Tips for Digital Black and White Photography

Written by Ernesto Santos on .

Black and White photography in the traditional sense has really faded into the background these days. The digital revolution is all about color after all – bold, saturated, intense color.

Unless you still shoot film, I would venture to guess shooting, or processing, for B&W hardly enters your mind. Well, maybe it does, but I’ll bet the recurring issue is that you are probably unsure which of your color images will convert well to B&W. I think it goes beyond gaining this insight. You have to approach this question when your camera is still in your hands and not when you are back at home reviewing and processing your photos. I’ve come up with a few pointers to help you evaluate the lighting and your subjects specifically for black and white imagery.

To begin with, I strongly suggest investing in a top-quality black and white converter program. While you can do very good conversions using Photoshop, it is time consuming and I’ve always had to make a lot of complicated layer masks to get the depth and drama that I like in my B&W images. Currently, I use Google Nik Collection Silver Efex Pro and I do not care to try anything else. It is an excellent program. If I had to choose a close second it would be The Plugin Site B/W Styler. Let’s get on with some pointers.



I know this sounds counter to everything you read and hear about outdoor color photography, but consider this. B&W photographs taken under natural light mostly look best when there is high contrast present. Now, I don’t mean ALWAYS, I mean usually, because absolutes have no place in photography in my opinion. Look at the old black and white masters, particularly one individual with the initials A. A. Adams’ photographs almost always have a contrasty character that is universally appealing. I’m sure some of this had to do with film processing decisions on his part, but in reading his books he talks about the light not in terms of seeing beautiful sunsets but seeing the light fall on the subject in strong and commanding ways. So my first tip is to use the usual down-time of mid-day to shoot images that you intend to convert to B&W.

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Bofecillos Mining Camp - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The images above illustrate what I mean. This was taken at 3:10 PM on a recent trip to West Texas. The color image on the left is an unaltered raw conversion. The B&W image on the right was converted using the unaltered raw image in Silver Efex Pro. Because of the time of day, and the sun being overhead, there is not a lot for the color photographer to work with. Washed out sky color and deep shadows in an otherwise flat (light-wise) foreground. When I saw this scene I new immediately that this could have the potential for a nice B&W conversion. The single cloud was racing across the sky so it had a interesting shape and character that could be enhanced against the clear sky. There was some shadow on the mountains that I was sure could be enhanced in the conversion as well. There was contrast although the daytime haze was getting in the way. In Silver Efex Pro I played around with the presets until I found one that darkened the sky, brightened the cloud, and increased the contrast and tones in the foreground. Notice how the terrain in the B&W version now has distinct layers of texture (desert brush), and then recurring layers of light and dark all the way to the mountain ridges.




Bamboo Forest - Avery Island Jungle Garden, Louisiana



While naturally recurring patterns are a great find in any type of photography, I think they are especially suited for fine B&W conversions. In a color image there can be the distraction of the various color hues exploding off the printed page, while in a black and white print those same patterns are given a chance to grasp viewers and force them to concentrate on the beauty of repetition and detail. I also look for the juxtaposition of tonal values or textures. Whether it’s dark to light, smooth to coarse, or any other ranging values, the idea is to have a syncopated visual beat of ups and downs. In the example above you see both examples. The thin trunks of the bamboo, while so fine and stick-like, give that repeating change in tone and at the same time provide a recurring pattern. Now look at the leaves. They fade in and out of a dark background and when in full light reveal delicate details – expressing the smooth to coarse objective.


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Sail Chair - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico



Come on, you have to agree with my total disappointment when I first opened this color image on my computer at home. It is totally lifeless. No color, no contrast, and a terrible sky. In fact, when I took this there was actually a pretty bad sand storm blowing through the park. Since it was my last afternoon there I just kept shooting as long as the blowing sand didn’t start attacking my cameras. My persistence eventually paid off, and I always knew that these wonderful and whimsical picnic sail chairs would make a great image if photographed at the right angle. With the right treatment in Silver Efex Pro I was able to pull out some fine blowing sand in the air. And the contrast was there after all, especially on the chair sail, it just needed some coaxing. Aside from the obvious lesson here to always persist, there is another tip to take away from this example. If you look at the B&W conversion closely you can see that all that makes this an interesting image was really there in the original all along. The changing tonal values of the corrugated steel, the heft of the concrete base, the fine detail of the desert floor, and of course, the interesting wisp of blowing sand.




Bison Skull Motif - Taos Pueblo, New Mexico



One of my favorite features of Silver Efex Pro and B/W Styler is the ability to add the effects of using colored filters just like you do when shooting B&W film. When choosing a B&W conversion program make sure it has this feature, it is invaluable. In general terms, a colored filter will only let through its own color of light while blocking all the others. So, a red filter allows all the red light through, a green the greens, a blue the blues, and so on. This affected transmission of light is represented in darker tones for the light it blocks and lighter tones for the shades it lets through. As you can see this can be a very effective way to create more contrast in certain situations. In my image above of the bison skull you’ll notice that the adobe wall is a red tone as is the ladder. Both look featureless in the color version, but look at the transformation when I added a blue filter in the conversion. Suddenly you can see detail in the wood of the ladder and the grass in the adobe is more pronounced, you can even see the trowel strokes as the adobe stucco was laid on. I chose to use the blue filter because it has the widest effect of all the colored filters, and while it turns red to almost black, it also darkens just about every other color as well. I figured it would handle all the warm tones in the image, and indeed it did. All that was left to do was to boost the brightness of the skull and the image took on a very dramatic look.


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Cow Skull Sculpture at the Gage Hotel - Marathon, Texas



Sorry, more skulls. Can you handle one more skull image? Seriously, this final tip is totally optional. To be honest, I don’t often tone my black and white images using different shades, preferring to almost always use a very faint Selenium tone. I’m just partial to cooler tones. The tip here is to simply never overlook toning an image, sometimes it can really take that shot to the next level. When I first converted this image it looked fine in neutral tones but for some reason I felt it wasn’t really representative of the beautiful Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas where this was taken. It is a little known gem in the middle of the Chihuahua desert that just shouts Texas cowboy chic, all done very tastefully. So, in honor of the old girl, I decided to tone this in a more appropriate manner. This is not Sepia, mind you, but Coffee toning. I think it gives it an early 20th century look as opposed to Sepia’s late 19th century character.

I hope this small collection of tips and pointers will help you with your black and white conversions. And for those of you who have never tried it, I urge you to go out and make full use of the mid-day light. You might miss out on a nice nap after an early rise but you’ll be rewarded with some interesting photographs.