Colorize and Breathe Life into Old Black-and-White Photos (Get started for free)
Lighting is one of the most critical elements in black and white photography. Without proper attention to illumination, your monochrome images will appear dull, flat and lifeless. Mastering light involves understanding both quality and direction.
Hard light with dark shadows helps create drama and accentuate texture. It emphasizes contrast, which is key for compelling black and white shots. Seek out strong directional lighting that casts visible shadows. Position your subject so the light hits them at an angle rather than head-on. Side lighting adds depth while backlighting can create an eye-catching silhouette.
Soft, diffused lighting provides a more subtle look. It reduces shadows and can give a dreamy, ethereal mood to black and white scenes. Soft light flatters subjects like portraits, bringing out smooth skin tones. Try photographing on overcast days or use translucent scrims to filter direct sunlight. Reflected light from water or white surfaces also softly illuminates.
Pay attention to the color temperature of light sources. Warm yellowish light enhances black and white contrast differently than cool blue light. Mixing lighting with different color temps can produce displeasing tones. Unless you intend it for effect, choose warm or cool and stick with it.
The direction of light impacts the mood and dimension of monochrome images. Front lighting minimizes texture and shadow. Side lighting creates noticeable shadows that define shapes. Backlighting produces silhouettes and halos around subjects. Each lighting direction serves a different creative purpose.
Master photographers carefully control lighting to craft their black and white vision. Ansel Adams famously used light to create breathtaking contrast and depth. Edward Weston studied how lighting affected shapes and textures. Minor White expertly manipulated illumination to evoke metaphor and spirituality.
Getting the lighting right may require patience and persistence. Watch how the light changes throughout the day and vary your vantage point. Use reflectors, diffusers or flashes to modify existing light. With practice, you'll learn to see and use lighting to maximize black and white mood and drama.
Strong composition and intentional framing are vital for creating captivating black and white photos. Unlike color images which utilize hues to hold attention, monochrome shots rely entirely on calculated compositional techniques to direct the viewer's eye and elicit emotion.
When composing black and white scenes, remember the rule of thirds. Position the main subject off-center so the foreground and background provide visual balance and context. Lead the eye into the frame with winding roads, fences or other linear elements. Frame subjects within doors, windows or arches to add depth. Compose asymmetrically, leaving negative space to prevent a cluttered look.
Simplify compositions by removing distractions so the subject clearly stands out. Ansel Adams, famous for his breathtaking black and white landscapes, removed extraneous details to polish compositions. Minor White composed abstract shots, intentionally framing subjects against minimalist backgrounds. Careful framing isolates the essence of a subject, creating intrigue and visual impact.
Thoughtful use of contrast and texture also enhances black and white compositions. Juxtapose smooth and rough elements to add visual interest. Frame subjects to utilize directional lighting that accentuates contours and shapes. Compose close-ups of intriguing textures like weathered wood or concrete.
Creative framing puts an original spin on compositions. Tilt or shift your camera to offer an unexpected perspective. Try framing extremely close up for abstraction or from afar for a tiny subject against a vast background. Shoot from below to lend power or above to diminish importance. Reflective surfaces like mirrors and water provide framing opportunities.
Robert Frank, known for his gritty Americana street photography, pushed compositional boundaries by shooting from skewed angles. Paul Strand framed abstract urban details in his experimental street compositions. Review the work of black and white masters to spark out-of-the-box compositional approaches.
Texture and contrast are invaluable tools for creating compelling black and white images. While color photographs rely on vivid hues to hold the viewer's interest, monochrome shots depend wholly on tonality and texture to convey depth and dimension. Mastering contrast allows photographers to showcase the intricate textures that abound in the world around us.
In black and white photography, contrast refers to the range of tones from shadows to highlights. High contrast creates dramatic images with deep blacks and bright whites. Lower contrast produces more subtle, softer tones. Contrast can be controlled through careful lighting, exposure settings, and post-processing. Photographers like Ansel Adams are renowned for their signature high-contrast style, lending bold drama to Western landscapes.
Textures also come alive in monochrome through effective use of contrast. Rough, irregular textures like weathered wood and gnarled tree bark pop when illuminated to accentuate individual grooves and grains. Smooth textures like silk and skin are enhanced by softer contrast, bringing out subtle tonal variations. Jeanloup Sieff, known for his intricate fashion photography, manipulated lighting on fabric to showcase luxurious textures.
Urban photographer O. Winston Link exploited contrast and texture in his nighttime train photography. By mixing lighting from his flash with the train's own illuminated cars, he created an intricate interplay of light and dark textures. Gritty textures like peeling paint and rusting metal convey a tactile sense of decay in Robert Frank's Americana photographs. Still life photographer Imogen Cunningham used close framing and side lighting to showcase the delicate textures of plant life.
