What makes a great black & white photo?

Reiva

New Member
May 20, 2014
Ok... to put it plainly, I suck at black & white photography. I think one of my strengths in photography (or in any kind of art, really) is my use of color, so I try to utilize that strength as much as I can.

However, I want to improve my photography, especially in black & white. I know that to make a great photo, you need to have certain things right - composition, lighting, etc. - but that applies to all photography, not just black & white.

Is there anything that applies only to black & white photography? Do you have any general black & white photography tips to share with me?


Thanks in advance. =)
(If anyone wants to see my current photos, there's a link in my profile - I'll add a link in the question if someone asks for it, but I don't really think it's relevant right now.)

 

BBW

Legend
Jul 7, 2010
betwixt and between
BB
In my opinion, the design elements of the picture have to be there and lend themselves to black and white. I specialized in color photography in college, a million years ago, and loved it...printed it, etc. B&W was never my strong point... However, digital photography opened it up a bit more for me. I also know that having a really good range from white to black - sort of a digital version of The Zone System, is also key to making a black and white photo work. I strongly suggest trying Silver Efex Pro, if you haven't already.

All that said, often one person's view of what works in B&W will not be another's.

By the way, you might want to add the link to your photos in your signature line, that way we can get a feel for your style, Reiva. And - welcome to FujiXspot! Please stop by the Welcomes and Intro forum, if you feel like it.:thumbsup:
 

KillRamsey

Hall of Famer
Jun 20, 2012
Hood River, OR
Kyle
I'll try to generalize why I sometimes prefer b&w over color for some shots, but the short version is that usually a "good" photo (to me) makes it apparent what you should be looking at, and sometimes color is really distracting. Some aspects of it...

- Texture. Sometimes it's the stubble of a friend's unshaven jaw or the stone / brick on a wall, maybe peeling paint. Color will often distract from that texture with some business / loudness that vanishes once the saturation is gone.
- Light. So once you've given up on showing color, you can play with all 3 color channels in post, and dramatically change the look of the shot with reds, greens, or blues darkening / lightening. If you decide, for example, that you want a person to stand out against the blue sky behind them, you punch up reds to lighten their skin tone and then suck out blues to darken the sky. Before, they may have been much closer to the same shade of grey.
- Simplicity. B7W images are just ... "quieter" to my brain, and that sometimes makes them more easy to digest and absorb. I can't explain it well, but there's a reason people find b&w "charming." I'm choosing the word "simple" to try and desribe it, but other words might work better.
 

Phoenix

All-Pro
Dec 28, 2011
Melbourne, Australia
Phoenix Gonzales
I agree with the previous responses, and I’ll just add to it, I enjoy any type of photo be it colour or b&w, however with my own photos there’s an old quote that I follow “If you want to shoot fashion, shoot in colour, but if you want to shoot emotion, shoot in black and white”, while I do not know the person who quoted this,I live and die by that mantra and try to evoke emotion when I take b&w photos.
 

ean10775

All-Pro
Feb 13, 2013
Cleveland, Ohio
Eric
My two cents are that good black and white images often feature both very light and very dark tones. If I'm composing and everything in the scene I'm photographing has the same 'luminosity' ( I don't know that that is the correct term) I generally find that image won't lend itself to black and white very well.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 

greyelm

All-Pro
Oct 1, 2011
London, England
In the days when I processed my own B&W film I didn't have the skills to accurately predict how the shot would turn out so I often had to use my limited skills at dodging and burning to get acceptable results.

With digital we have many advantages over the old days. We can set the camera to monochrome and instantly see through the EVF/LCD what the shot will look like or we can utilise the image processing to achieve the look we want. In Lightroom (similar to other software) you can simply experiment with the slider or do as many prefer and use a dedicated monochrome add- on.

This doesn't really answer the OP question as in many ways beauty is in the eye of the beholder but what I'm trying to say is that we all have a better chance of making great B&W image than we may have done in the past.

There are many great images posted on this forum, equal to or better than the published greats and I find that I learn from them. Keep them coming.
 

Lightmancer

Legend
Aug 13, 2011
Sunny Frimley
Bill Palmer
This is an exceptionally good and thought-provoking question. I like to work in black & white, and often shoot with that end in mind. In the days of film I would keep one camera dedicated to mono and one to colour. I would have "mono days" when I would only think - and "see" in black and white.

For me, and to echo some of what has already been said, Mono for me is about light and shade, form and texture, and above all, contrast, or sometimes the very lack of it. Taking colour out of the equation simplifies and streamlines the image, communicating more by saying less.

Today, with the marvels of digital I no longer have to visualise, or indeed chose at the time of capture. I can set my viewfinder to show me a monochrome view, and I still have the raw file, with all the colour information, to work with. I can apply "filtration" in post, and see the various effects in "real time".

Mono is about mood, mine and the subjects. Even when I shoot colour I am happiest with a restricted palette, with one or two dominant hues.

One last thought - I sometimes post on Ipernity the colour and black and white versions of the same image. The mono shot gets more views and comments - every time...
 

ean10775

All-Pro
Feb 13, 2013
Cleveland, Ohio
Eric
By no means am I claiming that this is a great black and white photo. Like any photo, the subject will contribute more to that than anything else. That said, this photo is indicative of what I tend to look for when composing for black and white or determining whether or not to convert to black and white from color:

View attachment 20727X1002355 by ericarthur, on Flickr

The alternating dark and light stripes, the bright window lit skin, along with the blown out window on the far wall stand out from the more middle grey tone parts of the image. If the light was flat and there weren't the contrasting elements here in the shirt I wouldn't have bothered converting this to black and white.
 

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