The aim of this guide to black and white fine art photography is to give you the tools to create compelling award-winning black and white photography
This guide to black and white fine art photography is a compilation of the most important principles of black and white photography, or the most important guidelines for creating monochrome photography, that I recently created for my photography students and I now gathered into a complete guide to share it with you. These principles are easy to understand and they will take your black and white fine art photography to a new level, either you work with black and white architecture, black and white landscapes, black and white portraits or still life. They belong to the general principles for creating good black and white photographs and do not depend on the subject matter you work with. They will give your black and white photography the extra element that will make it unforgettable for the viewer.
I will be updating this guide as I discover more and better ways of creating black and white fine art photography, so if you will consult it in the future you may find even more guidelines or ways to produce good black and white photography. We are all constantly learning, so do I, and this makes us better artists and helps us be as close as possible to perfection, which is one of the characteristics of fine art photography.
1/ Introduction to black and white fine art photography
Creating black and white photography is very different from creating color photography and one needs to be aware of the differences in order to be able to create good black and white photography, especially black and white fine art photography, where the input of the artist is much more important than the subject he is working with, the reality he is capturing and, by extension, the image the camera captures, which is only a basis for the final black and white photograph.
Study Resources – Books and Video Tutorial
If you own the book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, a good starting point is to read Chapter 11: “How to see in black and white” written by myself and Chapter 12: “Rule of Grays” by my co-author Joel Tjintjelaar. We go there beyond a simple guide to black and white fine art photography and explain in depth which are the principles of black and white photography and what to have in mind and use in creating your own photographs, so to produce compelling black and white images that are not only a recording of the scene in front of us, but can also produce emotion in the viewer’s heart. Creating in black and white is not only about producing good and correctly executed and processed black and white photographs, it is also about producing black and white photography with EMOTION, in other words, black and white fine art photography.
For a more in-depth analysis of black and white post-processing and of how to see the shapes and volumes you photograph, how to interpret and render them, also as an addition to the chapters above you can read Chapter 10: “Photography Drawing” that you can partly read also on my website, where I describe my black and white processing method and this will make you understand my why I process my images the way I do and what I practically do to make them look like this.
Another good resource for studying fine art black and white photography is my recently released video tutorial Long Exposure, Architecture, Fine Art Photography – Creating (en)Visionography that is accompanied by an eBook on black and white processing with my Photography Drawing method, tutorial that drives you through the process of creating fine art photography, (en)Visionography, and analyzes the ways you can practically express yourselves artistically from a practical point of view.
In addition to what you can study in the video tutorial and the two books, I will tell you a few more things about what to focus on when working in black and white and especially black and white fine art photography.
2/ Vision in black and white fine art photography
Vision – where it all begins.
In fine art photography, everything starts in your head. Not in the outside world, but inside you, in your mind and soul. Therefore, you need to have a “black and white mind” and a “black and white soul”, in the figurative sense of the word, of course – so you can create your vision in black and white.
What does this mean?
It means a lot of things, among which the ability to go to the essence of things, to recognize what is important in what you photograph and what needs to be emphasized, to recognize your subject, to recognize your internal idea in the external world, so you know what scene, subject, point of view, light conditions will be the best raw material you can use to recreate your vision in a black and white photograph.
You need to see in black and white and this doesn’t mean only seeing how the color scene in front of you will look in black and white, in terms of gray tones and contrasts, as it is many times suggested as a way of seeing and creating black and white photography but how the scene in front of you will recreate your vision, what to choose from that scene to capture and process so the idea in your mind, your story, can be faithfully and clearly conveyed to the viewer.
To find out more about what I mean when I talk about vision in black and white photography you can read Chapter 6 – “The Guide to Vision” from my book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, that you can consult in a more concise version also on my website.
3/ EMOTION as the first artistic tool in black and white fine art
When working in black and white you have to be curious to unveil the hidden part of the world, the one that exists beyond color and beyond objective reality, you need to be bold enough to work with a very fragile material: your emotions and the emotions of the viewer.
Black and white fine art photography is not about rules and stiff techniques, it is not about gear or perfect conditions. Black and white fine art photography is about provoking emotion, about making the viewer’s soul vibrate at the view of the masterfully handled gray tones in your image, it is about recreating the world by using symbols and these symbols are the 256 shades of gray in your black and white photographs.