Experiment with lighting and exposure to bring out textures in mundane subjects. Side lighting casts shadows and sculpts shapes to showcase surface irregularities. Diffused lighting softens textures, bringing unity to composite subjects. Extremes of contrast isolate textures from backgrounds entirely. When shooting, scrutinize ordinary objects for intriguing textures to photograph in monochrome.
Proper exposure is critical for black and white photography. Without balanced exposure, monochrome images easily become a muddy mess of indistinguishable dark tones. White backgrounds get blown out into featureless voids. Getting the right exposure requires understanding how to effectively meter and manipulate settings for different high contrast lighting situations.
For most scenes, matrix or evaluative metering works well, averaging tones across the frame. But in high contrast lighting, like a dark portrait subject against a bright window, evaluative metering gets thrown off. Switch to spot metering, targeting just the subject or mid-tones. Ansel Adams meticulously spot metered his landscapes, bracketing multiple exposures to capture full tonal range.
Exposing for mid-tones creates balanced contrast, so meter your subject's skin or a neutral grey card. Let the shadows fall where they may to preserve detail; highlights can be recovered in post if they blow out. Adams exposed for the brightest important part of a scene and developed for the shadows to extend his photos' tonal scale.
Adjusting ISO, aperture and shutter speed impact contrast and exposure. Lower ISO settings like 100-200 preserve dynamic range. Wide apertures (f/2.8-f/4) nicely soften backgrounds but can make exposures too dark. Narrower apertures (f/8-f/11) widen depth of field at the cost of longer exposures. Keep shutter speeds fast enough (1/60s+) to mitigate blur, or use a tripod.
Bracketing several exposures allows you to composite a high dynamic range (HDR) image during post processing. Take a normal exposure along with several stops brighter and darker, then combine them with HDR software like Photomatix for greater tonal detail. Just avoid an artificial HDR look by keeping contrast realistic.
Graduated neutral density (ND) filters also balance exposure between sky and foreground. A dark to clear gradient darkens just the top of the frame, preventing blown out highlights in high-contrast scenes. Similarly, reflectors fill in shadows and lighten dark areas of a composition without altering the overall look.
Converting color photos to black and white requires more than simply desaturating the image. Thoughtful conversion preserves the emotion and mood of the original while enhancing it through strategic use of contrast and tonality. Mastering several conversion techniques allows photographers to choose the best approach for each image.
Many digital cameras offer built-in black and white modes that provide a real-time preview of the monochrome version. This can help visualize the end result, but often the camera's automated conversion lacks nuance. Dedicated black and white camera apps also quickly convert images. While convenient for social sharing, app conversions rarely optimize contrast and tonality.
For professional results, manually convert color images to black and white using photo editing software. This allows precise control over every tonal adjustment. Start by desaturating the image completely, then adjust individual color channels to control contrast and define textures. The red channel darkens rust, foliage and lips. The green channel lightens plants, trees and hair. The blue channel darkens skies and water while lightening many white and neutral tones.
Carefully dodging and burning specific areas further improves contrast balance in converted images. Burning darkens underexposed sections while dodging lightens overexposed regions so highlights and shadows retain detail. Use adjustment layers to brighten or darken specific color tones. For example, darkening yellows increases the contrast on light colored buildings.
Many black and white photographers recommend converting from a color version with optimal white balance rather than the original raw file. Correcting the white balance first prevents color casts from throwing off the tonal balance. However, retaining subtle warm or cool tones can enhance the vintage feel of a black and white scene.
For maximum flexibility, convert raw files using non-destructive editing so adjustments remain re-editable. Try plugins like the Google Nik Collection, which apply black and white conversions as smart layers. This allows tweaking the color channel mix and tonality separately from the original color image. Built-in filters like Photoshop's Black and White adjustment layer also provide nondestructive editing capability.
Dodging and burning are indispensable techniques for crafting professional quality black and white photos. These methods selectively lighten or darken areas of an image to balance contrast and articulately sculpt every tone. Mastering dodging and burning gives photographers extensive control over shaping mood and guiding the viewer"s eye.
Ansel Adams elevated dodging and burning to an artform in his signature high-contrast landscapes. He would burn along edges and contours to deftly define landforms, texturing rock and accentuating crags. Foliage was also burned to richly delineate every leaf, while centers of flowers were dodged to create brilliant blooms. These subtle adjustments made Adams" images powerfully dimensional.
Urban street photographer Garry Winogrand was also a virtuoso of burning and dodging. He would burn the edges of his gritty frames to pull attention to off-center subjects and heighten the bustling tension of city life. Windows and doors were selectively dodged to create visual anchors amidst chaotic crowds. The effect heightened the sense of humanity"s struggle within indifferent urban spaces.
