Five Tips For Taking Better Black & White Photos

black and white
When black and white works, it really works - Joaquim Alves Gaspar

For many of us getting started in photography years ago, learning to shoot in black and white was not an option. My first photography customers were all newspapers and you shot the film they gave you and, except in rare cases, that was almost always black and white.

Today almost everything is in color, newspapers and magazines are disappearing, and film is on life support. Still, even today with cameras containing high speed computers with more computing power than the space shuttle, a well composed black and white photograph is a thing of simplistic beauty.

While I disagree with instructors who want to start out teaching students black and white photography, it is worth learning. Below are five tips for taking better black and white photos.

Start With Raw

I actually shoot RAW+JPEG and do probably 90 percent of my work with JPEGs. Part of the 10 percent when working in RAW are the pictures I think would make a good B&Ws.

A lot of tonal information is tossed out by the JPEG compressing and this is one of the times you want it back.

Pick Your Day

The worst days for shooting color are sometimes the best days for shooting black and white. Dismal, gray, and overcast days, so called “low contrast” lighting is made for black and white photography. Ironically, these are the days you’d stay home shooting color photography.

Black and white can also give a scene a cold, detached feeling. Hearkening back to the days of film noir, a good black and white photo can create an air of suspence.

Go Low On The ISO

For the same reason you’re starting with a RAW image. Get as much photo data as possible before deciding what to take away. At higher ISO ratings some cameras can start picking up noise, particularly in the blacks.

If you want grain you can always add a film grain filter in post-processing.


The rules for composition in black and white are not a great deal different than in color photography, with more emphasis on textures and strong lines. Without color to draw the eye, you have to depend more on composition.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons some instructors want to take that away for new students, to get them to focus on lines and framing instead of color.

Look For Patterns

With black and white you’re more likely to select a shot purely for the design elements, not necessarily a definitive subject. That would particularly true for patterns with strong lines with a point of convergence.

Just because I don’t lead with black and white when teaching a photography class, doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth learning and practicing. I’ve seen pretty average color pictures turned into something with real impact, just by taking away the color.

Here are some excellent examples. How many of these would have lost impact by adding color?