By reducing a color image that has millions of hues of color into a black and white image with only 256 shades of gray, you aim to reduce the world to its essence, to its primordial force, to what overpowers everything and makes the world go around: EMOTION, as the material manifestation of LOVE.
4/ Light in black and white photography
“Let there be light…”
I’m sure everyone knows this quote from the Bible. For me, this quote says it in the clearest way, regardless of what each one of us believes spiritually, how important light is.
First, there was light, and then anything else.
First, there was light, and then photography.
What we essentially do in black and white photography is to work with light and shadow and my Photography Drawing processing method (PhtD) is based on how to use light and shadow to render a scene, how to “draw a photograph” in order to create the image we envisioned and induce emotion in the viewer.
Keep in mind that the first thing we are interested in black and white photography is light. Not color, contrast or anything else.
The light and its gradations, that we capture and then emphasize or even recreate in our images through post-processing. Light is what reveals the world to us, it is the very prerequisite of seeing and it is what makes photography possible. Light is everywhere and this is why most of the times we don’t even think about it. We only notice it when it is different, more beautiful or special, more extreme or dramatic than normal. But when working in black and white we should always be careful and observe the light we have in front of us, regardless if it is a special light or plain common light. We have to observe it, read it, interpret it, and then strive to use its full potential to create the image.
Light is the pencil that will draw the photograph we have in our mind, both the light we see in front of us and the light we create through post-processing.
5/ Light and shadow and their importance when working in black and white
The opposite of light is shadow.
Shadow cannot exist without light, it is its counterpart, its completion and opposite. Light and shadow are like yin and yang and they should always be seen, analyzed and interpreted together, both when capturing a black and white photograph, as well as when post- processing a black and white photograph. They are both very powerful tools in our hands as photographers and as (en)Visionographers, that not only capture this light and shadow, but also re-interpret it so to be able to give birth to something more than just photography, to (en)Visionography and the manifestation of our vision through the image we create.
Light and shadow are our most powerful allies in creating black and white fine art photography, because they are the basis of photography in general, they are what allows us to see in the first place, they are the first thing we see when we come to this world so we are the most sensitive to them and able to react to the emotion they can create. By using them wisely we can recreate any emotion, in any intensity.
6/ The gradations of light
When taking photographs with the intention to work on them in black and white, try to look at the world around you in different way and start to observe the variations of light on a surface, the way it transforms from light to shadow, from bright to dark, by transiting all the shades of gray in-between. Observe all the gradations it creates and how smooth or harsh this transition is, depending on the intensity of the light falling on that surface: the gradation in the gray tones is steeper in the case the light is harsher, creating higher contrast, and smoother in the case the light is softer, creating lower contrast.
The gradations of light are what will create depth in the image and make it look three-dimensional.
They exist around us in the scene we photograph, but they are much more important to use and create when processing the image, because they are what will make our image believable and help the viewer see a three-dimensional scene in the photograph.
7/ Creating Contrast in black and white photography
Try to put an area of black next to an area of white and you will see how powerful contrast is. It will attract the eye immediately and make you look instantly at the area where the two tones meet. It will magnetize your eyes and keep you “prisoner”, looking at how these extremes of light interact with each other, till you will find enough power to move your eyes from the point where they meet. And even if you remove the eye from there, you will still feel dizzy before you adapt to normal tones and intensities.
Now think about it, and tell me if this is not one of the most powerful tools you can use to attract the viewer into your photograph so you can keep him there and tell him your story. It almost looks like a trick, like manipulation; this is how powerful contrast is in a black and white photograph. And, just like any other powerful too, it should be used with measure and smartness. We don’t want to overwhelm the viewer, to shock him, we want to seduce him and invite him to know more about our image.
If you replace the white with bright tones, and the back with dark tones, you will soften the impression making it less aggressive, but you will keep the power the contrast has.
Using contrast wisely, placing it in the right amount in the right places is something all famous black and white photographers have understood and used in their work and this is one of the reasons their work is so striking.
There are many photographers whose work I could bring as an example to how to use contrast, but I can’t help but think of Miles’ Davis black and white portraits and hands still life photos by Irving Penn when I think of a genius use of contrast. You have to see these photos in large to fully understand their power, but you can get an idea from the images I’m showing here too.
Another very good example of great use of contrast to create powerful and atmospheric images is the Hollywood glamour portrait work of George Hurrell . Have a look at his work in the link and you will understand why you like so much the old black and white movies where you can see this type of contrast too.
