Beginner’s guide to Black & White photography

Black & white photography has stood the test of time. Despite the advance from mono to colour film, and then from emulsion to digital, black & white photography remains popular with photographers around the world. Its ability to produce evocative and powerful images remains as strong today as it has ever been. Welcome to the world of monochrome!

At a time when colour film technology is at its peak, and the world we live in is more colourful than ever before, the idea of taking pictures in black & white may seem a little strange. Recently, however, mono has experienced something of a renaissance. Not only is it widely used for advertising and fashion, but more and more enthusiast photographers are also enjoying the benefits of shooting in black & white. The main attraction of working in mono is that by stripping colour from an image, you divorce it from reality so photographs become a more effective means of self-expression. Instead of relying on realism and familiarity, they become abstracts using patterns, textures and the play of light and shade to gain appeal.

Photographs take on a different meaning, and we can see into much more with the distraction of colour taken away. This applies to all subjects, be it portraits, landscape, still-life or architecture.

An additional benefit is that black & white is a complete cycle. Your involvement with colour photography usually ends the moment a roll of exposed film is removed from your camera. But in black & white, the creative process is only just beginning at that point, because after developing the film you then get to work in the darkroom, printing the photograph according to how you visualised it as the time.

This guide covers various topics, from learning to see in black & white, choosing, using and processing film and making your first print.

Learning to see the world in black & white

The biggest hurdle to overcome when shooting black & white for the first time is understanding how a colour scene will translate to black, white and the numerous grey tones in-between. A good way to learn initially is by shooting the same scenes or subjects in black & white and colour, so you can compare the two images and note how certain colours record as grey tones.

Ideally, set up a shot or look for a scene that contains a wide range of different colours – reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues. What you learn will prove invaluable in the future as it will help you visualise if a scene will work well in black & white, and also what you may need to do at both the taking stage and the printing stage to ensure a successful image is produced.

For example, if you photograph red and green objects together, their relative difference in colour creates a contrast that makes each item stand out clearly. In mono, however, red and green records as similar grey tones so that contrast is reduced, and the impact of the photograph with it. When photographing landscapes, you need to consider the way the sky will record when you expose for the ground, and how the many different shades of green in the scene will translate. With still-lifes, you need to pre-visualise how different objects will relate to each other when converted to grey tones.


Of course, while this practical knowledge will be of use, you shouldn’t live and die by it. One of the great joys of black & white photography is that it allows you to express your own creative vision far more than colour can, so detailed technical accuracy may be far less important to you than the overall mood and feel of the image.

Also, while what you capture on the original negative is important, 99 percent of the time it’s what you do with the image in the darkroom that counts, because it’s in the printing that a black & white photo really comes to life. You can use different contrast grades of paper to control the way highlights, shadows and mid-tones relate to each other, for instance. You can lighten or darken selective areas of the print to change its tonal balance. You can also crop the image to alter the composition, tone it and so on.

Tip: Black & white film converts colours to various shades of grey. When shooting subjects which are made up of various hues of the same colour, such as green plants, use a film with good contrast, or print to a hard grade, to emphasise the change in tones.

Using filters

Colour filters can be used to control the way different colours record as grey tones and therefore alter the tonal relationship in a scene to a small or large extent.

The main colours used to achieve this are yellow, green, orange and red.

Each will cause its own colour to record as a lighter grey tone in black & white and its complementary colour to record as a darker grey tone. So, red will lighten red and darken green while green will lighten green but darken red.

Yellow is the best choice for everyday use, as it slightly darkens blue sky and emphasises clouds. Orange does this more obviously, as well as darkening greens to give a marked increase in contrast. Red turns blue sky almost black so white clouds stand out starkly and the sky takes on greater prominence, rather like it does in colour when you use a polarising filter (which can also be used for black & white photography). A red filter also darkens green considerably to produce dark, dramatic effects. Green is popular with landscape photographers as it helps to emphasise the different shades of green in the scene.

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