Many photographers prefer the black and white aesthetic for their photography. And they have good reason to do that. In the absence of color, other visual elements rise to the surface and capture the viewer’s attention. Black and white photography has also a historical and nostalgic layer because it was the first type of photography available. So, more often than not, analogous photographers remain loyal to black and white photographs. Nonetheless, the black and white aesthetic has plenty of fans among digital photographers who love a cinematic look, an artful style, and a more abstract approach.

However, creating black and white photographs is more difficult than working with colors because we see the world in colors. Imagining a scene in black and white is challenging. Furthermore, you need to understand what makes a good black and white photo and how to create appealing black and white compositions. So here is everything you need to know about black and white photography to get you started.

Understanding B&W and Monochrome Photography

Black and white photography is a type of monochrome photography. Monochrome photography refers to photographs that include the entire range of light intensities but only one hue. For example, a monochrome photograph may have only shades of sepia, only shades of cyan, or only shades of blue, but not all of them.

A black and white photography is a particular type of monochrome photography in which you have only shades of gray, from black to white. The hue is null throughout the image.

The difference between monochrome and black and white pictures is not just a technical one. There is also a difference in style, atmosphere, and means of communication. Colored monochrome images rely on color to create an atmosphere whether it’s historical, vintage, romantic, or melancholic, as it’s the case with warm monochrome photos, or punk, neon, or electric, as it’s the case with cold monochrome photos.

Black and white images rely solely on lines, shapes, and contrast to lure in the viewer and convey the message. As a result, black and white images require more attention to details, geometric features, and composition. Any mistake is visible and may unbalance the composition. Thus, one may say, black and white photography is the most difficult type of monochrome photography.

How to Capture Stunning Black and White Photographs

First of all commit to taking black and white photos by setting your camera to the black and white mode. You can, of course, convert color photos into black and white using post-processing software, but you’ll never learn to take great black and white pictures if you don’t commit from the moment you press the shutter release button.

Furthermore, once committed to black and white photography, you can start to imagine the scene in black and white, focus more on geometry and contrast, and use accessories that improve your work, such as colored photographic filters that enhance contrast and details. And, if you use a digital camera, you can preview the photograph and take an improved one immediately.

While imaging the world in black and white may seem challenging in the beginning decomposing the scene into basic visual elements is already part of your photographic workflow. However, this step is essential in black and white photography. Because you can’t base your composition on colors, you need to be very careful at leading lines, shapes, textures, and patterns. Each has a visual weight that influences the composition. So don’t press the shutter release button until you know exactly where each leading line goes, what the focal point is, and where the viewer will look first.

Knowing how to work with space is also important for black and white photography. To create a great photograph, you need that contrast between highly detailed areas and smooth, clean ones. Remember, you have no colors to create the visual separation between the items in the frame. You need to manage this in the framing stage.

Alongside geometry and framing, contrast is a major feature in black and white photography. The regular approach is to create a wide range of tones for a more natural and calming appearance. It means having as many gray tones as possible between white and black, which shows in a well-balanced histogram. To achieve it, you need a scene with a large variety of colors and smooth, continuous lighting. A landscape is the perfect example: natural lighting and diverse colors.

The more dramatic approach is to create a black and white photograph with high contrast between bright and dark areas and few gray tones in between. It produces abstract, artful, contemporary-looking photographs, which are usually preferred for architectural, commercial, and fine art photography. Purposefully, you are allowed to overexpose or underexpose parts of your composition to create this dramatic contrast.

Bonus Tips for Black and White Photography

Make a habit of going through the following checklist before pressing the shutter release button:

  • Lines, shapes, and textures balance each other and create a harmonious composition.
  • There are strong visual elements that capture the viewer’s attention and lead them through the frame.
  • There is a strong focal point and enough negative space around it.
  • The contrast level is according to the photographer’s artistic purpose.
  • There is nothing in the frame by mistake.
  • The composition supports the story behind it.

Types of Black and White Photography

All photographic genres work well with the black and white aesthetic. However, each requires a particular approach, composition, and artistic style. Here is how to pair black and white photographs and your preferred photographic genre.

Black and White Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is artful, emotional, and profound. It’s also challenging from a technical perspective because it requires perfect color accuracy to match skin tones and eye colors. But black and white portraits don’t rely on color accuracy. How do you get the right skin tone without color? Well, you get the right gray tone. Black and white portrait photographs require perfect exposure. Set the camera to manual mode and use manual focus to ensure you control all the parameters.

The good news is black and white photographs flatter the model. They smooth imperfections and emphasize features. Giving the right contrast, black and white portraits can be tridimensional, dramatic, and dynamic. The orange filter is your friend in creating stunning black and white portraits with beautiful skin tones and precise contrast.

Black and White Street Photography

Street photography has a rich legacy of amazing black and white snapshots. Just look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Elliott Erwitt, and you’ll know why. Black and white street photographs reduce the scene to its essence. Furthermore, they simplify the composition, which is helpful because streets can be very busy and crowded with visual elements.