These are just a few examples of great use of contrast but better search for more and you will see you will be fascinated by what contrast can do to a black and white photograph.
8/ Covering the entire tonal range between black and white
Now that we saw how powerful the contrast is to draw the attention, let’s go even further in our mission of seducing the viewer and see what comes next, after we created the right contrast and we have the viewer’s attention. Next, you should fill the gaps between black and white and this is one of the most important principles of black and white photography.
Your goal when processing an image in black and white is to cover the full tonal range between black and white, by showing in the image all the gray tones in-between: the mid-grays, as they are called.
You need to create images that have the right amount of contrast, but also cover the entire tonal range. Contrast is used so we draw the attention to the image and to the main subject, but the mid-grays are the ones that will keep the eye of the viewer in the image and make him want to explore the image more. So, you understand how important they are. No need to have the same amount of each gray tone, but you need to have them all in your image.
9/ The relation between contrast and mid-grays in black and white photography
This topic couldn’t be missing from a complete guide to black and white fine art photography and any serious black and white photographer should have it in mind when creating. Let me tell you here a bit more about the mid-grays and their relation to contrast, since I’ve seen that many photographers have a difficulty in finding a balance between these two, and this is why I insist on this when I work with my workshop and mentoring students. Something I’ve seen a lot, being used as a tool to make the image pop, is the tendency to boost the contrast more than it is necessary. The problem when you do this is that the result will be only an image that pops, not an image that keeps you there exploring its secrets. Very dark tones, as well as very bright ones attract the eye because they are strong, and this is why you need to have them and also some touches of pure white and pure black, because they are the ones that draw your attention, but it is the mid-gray tones that will tell the story and that, for me, will make a black and white photograph make you say wow. They are the element that will give you the dreamy look in a black and white fine art photograph and make you want to know more. I find the mid-grays, especially the dark mid-grays something that is on one hand very difficult to control well, and on the other hand something that can be extremely emotional and powerful and will play an important role in how you will feel about an image.
The contrast attracts you into the image, but the mid-grays will seduce and keep you there fascinated, exploring the story. If you see it like this you will know where you need to use contrasts and where to use mid-grays.
Because I believe that you can understand best if you see it, here are some examples of great imaged using mid-grays and dark mid-grays that I collected on Pinterest, so you see what I mean. Look at the beauty of these tones, they are almost touching you physically. I’m sharing with you 2 of my Pinterest galleries with the best work by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, 2 masters of the mid-grays.
Also you can see in my image Ode to Black | Black Hope V – Persona Black above what I mean, that you also need gray tones even if you work with very contrasty and dark images, as the series Ode to Black was (a series from 2012-2013 where I tried to go as far with removing light till I touch the limits where photography is not possible anymore). Even if the gray tones in between are in a very small amount, as in a low key or a high key image, you still need to have them all in your image so to make the image believable and realistic from the point of view of the light you create in it, and not a graphical representation as it could seem if you only used high contrast but not enough fill with gray tones. .
10/ How to shoot black and white photography so to cover the full tonal range
When you shoot with the intention of creating black and white photograph. try to shoot images that will cover the full range of gray tones even from before converting them to B&W, meaning they will cover many intensities of light. The best moment to capture an image that will cover a large tonal distribution is when you don’t have too many contrasts in the scene you are shooting, meaning on a rather cloudy day, or semi-cloudy, when the sun is filtrated through the clouds, as bright sunlight can make your image seem too contrasty and lose the softness and delicacy the mid-gray tones bring.
11/ How to edit black and white photography so to cover the full tonal range
In the phase of post-processing please keep in mind that a very important thing is to use the light you have in your advantage, either by using it as you capture it, or by changing it to suit your goals. The way you change the light in the image is by using smartly the gradations between black and white – the gray tones.
You have to always think where to use a certain gray tone and why. Why use that specific tone and not another, why you need that specific intensity, what you want to achieve with placing it there and not somewhere else.
Remember that white (bright tones) reveal – they help the eye concentrate on the area where they are used, drawing the attention to them, and black (dark tones) conceals – they make the areas where they are used on seem less visible, thus less important in the hierarchy of the image. Use them both wisely so you can drive the eye of the viewer towards the parts of the image you consider more important and subdue the areas you don’t need in your story or that are disturbing for your image (too cluttered, too intense, not related to the subject etc.)
