10 Tips on How to Create Better Black & White Images


Black and white was once the only means we had to communicate, photographically. That was long before most of us got involved with it. But for some of us, B&W is how we started off in photography, and how we saw our images in print. But since the beginning of photography, black and white has been a very romantic medium. That romance continues to this day, with black and white easier and simpler to do than ever. And yet, for some, it’s just as complicated and difficult as ever. Perhaps this will give you some ideas to advance your black and white photography.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost by Moose Peterson


Watch B&W Movies like Casa Blanca

I’m a huge fan of B&W movies from the 40s and 50s! I watch the plot, but even more so, I watch the lighting! They couldn’t use color to pull our attention around; they had to light to do that, using shades to tell their story. Mystery, death, love, hate, jealousy—they said them all with light! You can watch and learn a lot about B&W photography from these old movies. Keep in mind that everyone watches them. The public has certain preconceived visual concepts because of them. Learn them, explore them, and exploit them, and you can vastly improve your B&W photography!

Contrast is Your Friend!

Traditionally, black and white photography has been a contrasty medium. In color photography, big contrast is often discouraged. In the days of film, we often would attach a red filter when shooting black and white, just to increase the contrast. In this example, because of the large boulder, the bald skies of Alabama Hills go very dark, thus making the boulder visibly pop. Looking under the boulder, you can see the heavy shadow, telling you it’s a contrasty condition.

Flat Light has Lots to Offer

And the exact opposite is true as well! Flat light, or light which has no giant range of exposure, can make for dramatic B&W images. Typically, though, this requires that you look at the elements, and find one or more deep blacks that grab the eye. In this case, the falling snow is flattening out the light, though the snow on the ground sets the stage. The wet, black road in the center of the frame takes the eye through the image, and then the speckles of black bring the eye back down. Standing there, you wouldn’t have thought there was a photo, and that’s because of the flat light.

Black Makes White Brighter

This is a favorite trick of mine: making the darks darker so the lights appear brighter. By association—and nothing else—when we make darks go darker, the mind just assumes the other elements have to be brighter, even though in reality they are not. This downpour over Bridgeport Reservoir is an example of that. In this case, I knew what was possible in the darkroom that would pull that black down, making that small microburst really pop. This is not what I saw standing there. It was a pretty even gray sky. The only difference is that the microburst was reflecting light, and the background was not. That’s all that was required to make it pop in post.

Graphics Make for Bigger Drama

I just love vanishing lines! When you can include those in any B&W photo, you have a visually powerful image. In this case, with this little rail station in Upper NY, the architecture lends itself perfectly to the drama of B&W. The long, narrow construction, the gingerbread pattern, and the bright rails leading off into the distance take the eye to the stormy skies, which bring you right back to the front of the station. Because it’s by the roof line, the bright spot in the sky helps with the competing pattern of the gingerbread.

Gotta Have a Clean White and a Clean Black

If there is one thing you need in a B&W photo, if nothing else, it is a clean white and a clean black. Is this a rule? No, it is merely a starting point in your thinking, capturing and finishing a photo. Without a clean black and a clean white, you have what is called a “muddy” image. This means you simply have a bunch of shades of gray. In this photo of the Bodie Lighthouse, the only clean white is the post of light (and that was created in post), and the only clean black is the roof. But that’s enough for you to notice all of the texture in the image. If your B&W images just don’t seem to have real zing, it could simply be a case of no clean blacks and no clean whites.

Exposure is Your Friend

“Seeing” (thinking) in B&W is a very common difficulty for photographers. This stands to reason, since we live in a color world. Many B&W images are around you if you just think underexposure. This shot, taken at Cliff House in San Francisco, was an off-the-hip shot as we were walking in to breakfast. It was basically a bright morning, with the storm quickly heading east. I saw that great cloud shape in the sky, and knew I wanted the shot. If I exposed normally, the sky would have been blown out and the sand a medium gray. But by underexposing 2.5 stops, I pulled the sky to gray, the beach went black, and the surf stayed white, leading the eye through the frame.

