Black and white is a look universally-loved by photographers. Here's how to make the most of your black and white conversions with our top tips and simple editing tools

Intermediate

Any image can be desaturated, but the best black and white photos are those that seem designed for the aesthetic, and there has to be a reason for removing the colour. It needs to be more than just an effect you apply to your images in post-production.

It’s not always clear which images will work best in monochrome (black and white), but there are certain things you can look out for, and we'll explore some of the key aspects here:

1 The black and white aesthetic


Some subjects and scenes lend themselves to a monochrome treatment more than others, like bold shapes, strong textures, or eye-catching patterns.

Of course, black and white photography also harks back to a time before colour, so it evokes a link to the past and gives images a timeless feel. This fits especially well with certain genres like documentary, reportage, portraiture and fine art photography.

Patterns and texture created by octopus tentacles
Patterns and textures like the tentacles here can benefit from a bold monochrome treatment. Image from Federico A. Cutuli

2 Seek out contrast


Reducing a scene to shades of grey emphasises the play of light and the differences in contrast between the subject and its surroundings.

Without the colour, the viewer relies more on these differences in contrast to interpret the photo. We can use this to our advantage when searching for good subjects and scenes for our monochrome photography. Little pockets of light, or bold silhouettes, or strong bright shapes against a dim backdrop all work well in monochrome because they make the most of bold changes in contrast.

At a basic level, think about how to frame your subject so that they stand in contrast with their surroundings. Start to think of composition in a contrast-centric way and you’ll find scenes like this can be found almost everywhere.

Night shoot at RAF East Kirkby
The silhouetted figures stand out by contrasting with the bright mist beyond, creating strong, graphic shapes. Image by Mark Cullen

3 Find the form


In photography, form relates to the play of light and shade across the subject, how the shadows and highlights give depth to your subject by accentuating the rise and fall, the ridges and the furrows.

Without colour, more emphasis falls on the form of the subject. The direction of the light is key. Side or backlighting can enhance the form, while frontal light might destroy the play of light and leave scenes looking flat.

Black and white photo of the Empire State Building, New York City
Directional light is perfect for enhancing form. The low sunlight coming from behind left plunges the front of the buildings into deep shape, resulting a scene with depth and simplicity. Image from Dan Martland

4 Use exposure compensation


Our choice of exposure settings can lead to bold and beautiful black and white photography. When an image consists of shades of grey, it’s vital that those greys come out the way we intended.

For example, in a high-contrast scene you’ll get completely different results if you expose for the highlights or shadows. You can pick one or the other by dialling in exposure compensation for a lighter or darker scene.

Humpback whale under the water
Exposing for the highlights here plunges most of the scene into darkness, revealing the beauty in the shape of the whale. Image from Joaquin Fregoni

5 Use black and white for portraiture


It’s worth thinking about how the absence of colour might be of benefit to other aspects of the photo. Black and white portraits are a classic example. Removing the colour can allow you to emphasise other things, like the expression and character of the subject.

Portrait of a smiling woman in Sa Pa, Vietnam.
Black and white portraits have a timeless quality, and the lack of colour draws attention to the expression. Image from Sarah Hardy

6 The best way to convert to mono


There are many ways to convert your image to monochrome, and the only ‘right’ way is the one that gives you the result you’re after.

If you want to take control of your conversion, the black and white tools in Lightroom and Photoshop are ideal. In Lightroom the B&W panel offers eight colour sliders. These let you fine-tune the brightness of individual colour ranges, so you get to decide how bright the blues in a sky, the greens in foliage or any other element should be in your conversion. You can either use the sliders to control colours (as seen in the screenshot below), or grab the target tool and drag up or down over parts of the image to change the brightness of the colours in that part of the frame.

Screenshot of the B&W panel in Lightroom’s Develop Module
The B&W panel (middle right) in Lightroom’s Develop Module is ideal for controlling your monochrome conversion

7 Fix the flatness


Converting images to black and white can sometimes leave them looking slightly flat. It’s almost always a good idea to boost contrast, especially as monochrome images can often withstand more extreme contrast boosts than their colour counterparts.

As well as boosting contrast globally, you might also want to make local contrast changes by dodging and burning different parts of the scene to selectively lighten or darken them. Again, monochrome images will hold up to heavier dodging and burning than those in colour.

Screenshot of dodging and burning with Lightroom's Adjustment Brush
Dodging and burning eyes can take your black and white portraits to the next level - simply darken the edges of the iris and the pupil, and lighten the whites of the eye and the middle part of the iris. We’ve used Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush (bottom right panel) here

8 Use Lightroom presets


Lightroom offers an array of useful black and white presets that give you different monochrome looks with a single click.

Of course, you can also save any conversion settings of your own as a new preset to use on other images. What’s more, go online and you’ll find thousands of monochrome presets - some free, some paid - to download and try out on your photos. Sites like presetsheaven.com and presetlove.com are good places to start.

Screenshot of Lightroom's Infrared rpreset
Lightroom’s B&W Infrared preset (on the panel to the left) replicates the look of infrared film and blows out the greens in foliage

Mimic old film


Why not try and give your black and white images the look of a classic film stock? You can do this by adding grain in Lightroom to replicate the look of a high ISO film stock.

You can also download lots of ready-made presets that have been designed to mimic the look of certain stocks, right down to the grain size and toning. DxO FilmPack is an excellent resource of painstakingly faithful stocks, and you can find many excellent free filmic Lightroom presets online (try on1.com).

Sceenshot of the grain sliders in Adobe Lightroom
The Grain sliders in Lightroom (bottom right panel) let you give your black and whites an old-school filmic look

10 Add a vignette


There are certain edits that go hand in hand with black and white images, and one such trick is a heavy vignette.

A vignette simply darkens the corners of the frame. When we look at an image our eyes are drawn to the lighter areas first and away form the darker areas, so by darkening the corners we can draw the viewer’s eyes in towards the more important parts of the image.

Adding vignettes is easy in Lightroom -either use the Post-crop vignette tool or drag a circular edit with the Radial Filter and dial in negative exposure.

Screenshot showing the vignette tool in Lightroom
A post-crop vignette darkens the edges of the frame, balancing out the tones and drawing the eye into the image

11 The power of the S-curve


One of the best tools for punchy black and whites is the Tone Curve in Lightroom (or similar curves tools in other editors).

The Curve line represents the tones in the image from black on the left side to white on the right. By dragging the line up or down we can lighten or darken specific parts of the tonal range. Even better, we can add two or more points to change the contrast.

A classic curves edit is the S-curve. We drag one point upwards near the top of the line to lift the highlight range, and a second point downwards near the bottom to darken the shadow range, thereby boosting contrast. The steeper the S-shape, the greater the change in contrast.

Screenshot showing the tone curve in Lightroom
An S-shaped curve (as seen in the panel to the right in Lightroom) lifts the highlights and darkens the shadows. It’s one of the most intuitive ways to control contrast in your monochrome images

All images by James Paterson unless otherwise stated.