black and white photography – seeing things from a new light!

So instead of trying to make ‘the next Ansel Adams’ or ‘the next Fan Ho’, ask yourself how black and white photography can make you ‘the next YOU’!

Black and White Photography Ideas

A young woman in early-20th century period dress photographed in bright daylight. Headshot portraiture in black and white with a vintage look.
Whether in the studio or outdoors, as in this example, portraiture is only one of dozens of genres that can really look masterful in black and white. The unique appearance of skin tones under certain color filters enables a degree of compositional freedom that does not exist in color.

Now, let’s take a look at a few specific thoughts on how to better realize black and white photos in particular genres. Of course, each and every photograph demands its own approach. Still, I hope that you may gain something useful for your own work out of these general tips!


Black and white photo of tall mountain peaks. Snow-capped mountaintops shining bright in the sun.
Sometimes, you don’t have to think outside the box to get a great shot. This landscape composition is simple – merely well-executed. The result? An awe-inspiring view of the mountaintops that maximizes the strengths of monochrome.

Ever since the days of the late, great Ansel Adams, black and white landscapes have been an evergreen shutterbug favorite. Plenty of photographers I know mainly switch to monochrome when they are shooting landscapes.

Landscapes can, shot well, look stunning in black and white. Smart use of light can render nature shots hauntingly beautiful in a way you just don’t get in color.

Try to play with shadows, too, especially large ones cast by major features such as rocks and mountains. Use filters to break up big instances of one color group. The greens of a forest are an obvious example. You may also use a yellow, orange, or red filter, depending on the weather, to add definition and contrast to the sky and clouds. Done right, this can look absolutely jaw-dropping.

Street Photography

Venetian canals. Renaissance townhouses, boats, and a small bridge visible. Black and white street photography.
The textures and personalities of the narrow canals and rustic facades of Venice lend themselves perfectly to some black and white street photography.

If not landscapes, some of the most famous black and white photos were shot on the street. I am talking about the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho, Alfred Stieglitz, and hundreds of others.

By utilizing the element of human emotion along with a thorough understanding of space and composition, photographs done in this style can be incredibly powerful.

Remember that handling skin tones works very differently in the monochrome world. Again, filters are your best friends here. Each filter and each shade of skin or clothing make for different results, though. Try experimenting with a friend, seeing how different color filters change the appearance of their facial features in your exposure.

You may also want to use the monochrome EVF setting that I mentioned previously, if your camera allows it. While plenty of hardcore street photographers learn to compose exclusively ‘by eye’, you may find that previewing the environment around you in monochrome colors helps your creative process.


A herd of zebras drinking by a shallow body of water. Black and white wildlife photography.
Zebras may make for rather obvious candidates for black and white wildlife photography, but rest assured that a very wide of subjects can be suitable for this genre.

Wildlife photography in black and white has the capacity to show nature’s beauty from a totally different perspective. It offers a raw, intimate peek into the lives of animals that lends itself particularly well to large prints.

The key here is to emphasize the kinds of details that are particularly flattering in black and white. This could mean, for example, using an appropriate color filter along with a very fast shutter speed and moderately wide aperture to provide a razor-sharp, extremely defined look at the feather pattern on a bird’s head.

The habitat of the wildlife you are shooting can also play its own role. Especially if it could add some charming details, colors, or textures, don’t be afraid to incorporate it into the shot!

Using Black and White Photos to Hone Your Skills

Black and white creative photography. Intentional camera movement (ICM) photography in black and white utilizing blur for creative effect.
Black and white doesn’t have to be all pin-sharp and documentary-like. This shot here is a perfect example of how to combine the monochrome medium with some experimental techniques, resulting in a beautiful and unique artistic frame.

The single most important thing to remember about black and white photography is that it is neither a style nor a skill. From the point of view of the person behind the viewfinder, all that black and white photography really is is a tool, much like a painter’s brush or a writer’s pen.

It allows you to both create workable drafts for something bigger, as well as creative masterpieces. But on the other hand, it is also very easy to make blunders and real duds with it.

In truth, no medium can truly improve your images or make you a better photographer. Definitely not the choice between color and monochrome, that’s for sure!

This brings us back to our very first question: why should we even shoot in black and white then?

After what you have learned today, your answer will likely depend a lot on your personal views and experiences. Some may say that shooting in black and white helps them get in touch with the pure, raw nature of photography from days gone by. This is doubly true if you choose to accompany the monochrome medium with period-correct analog gear and development techniques, which I am sure a fair number of you will try at some point.

Then there are others who will make a commitment to shoot in black and white – and get better at it – to improve their technical understanding of colors, contrast, and composition. Yet others, simply to broaden their horizons and pick up something new. We also have an excellent course to help you learn all the ins and outs of black and white photography.

Whatever your reasons may be, you are now well-armed to tackle black and white photography yourself. So, go out there and take some great shots!

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