Filters Make it Easier

In the game of black and white photography, filters still make a world of difference! The polarizer can be used, unconventionally, to darken the sky, which in B&W creates big-time black drama. The split grad can be used for the same purpose, as you see in this photo of Ausable Chasm in NY. The mist from the falls was the photo, but to bring this out, its brightness needed to be set against something dark. By using a .9 (3 stop) split grad turned severely to the left, darkening the left corner, the mist could visually pop. There is no doubt that you have to think B&W when you do this, because you wouldn’t have taken the photo if the end results were to be in color. How do you develop an eye to see this? You do it a lot, and learn from you successes as well as your failures. If you don’t have failures, you know you’re not trying!

Silver Efex Pro

Polycontrast in a slider—that’s how I think of Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2! This is the ONLY software I use to create my B&W images. Why? It’s so bloody simple, effective and beautiful. And here’s the secret: the Structure! It’s a slider in the program, and when taken to the range of the 80s, it works magic like nothing else! There isn’t a photo here that hasn’t been kissed by the beauty of Structure to make the B&W magic happen. And here’s the thing—until you own Silver Efex Pro 2 and you use Structure, you have no way of knowing when you’re shooting what will or won’t make a great photo. If there is ONE trick, technique, tool—anything I can recommend to you to improve your black and white photography, this is it!

Levels & Curves!

Small subtleties add up to big drama! Every one of these photos has seen Photoshop CS6, and that was to add small subtleties you can’t do otherwise. It could be the slight darkening of a cloud to make the cloud next to it brighter, using Curves and the Brush. It could be a slight move in Levels to push some blacks to deep black. You might need to lighten a God beam, or darken the side of a rock. These small, fine tunings that we can’t do any other way, are a must in making the gorgeous black and white photo!


I enjoyed the article very interesting .

I've been a fan of Silver Efex Pro too, especially the structure. The program is being fazed out though. Are you aware of any other program that offers such a wonderful effect? I like Exposure X but can't seem to get that same effect with any of the settings.

Look the edges of the hills in the picture under "silver efex pro" : so ugly. "Forced" pic where there was missing a lot. So to get it, one had to go a way  too much. If it's an artistic choce, then I would say it looks like those ugly HDR stuffs. Not a nice B&W pic in my opinion and tastes.

Marc wrote:

Look the edges of the hills in the picture under "silver efex pro" : so ugly. "Forced" pic where there was missing a lot. So to get it, one had to go a way  too much. If it's an artistic choce, then I would say it looks like those ugly HDR stuffs. Not a nice B&W pic in my opinion and tastes.

I had this impression, too. The halos at the edge of the hills are just horrible. The shot is ruined by these. Sky is overcooked as well. Many other shots in this article are great, but this one is not.

Great article.


As a film fanatic --and a big fan of this movie, in particular-- I gotta point out that it's "Casablanca," not Casa Blanca. 

The tricks you showed and discussed are amazing. I just knew how to make black and white photo. But these tricks are way too beyond.

Timeless and appropriate tips - well done by one of the masters of light.



I'm with Linda on this. I really enjoy the old process of making black and white prints without the use of a computer, using film, chemicals, and paper. As an added bonus, even with the cost of film, chemicals, and paper it's a lot less expensive than digital when you factor in the cost of good quality digital cameras, lenses, software, etc. Top quaility professional film cameras, lenses, and darkroom equipment is pennies on the dollar these days... stuff I could only dream about 20 years ago! 



Totally agree with Marco. Don't believe ? Try it yourself. The B & W "pops out" this way. My B & W portrait prints are totally lifelike. 

When do you convert to Black and White? In the camera (jpeg only I guess), in Lightroom/Aperture etc, in Silver Efex Pro or Photoshop?

Hi Joran, thanks for writing in. There are many different methods (as well as available software) for converting color images to black-and-white, and the workflow used is more a matter of personal preference than any hard and fast rule. To help inform and inspire your future efforts in this area, here are a few links to other articles on this subject: 

How to Get Your Colors Correct in Black & White: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/content/how-get-your-colors-correct-black-white 

Black and White—Done Right: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/content/black-and-white%E2%80%94done-right

Thanks very much for reading the blog and hoping you enjoy these additional resources!

I can't get excited about computer programs to enhance an image. I like the true art form of B&W photography. 

Hi Linda, thanks so much for commenting, I totally know what you mean about this. If you appreciate the history of black and white imagemaking, you'll likely enjoy the video "Seeing in Black and White with Eileen Rafferty," from a presentation from the B&H Event Space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8Hh8S-Z68s

Happy Viewing!