You can watch below a video tutorial I created about black and white fine art post-processing with Photography Drawing and generally about how to create a black and white fine art photograph – everything about the vision, composition and post-processing part of creating in black and white.
12/ How to use your software to create black and white photography
The more control you have over your image when working in black and white, the better. This means you will rely on your software to create your images even more than you will rely on your camera to capture them. You have to be aware of the power of this tool: your editing software. Do not be afraid to use it at its full potential. Controlling the way you process an image is what will help you create fine art photography, in opposition to traditional photography (documentary etc.). The more control you have over the image, the better. The more control you have over the play with light an shadow, the balance between them, and over creating the right intensities of light as well as of shadow, so you sustain and emphasize your composition, so you reveal your subject through enhancing the light on it, the closer you will be to recreating your vision about the subject you chose in the black and white image you produce, the closer you will be to tell your story and to move the viewer.
Use your software not only to convert an image to black and white but to create a black and white photograph.
The image you start with may have nothing to do with the image you deliver as a final image. The difference between them has to do with your vision and with using the editing software to recreate your vision in the photograph you made.
13/ What software to use in black and white fine art photography
The program that will give you the most control over your images is Photoshop. This is the king in fine art photography because it is such a rich software that will allow you to edit in depth your image. If you combine Photoshop with Lightroom and a few pieces of software that can be used as plugins inside Photoshop or Lightroom, you will have even more control over your images.
The plugins I use and recommend for working in black and white photography are: Topaz B&W Effects (black and white conversion), Topaz Detail (sharpening, enhancing details), Topaz DeNoise (denoising), Topaz ReMask (creating selections and masks), DxO ViewPoint (perspective control) DxO FilmPack (black and white conversion), DxO OpticsPro (sharpening, denoising, detail and clarity enhancing, RAW file enhancing). DxO OpticsPro can be used as a stand-alone application or as a plugin in Lightroom. Sometimes I also use NIK Silver Efex Pro (black and white conversion) but less frequently and especially for its Control Points feature. However Google NIK hasn’t updated this software for a long time and this is why it is slowly becoming obsolete.
14/ My typical black and white fine art processing workflow – The method of Photography Drawing™ (PhtD)
1/ Start my processing in Lightroom and DxO OpticsPro to make the first enhancements and corrections (exposure, general contrast, clarity, clean dust spots etc.)
2/ Export the image as PSD 16bit file to Photoshop and continue to make the rest of the enhancements in the color image, plus crop it.
3/ Correct the perspective by using DxO ViewPoint, especially when working on architectural photographs.
4/ Denoise and sharpen the color photograph by using Topaz DeNoise and Topaz Detail .
5/ Create my main selections by using selection tools in Photoshop combined with Topaz ReMask for more complex selections. In the case I need to create complex selections or when working in landscape images, I also use Luminosity Masks, Channel based selections, Color hue based selections etc.
6/ Convert the color image to black and white using most of the times Topaz BW Effects, or DxO FilmPack depending on the look I’m after.
7/ Work on sculpting the light by using my processing method Photography Drawing (see From Basics to Fine Art book for details). In this phase I work mainly in Photoshop by using layers (simple layers or adjustment layers), blending modes, gradients, dodge and burn. The way I work on my images is by using selections to apply the effects I want to create in the image and this is something you can only do in Photoshop, or manly in Photoshop, even if other programs like Lightroom or, in a large measure Topaz BW Effects can do also, but the subtlety of light that I’m after can only be achieved if I use Photoshop as a final processing tool to get to the end result: my black and white fine art photograph.
8/ Use the plugins I mentioned above in Photoshop or as stand-alone applications, as helping tools in different phases of my post-processing, when the effects I can create with them are easier to obtain than by using Photoshop.
15/ The Conclusion of the guide to black and white fine art photography
Try to keep in mind all these principles and practical aspects of shooting and processing black and white photography and apply them in creating your own images, not only when working with certain subjects but generally in your black and white fine art photography work.
It may be difficult in the beginning to see the world through a black and white prism and to process your photographs in a specific monochrome way but in time and if you insist enough on mastering the techniques for black and white photography, it will become a second nature and it will help you express your vision in black and white in a much more accurate and impressive way so you can move the viewer the same way you were moved when you created your images.
Remember that the goal of black and white photography is to create and transmit emotion and to help the viewer feel the same excitement you felt when creating your art.