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Black and white photography tips

Black & White photography

Black and white photography is enjoying a revival, although it has never really gone away. Why does it continue to be so popular?

There is a certain nostalgia about black and white; not just memories of old photographs but early television too. In fact black and white is very effective at emphasizing the shapes and tones of the subject. Black and white can produce a strong image from a subject that might look weaker in colour.

To help your understanding of black and white photography this tutorial will look at the following areas:

  • Winter landscapes
  • Portraits
  • Urban landscapes
  • Night photography
  • Using filters
  • Seeing’ in black and white
  • Shooting JPEG and RAW files

Winter landscapes

Winter landscapes are well suited to black and white photography. At this time of year there is often very little colour in a scene – no vibrant greens and few red or yellow flowers. A snow-covered landscape is already mostly monochrome. You can concentrate on the shapes of leafless trees, stone walls and buildings. Composition and contrast become key elements of the image

The rule-of-thirds is especially useful in black and white photography, with little colour to distract the eye. Imagine a grid drawn in the camera viewfinder – two vertical lines and two horizontal lines giving four intersections. Aim to place your main subject at one of these intersections. This produces a strong composition.

Another compositional aid is the receding perspective. You can see this if you take a photograph looking down a road or along railway tracks. The lines of the road or track appear to converge, even though we know they are parallel. The eye is attracted to the lines and drawn into the image.

When to use black and white

Certain situations lend themselves to black and white images. Below are examples you should consider.


Black and white photography works very well with portraits. In part, this might be because many iconic portraits from the last hundred years are monochrome and we are familiar with the style. But it is also because when the colour is stripped away it leaves us with character and personality. Adding side lighting is particularly effective as it gives strong contrast between highlights and shadows.

Urban landscapes

Architectural photographs are often shot in monochrome to emphasise the shape of the buildings. The increased contrast possible with black and white over colour suits the subject well. These photographs are often taken in the early morning, partly to avoid the distractions of traffic and people, but also to take advantage of light from a sun low in the sky. This light throws long shadows and can produce attractive texture when it falls across rough stone or concrete. These images can also often benefit from the simplicity and stark nature of black and white.

Night photography

Photography at night is worth trying in both black and white as well as colour. Often the yellow glow of street lights brings a scene alive. Alternatively, the texture and patterns in a scene are shown to better effect in monochrome.

The importance of colour

In black and white film photography, filters are often used to change the tones in the image. Yellow and red filters, for example, absorb blue light, making blue skies appear darker in the image.

Using filters

This not only makes the scene more dramatic, but also increases the contrast between any white clouds and the sky. All EOS cameras and a number of PowerShots, such as the PowerShot G1 X III can accept filters. Alternatively a filter effect is available in the Picture Style settings on Canon EOS digital cameras. You can select yellow, red, orange or green to change the monochrome tones to simulate the effect of filters. Check your camera instruction manual for details.

‘Seeing’ in black and white

You don’t need to shoot in black and white; you can take colour photos and then copy and convert the image to black and white after the file has been transferred to your computer. But do bear in mind that a scene that looks good in colour might not work in black and white – and vice versa.

For example, red flowers stand out against a green background when shot in colour. But shoot the same subject in monochrome and you may find that the red and the green both convert to similar shades of grey.

Practice will help to ‘see’ in monochrome, but you can speed up your learning. Generally you will find that black and white images will require more contrast for the same subject in colour. Shoot the same subject twice, first in colour and then in black and white. Both images can be compared on your camera’s LCD screen.

Shooting JPEG and RAW files

Images can be saved in a variety of formats. Choosing the right one depends on what you want to do with them.

Shooting in raw is recommended for night photography as it allows for more adjustment of the image when using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software than is possible with JPEG quality files. It also allows you to leave the Long Exposure Noise Reduction switched off and to apply noise reduction in DPP.

The camera will now remove much of the noise as it writes the image to the memory card. However, this takes the camera as long to do as the actual exposure, so a two minute exposure will take another two minutes before displaying your image on the review screen. You will not be able to take another shot during this time.


Now you understand the techniques, you need to select your lighting and subjects.

The short period of twilight, just after the sun has set, can be very effective. The sky around the horizon is still illuminated, even though the sun is no longer visible. When the sun is low in the sky it gives a much warmer light than the overhead sun, which is why you often see wonderful colours at twilight. Similar effects are also visible at daybreak, so if your subject is not in the right position to take advantage of twilight, try getting up early and see if shooting with the sun on the opposite side is better.

In towns, lights will often become the subject. Experiment with photographing neon signs, illuminations and floodlit buildings. Shoot at different exposures to see all the possible results. Shooting immediately after a rainstorm doubles the interest as the lights are reflected from wet streets and in puddles.

Fireworks also provide a great subject. The standard procedure is to set a long shutter speed to capture the trails and bursts. Set the camera to manual (M) mode and pick an aperture between f/8 and f/16 and a shutter speed between 5 and 10 seconds. The shutter speed will largely be dependent on the frequency with which the fireworks are exploding.

Although it's possible that your camera will be able to autofocus, it might struggle in the darkness, so it's best to set the lens to manual (MF) and focus on something the same distance away as the fireworks.

All Canon digital cameras can produce JPEG files. These are processed within the camera, discarding any unwanted image data. You can open a JPEG file in the software supplied with your Canon camera and make modifications. Such as converting a colour file to black and white. But you are not working with all the data and this limits the range of changes you can make.

If you enjoy working on images after they have been downloaded to your computer it is better to shoot RAW files. All EOS and some PowerShot cameras can create RAW images. These retain all the data captured by the camera which gives a wider range of options to adjust your photo. You could apply a red, yellow or green filter effect to increase contrast or even add a sepia, blue or purple tint.