In portraiture, burning and dodging transforms personality. Irving Penn darkened the eye sockets and clothing edges of cultural icons to lend an air of gravitas. Richard Avedon aptly dodged and burned Marilyn Monroe"s vulnerable features, elucidating her inner troubles. Herman Leonard"s jazz portraits used burning to infuse dynamic energy and movement, echoing the frenetic bebop sound. For all these artists, dodging and burning unlocked deeper emotional insights.
Contemporary photographer Sally Mann continues the tradition, subtly sculpting tonal nuances in her provocative Southern landscapes and nudes. Careful burning artfully obscures elements, conjuring mystery from prosaic settings. Mann"s masterful touch inspires the viewer to ponder what lies just beyond the frame.
Dodging and burning requires finesse. Avoid drastic lightening or darkening that looks obviously manipulated. Build up effects through multiple, gradual adjustments using soft brushes. Burn along natural lines and edges so enhancements integrate seamlessly into the image. Patiently work as the masters did, visualizing the emotion you wish to elicit, then bringing it to light.
Creatively using filters and effects expands the artistic possibilities of black and white photography. While dodging, burning, and tonal adjustments sculpt images during post-processing, filters and effects introduce new textures, tones and dimensions at the moment of capture. From lenses that produce dreamy glows to techniques that emulate historical processes, effects help photographers craft distinctive black and white visions.
Lens filters like circular polarizers enrich skies, enhancing contrast between clouds and atmosphere. Gradient neutral density filters balance overly bright skies, preventing solid white voids devoid of detail. Colored filters boost or subdue selected hues when shooting color, allowing more precision in black and white conversions later. A deep red 25 or 29 filter, for example, turns blue skies black for dramatic stormy skies. An orange or yellow filter lightens skin, smoothing portraits.
In-camera effects also enable creative looks. Pinhole and soft-focus filters add ethereal, romantic atmosphere to portraits and landscapes. Cross-processing simulates the unpredictable colors and tilted contrast of expired film. Post-process options like grain, vignetting, and toning lend mood and texture. Sepia and selenium effects mimic antique printing processes, infusing a nostalgic quality. Subtle paper textures blend the digital and traditional.
Photographer Sally Mann often uses damaged lenses and expired films to inject flaws and abstractions into her Southern Gothic landscapes. The imperfections add mystery that invites deeper inspection of common scenery. Alex Webb exploits cross-processing artifacts and infrared film to imbue his complex street compositions with disorienting tension between reality and the surreal. The distortions Galen Rowell achieved with motion blur, soft focus and neutral density filters infuse his outdoor adventure photos with a heart-pounding sense of action and energy.
Masterful black and white printing and presentation completes the photographic process, allowing artists to share their vision with viewers in new contexts. While excellent capture and post-processing techniques create compelling monochrome images, thoughtful printing and display transports the art into the physical world. Curating black and white prints for exhibitions enables photographers to immerse audiences in their way of seeing. Crafting photographic books showcases images in multilayered sequencing that builds thematic narratives. Printing also makes the work accessible in forms that engage the senses, from fine art silver gelatin prints to newsprint. Presentation choices impact how prints interact with surrounding environments to evoke moods. For black and white photographers, printing and presentation are final steps that complete their artistic intentions.
Great black and white photographers like Ansel Adams refined printing techniques as meticulously as their shooting and darkroom methods. Adams produced richly toned, perfectly sharp large-format prints to immerse the viewer in his transcendent natural visions. Eliot Porter worked tirelessly experimenting with printing techniques to elucidate the deepest shades of blacks in his intricate botanical compositions, even burning and reexposing areas by hand. Contemporary artists like Sally Mann painstakingly produce editioned silver gelatin prints in her ongoing exploration of imperfection and mortality. For these photographers, the printmaking process enhances their voice.
Thoughtfully sequencing and presenting the work deepens its impact. Many photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans create photographic books integrating images and text to fully immerse readers in a topic. Lange"s book An American Exodus featured her migrant farm labor images alongside writing from her husband Paul Taylor about the human struggles of the Great Depression. Minor White"s poetic captions in books like Mirrors Messages Manifestations expanded on his philosophy of mystical spiritual experience in photography. Sequencing images in book form allows photographers to lead viewers on a narrative journey.
Exhibition display also shapes experience of the work. Ansel Adams helped conceive the striking floating wall displays in San Francisco"s Museum of Modern Art to completely surround visitors with his dramatic oversize prints. More provocatively, Robert Mapplethorpe"s XYZ Portfolios stacked photos in grids on tables at exactly eye level, confronting viewers with explicit sexuality. Black and white images take on new dimensions in dialogue with finely crafted frames, intentional lighting, and even gallery architecture.