Reading the contrast for Black & White

All photography needs contrast – it’s one of the most important elements that shapes every photo’s composition. With colour photography, the colour itself can provide a lot of what we need to understand the shapes within the scene and make sense of the composition. However, that’s not the case with a black & white image. Do a basic black & white conversion and in many circumstances the resulting mono image will be flat and uninspiring.

With Photoshop, Lightroom, and numerous other raw processing software at our fingertips, it’s possible to tinker with the different colour channels and add tonal contrast within the shot. This is something I’ve covered in Foto-Buzz many times over the years – although I will touch on it again later in this article. However, the simple truth is, if you want to shoot really effective black & white with minimal processing required, then shoot on a day that has plenty of sun and the tonal contrast happens naturally when you convert.

Even then it’s not a case of just thinking any composition will do, you have to be able to mentally strip away the colour and imagine how the scene in front of you will look without colour. Of course, you can also do the old trick of switching your JPEG Picture Control/Style to Mono, so the preview you see in the LCD will be black & white and of course, if you are shooting with a mirrorless these days, the image will also be black & white in the viewfinder. I’m assuming here that you are shooting raw so the image captured will retain all its colour for later conversion.

Whether you choose to see a JPEG version in mono at the shooting time or want to trust your instincts is up to you. I no longer use the Picture Style method because I think I can recognise a scene that has the elements I want for mono conversion. Essentially, this is a range of colours that will separate neatly into contrasting tones. Not all colours contrast well as a tone, but with plenty of light, the tonal changes will be enhanced by the natural light and shade.

On last week’s newsletter I showed you a couple of black & white pictures I took on my local river. Here’s another from the session and I think this one perfectly illustrates what I am talking about. This is the colour version just as I shot it – no processing. Immediately it’s obvious this would work in mono thanks to the natural contrast created by the various tones running through the image from top to bottom.

In this annotated version you can see exactly what I mean. No tones touching each other are similar, so this results in a very structured black & white image. Of course, other important black & white elements are helping too – texture and pattern, for example.

And here’s the mono conversion. It’s a straight conversion without any additional processing to lighten or darken the tones. Without colour it’s easy to see how the placement of the contrasting tones really work for an excellent structure to the photo. I’ve added the border to hold the top together on the white web page.

Of course, on days that are less ideal for mono because they’re overcast and lack natural contrast, you can still shoot some great black & whites, you might just need to spend more time processing the shot than you did taking it. Here’s an example using some old groynes on the Norfolk coast. Although the morning had been sunny, at this point the sun was behind cloud and as you can see the basic untouched raw is quite flat. However, there is a good range of tones within the scene that with 10 minutes of processing can be enhanced and a good black & white photo carved out.

We don’t have that crisp contrast of a sunny day, but by lightening and darkening the natural tones within the image, we’ve been able to pull some better tonal contrast out of the scene to achieve an acceptable black & white like this.

And here are the basic areas worked on…

I’ll always take a sunny day over a flat light day for black & white because most of the work is done for you. You just need to think carefully about those tones and compose your image accordingly. You might need to tweak it back at the computer, but it should never need major heart surgery to make it shine.

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Very enlightening AJ, many thanks.

  2. A Timely reminder as I’m in Berlin this weekend and looking to process in B&W. And you never know but I might get a Speedy entry as welll😉

  3. Thank you. Very useful information.

    • Really useful summary. I try to think b&w but this article clarifies why certain things work and others don’t. Thank you!

  4. useful for Feb’s mission just need to remember it!

  5. As always, a useful reminder. Thanks AJ

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