Great Ansel Adams spent week to make one photo RIGHT!! Did he 'manipulate' a photo to get the final result?!!! YES, HE DID IT!! So what is the difference to achieve what you want by using the computer software?? The camera, lens, software etc are TOOLS of the Photographer...or more precise an Artist...to achieve the final product!!! Simple like this! Besides the camera does not see....it is limited in this field...what your eyes can and this is another point to use ....THE COMPUTER!! Obviously you ARE NOT AN ARTIST and for you a shot from the camera is all is there for you to ....'admire', aren't you??

These is a good technique that i use on mono portrait shots even if your not a professional photographer.

will these tips work on photos taken with galaxy s3 or ipad mini? cause that's all i have. no dslr cameras.

Yes, to a certain extent the tips in this article could be applied to images taken with your smartphones and tablets.  They are more limited in how they allow you to initially expose compared to a DSLR, but they do each have any of various image editing programs available to them which can help you tweek your images to get the desired effect. 

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," so goes the saying. Whether a photo has eye appeal or not is purely subjective. Case in point: Some prefer grain  in their shots, while others do all they can to eliminate it.

To my eye, these shots are beautiful -- for the most part. Thank you so much for sharing them and your tips.

Black and white photography is, indeed, a classic. Its popularity may rise and fall with the times, but it will never completely go out of style.

I like this article. Why? It's modern, and it is explained in a way that many photographers should be able to relate to. Simple, and inviting you to try new things. 

Good job!

Hi My name is Matt, i am in year 12 and am undertaking media as one of my electives and have chosen to do black and white photography fro my S.A.T(Student Assesed Task) that contributes 37% towards our end of year ATAR.

My intentions are below, and exlpain what i would like to achieve and the 12 images I would like to present in my folio.

For my S.A.T folio I have chosen to do Digital SLR photography. I will be using a Canon EOS 1100D with a tripod for increased image clarity. Within this extensive medium I have chosen what I am passionate about which is black and white photography. I aim to produce 12 crystal clear objective images, with no specific genre. I chose this type of photography as I love how it takes the attention away from the visual building blocks of a generally composed photograph; the use of texture, and the appearances of tone, shape, form and lighting. I intend to imply my experimental knowledge throughout this process. My aim is to be creative as possible using the MF (manual focus) on both of my desired lenses, to manipulate the feel of only having a singular subject being in focus. I will also be using Photoshop alongside my editing techniques to extract and adjust the lighting, to make it look expressive as I desire. The technical equipment I would like to experiment with is Photoshop and mainly achieving the balanced light, with the simple equipment such as stands and tripods. I intend to be shooting in local parks and locations of daily living, public and private places such as Architecture in the city of Melbourne, city/local streets. My inspiration of my choices is Max Dupain. The effect I would like give off to my audience is to make them feel nostalgia so they have a sentimental feel towards the image/s, reminding them of their past and hold sentimental value, not having a lot of information going on making the audience feel at home with the simplicity of the images.

If you have any feed back, I will deffinetly take it on board and use it to my own benifet, thank you, look forward to hearing from you soon! :)

Kind regards Matt.

-- This are the best tips on creating netter B&W photographs using todays new cameras.
Most "tips" tell you things like; "use RAW. shot in color, use this and use that" - But few offer the reason why.

The biggest question in ones' mind on this type of photography is, "How can I imagine what I see in color will be a good B&W candidate?" What do I look for?, How can I predict  the outcome?... Only experience can answer that.

This article gives you the right answers. Including what you can do in post production where it can be limitless in terms of editing a photograph.

Thanks for the tips, and please keep writting, your thoughts are invaluable.

Moose, I have known of your work since the "Days of Film".  I fear that you have been subject to "digital creep", a gradual ratcheting up of available contrast and effect to Wagnerian proportions.  This is akin to Los Angeles Socialites' cosmetic surgery "touch ups" that leave them looking like distorted dolls.  The limitations of film, was a natural check valve on energetic and imaginative photographers like yourself. But it is clear now that the ease of adjustment in digital software has tipped the balance towards nearly incoherent showiness and contrast.  I urge you to take a lengthy look at the images you posted and compare them to the work of black and white photographers you love.  I think that this may restore the balance and subtlety that your monochrome images once had.