Black and White photography’s dirty little secret



If you are into Black and White photography as a beginner, here's a little “secret” that you might find useful for your own.


Never shoot in Black and White


Crazy huh? If you want to shoot black and white, don't set your camera to output Black and White Jpgs. Use color JPGs or better yet, RAW. Depending on the camera, you can shoot even shoot RAW and yet still have your screen in Black and White. Why not? Well it's pretty simple….


Color gives you control

When you shoot in BW, you're pretty much stuck with whatever shade of Grey that you have. While if you shot in color first and then converted into BW, you could assign a different shade of grey for each color.




Let's take the color Blue for example. If I shot in BW I would be stuck with that grey tone. Yes, I could lighten the overall image or darken the overall image….but it would affect the WHOLE image! While if I shot in color, I could assign to blue a particular shade of grey, red a particular shade or grey, etc, etc.


First example


black-white-photography (2 of 3)


Here's a shot of a dude that looks like he's doing what I would love to do a lot……..sleeping. Anyway. Look at his shirt and his skin tone.




After editing in Lightroom, if I shot in BW Jpg, I would end up and be stuck with the image on the left. But since I shot in RAW, I could go ahead and assign the guy's blue shirt another shade of grey. Since I wanted contrast between the guy's shirt and himself, I made it lighter.


Controlling color in Lightroom

So….how to do it? In Lightroom, look for this panel:




Basically you can tell the colors where to fall. You can say, hey, red! I want you darker than you should be, and you, blue! I want you lighter than you should be:




Now, the cool thing is the weird looking cursor on the top left. Click on it, select the part you want to lighten or darken and click on it. Afterwards simply drag left or right to darken or lighten.


In a nutshell, color offers you semi-local adjustments for your Black and Whites! Why Semi? well because you can't really 100% isolate one part of the image. It's emulates a color filter (still the best option) that you put in front of the lens (to cut down a certain color like red, blue, etc). If you have a blue alien, in a blue shirt with a blue sky background, everything in the image will be affected because they are all blue. Still better than anything!


Example 2:

Let's look at the image below, there's 2 main colors: Blue and Green……




Now let's look at two conversions:




I darkened the blues and I whitened the greens. This shot shows the real power of this trick: Creating contrasts by enhancing the gulf between light and dark. Speaking of contrasts, that fence on the bottom is quite distracting, I'll darken it. Here's the final image:




Street Photography


Can this trick be used for Street Photography? Of course. The issue is that in the streets, there's usually a chaos of color, so the effects might not be as dramatic. Here's a color image:




Here's 4 different ways the image could be converted:




Your mileage may vary, depending on the image and the colors in it. At the end of the day, it's all about control, and shooting in color first allows you to have more control than simply shooting in BW. be yourself stay focused and keep on shooting.


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18 thoughts on “Black and White photography’s dirty little secret”

  1. I wish I had your insights last December when we (wife and I) visited Cuba and shot more B and W street images than color. Thanks. Your comments and examples will help me improve a lot! Steve

  2. I think it’s sad that all the beginner start with shooting digital. I’m 15 and I started with a Pentax Spotmatic. If you don’t, you don’t know what filters mean for black and white photography. Lightroom is a great tool, but I learned everything about photography from my film camera.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Paul, that’s what I was about to say. Digital photography is based on the same principles as film photography. It “only” increases the possibilities, makes them easier, more powerful and available for almost everybody.

    2. I knew I forgot something -> Saying it emulates filters. Nik’s got these as actual circles which pays homage to where this comes from.

      I’ll have to agree for the film part for beginners. Straight to digital already gives you the possibility to spray and pray for example, while with film you have to be conscious first in order not to waste your film.

      Afterwards go to digital where you have more perks….

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  5. Agree completely with all your observations, Olivier. I always shoot raw and process for color or B&W later in Lightroom, though I must admit that I don’t adjust the colors separately that much and usually I only do general adjustments. I will be more precise from now on and give these tools more use.
    The only problem that I find with this approach, however, is that I end up with 80% of my pictures processed as color and only a minority get converted into B&W!

    1. Easy: Shoot RAW (or RAW+JPG) with your camera set to BW. You get to see the BW version while shooting. When you import with Lightroom, import with a BW preset…..You never really get to see the color version 🙂

  6. You have to train your eye when using b/ white film , what looks good in colour will not necessarily make a good black and white image ,unless you gave the correct filters on your camera. I love both these days the discipline of film and digital.
    Really good information Olivier for beginners thanks.

  7. I find if you open in ACR using the sliders in HSL / grey scale set all the sliders in Saturation to -100 and then go to Luminance to adjust tone, you have control of all tonal differences.

  8. This is really fantastic. Thank you! I am considering to buy the G1X or MII and make BW photos. I understand that Lightroom offers all the tricks. No need for Photoshop?

    Your BW are fantastic. Especially the three girls on the street under the palm trees with sunlight. BW is often made with cloudy sky. I think the contrast in sunlight is stronger and even more exciting for BW. Sincerely, Charles (Holland)

  9. Randle P. McMurphy

    I a old and my balls have crinkles .
    The reason why I make black white pictures
    is because I am fed up with pictures who look like
    photoshop masterpieces or in other words
    visual manipulated advertising drawings.

    Digital workflow let us make things to change
    reality to fake.

    Dont get me wrong – that´s my business but for
    my personal work I try to get rid of that.

    Grab a old Nikon and a Tri-X and lets see how far
    we can get without tricks.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong but when the guys who make the Tri-X film design it to have a certain look, isn’t that is essence a “trick” to change reality to fake too?

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