However, pay attention to lines, shapes, and textures because streets have plenty of them. It’s very easy to have the viewer distracted by some insignificant object at the edge of the frame, an inscription, or an unfortunate electric pole. Ensure you don’t awkwardly crop objects at the edge of the frame, leave enough negative space to make your subject stand out, and create harmonious compositions.

The black and white aesthetic looks good in any type of weather. This is a huge advantage for street photography, where you depend on natural lighting. Whether it’s a sunny day or rainy, a hot summer day or a snowy one, weather elements will only enrich your black and white photographs.

Yellow and orange filters are a good fit for black and white street photography because they complement the natural light and urban colors. For a more dramatic contrast, you may want to try the red filter.

Black and White Fine Art Photography

There is no better match for black and white photography than fine art. That’s the ultimate artistic expression in photography, and the black and white aesthetic adds to its abstract, artful, and unconventional effect. For this particular photographic genre, focus intensively on geometry and try any unusual angle and perspective that sounds appealing to you.  You can also experiment with fantasy, mystery, surrealism, abstractionism, and any other style and concept.

Black and white fine art photography may have any subject matter. However, storytelling is essential here. Your composition should convey a strong message, impress the audience, and be memorable. Fine art is about mesmerizing the viewer and convincing them to come back again and again. For this purpose, you can use any effect, from dramatic contrast to grainy overlays to dreamy, foggy textures.

You should also consider printing your black and white photographs. Physical photographs bring a brand new energy and help you see your flaws and strengths points. Besides, you can experiment with different types of printing substrates (e.g., metal, Japanese handmade paper, canvas, etc.).

Black and White Nature Photography

It may seem counterintuitive to do black and white landscape photographs or other types of nature-related photos, but there are good reasons to do that.

The first one is an artistic purpose. The lines and shapes of nature look incredible in black and white. Just imagine the flow of hills, the complex geometry of flowers, and the spectacular design of insects. Without the distraction of color, you can really focus on textures and patterns. And nature provides exquisite patterns.

The second reason is a technical one. Nature photography depends on natural lighting. But sometimes you just can’t fix your schedule to accommodate the weather and need to take pictures in the harsh midday sun or on an overcast day. Black and white photographs look great even in less-than-perfect lighting. Sometimes, they look better when the lighting is poor than when it's good. There is something moody and accommodating about the black and white aesthetic that is forgiving.

On the same technical note, long exposures may look better in black and white. The milky white of a waterfall or a cloud may be enhanced in the absence of color. So give it a try!

Black and White Commercial Photography

Commercial photography follows a creative brief. Choosing between color and black and white might not be your decision. But there are scenarios when black and white photographs are a better fit.

For example, when the brief focuses on patterns and textures, a black and white picture will emphasize the details and tell the intended message. It’s not about a product’s color but its repeatability and constancy.

Black and white photographs may also convey history, longevity, tradition, and loyalty. When the editorial or commercial focuses on the brand’s strength and quality, the black and white approach makes it more respectable and trustworthy.

Certain industries benefit from black and white images, such as construction, automobiles, architecture, technology, and design. Monochrome products, such as metal, concrete, and fabric, benefit as well.

Black and White Close-up and Macro Photography

In close-up and macro photography, all you want is detail. The tiniest feature is important and needs to be in the spotlight. For this purpose, black and white photography is perfect, as long as the detail you want to exhibit is not color.

For example, clock mechanisms and jewelry look spectacular in black and white because they allow you to see the geometry, the connection between pieces, and the overall craftsmanship. Close-ups of subjects with interesting textures or patterns are another good example.

The rules of composition apply to close-up and macro photography as well. Don’t place the main subject in the center of the frame, at least not all the time. Give it space to breathe. Look for symmetries, leading lines, and shapes that can help you direct the viewer’s gaze throughout the frame. 

In addition, close-up and macro photographs require far more attention to focus. Because of the magnification, you will have a shallow depth of field, meaning only a small part of the frame will be in focus. Make that sharp area matter by positioning the most interesting part of your subject there.

So, to sum up...

Black and white photography is an artful type of photography that focuses on concepts and storytelling. It’s also extremely graphical, giving you the opportunity to experiment with lines, shapes, and textures. It’s a good fit for all types of subject matters as long as you keep in mind that each photographic genre is unique and requires a committed and authentic approach. Good photography doesn’t happen by chance. It’s a purposeful process in which the photographer should be completely engaged.


How can I make my black and white pictures more interesting?

Black and white pictures have two essential aspects: technique and composition. You can improve your photos by shooting in RAW to capture the best quality, clarity, and sharpness, using analog cameras for a wider dynamic range, or trying different exposure settings. But you can also make your pictures more interesting by focusing on textures and patterns, experimenting with contrast, ensuring that the composition is fluid and well-balanced, and experimenting with unusual angles. However, the most important thing is to commit to black and white photography and not just use it to cover up for your mistakes.