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Black and White Photography


Of course photography started out in black and white (well more brown and white).  While we want colour images there always seems to be something special, artistic and timeless about a black and white image.

The Art of the Monochrome


Stripping an image of colour forces you to look at the tones of an image, the way light and shade falls.  Colour is often a distraction in an image.  Black and white is simpler.  Black and white often has more punch.

Black and white makes us look at shapes and form.
© Sean McGrath

Black and white images are more properly called monochrome, because they consist of white and one other colour.  Usually black, but may be dark brown or even blue.  You would recognise a white and brown image as a sepia photograph.

Toned monochrome revealing shapes and textures
© Jack Mallon

Picture Styles


Many digital cameras allow you to take black and white pictures and monochrome images.
In your menu system you will have an option for "picture styles".  One of these may be called black and white or monochrome.  One of them may be called sepia.  Those are usually your choices.
If you take a black and white image then the JPEG file will be converted from colour to black and white.  But the RAW file will still remain in colour, with all the colour information.  You can always convert any colour image to a monochrome using software.  Every software package has one (and probably several) monochrome conversion options.
I should say at this point that rarely will a photographer regularly shoot black and white images.  Instead they will always convert to black and white later.

Seeing in Black and White


If you have never shot in black and white before getting the hang of seeing what and black and white image will look like in advance can be tricky. Over time your experience will build and it will become more obvious.

If you want a quick sense of what the picture will look like just squint.  This reduces colour in your vision and you get a better sense of the tones of light and dark.

What you must get used to is that two tones, say Red and Green which are clearly opposites may end up looking exactly the same in black and white. For this reason monochrome images are more usually focussed on the differences in light and shade.

You can probably guess the yellow pepper - but which is red and which is green?

Contrast and Tone in Black and White


As a very rough guide you can divide black and white images into four groups:
1) High tonal range - lots of varied grey tones across the image, ranging from black, through dark greys to light greys then whites.
2) High contrast - almost all black and white, no grey tones.
3) High Key - where the bulk of image has very light tones.
4) Low Key - where image largely consists of dark tones.

A fine example of tonal range with every tone from dark to light, each in their place with a very good spread between them all.
© Sebastian Dooris

High Tonal Range


High tonal range or high contrast images sit at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Ansell Adams, the famous landscape photographer, was very keen on there being very good tones all the way through an image.  This has become a kind of purist view of black and white photography.

High Contrast


A high contrast image on the other hand will be dramatic and almost theatrical. By reducing the image to pure black or white areas the photograph becomes more graphical. Shape is strongly emphasised over texture.

A very high contrast shot which has been pushed right to the edge to produce this dramatic image.
© Les Haines

A high key image with lots of light and white tones, but correctly exposed.
© < Warloofer >

High Key


In a high key image the subject should be correctly exposed, but there are lots of very light areas in the image. High key photographs are often thought of as being over-exposed images. This does not need to be the case.

Low Key


Similarly in a low key image the lit part of the subject is correctly exposed, but there are large areas that are dark in the image. The overall image does not need to be under-exposed.

A low key images with lots of dark tones, but the skin tones are correctly exposed.
© Sean McGrath

Toning Monochromes


There are three common tones in "black and white".  The old fashioned "sepia" is still very popular because it has a pleasant look and is evocative.  Warm tones have just a hint of brown to them. I use this on nearly all my monochromes because the warmth is more inviting.  Cool tones use a little blue in the toning for a more distant emotional feel.

Warm tone, slight sepia monochrome

Your typical tone should be very delicate and subtle. It should only really be visible when you compare against a true black and white image.

Cool tone version

About Printing Black and Whites>


If you have your prints made by a professional lab or high street print then your black and whites will look okay. If however you print your own pictures on an inkjet or laser printer then you are going to find black and whites are pretty unforgiving. They will not look as good as your colour prints. They often look grainy, stripy, blocky and blotchy.

If you are really interested in doing your own black and white prints then be prepared for a time consuming journey. You will go through moments of success and longer moments of frustration. You will find yourself on a seemingly endless task of looking at prints, printers and print quality.

While I might have put you off printing black and whites, digital display of monochromes is easy and very effective.  Showing black and white images on websites or tablets is a way to really make your monochromes sing.
We are not finished with black and white photography, but since much of what you need to know is handled by software we shall delay that journey until we delve into the software side of digital photography later.



Make a collection of different coloured objects, say yellow, red and green peppers.  The more colours you can find the better.
Take (or make) a black and white photograph.  
How dp the colours show as tones of grey?   
Can you always see the difference between the different colours or do they look the same?
Go through photographs you have already taken, if you convert them to black and white do they look better, worse or the same to you?
Which types of photograph look better?
Which types of photograph look worse?