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Back to the Pure Black & White

Although color photography occupies the mainstream, black and white photography remains a strong division and is the preferred type of photography by photographers working in the art and creative industries. This is not difficult to make sense of – as photos getting rid of colors leaving only light and shadow are more pure and can showcase stronger contrast and lines to better depict the theme, which is what we need in art and creation. Not everyone has the talent to be an artist, of course, but we can learn to enhance the mood of a photo through black and white photography. Let’s take a look at the basic technique of black of white photography.

Shooting Tips

Capture both RAW + JPEG

The easiest way to take a black and white photo is by setting the camera to monochrome mode. For beginners who want to play safe, we can select the RAW + JPEG recording format to retain the color information with the RAW files for easy reference of the photos in color whenever needed. Besides, the RAW format provides more freedom in post-editing. It is easier to adjust the exposure level and make lines appear stronger, as well as adjust the saturation of a specific hue, for example lowering the saturation of the blue sky and green lawn to make the subject stand out.

Increase the Contrast with Polarizing Filter

Although it is quite subjective as to whether a black and white photo is good, one common view is that the photo should have great contrast in order to outstand the subject. That’s why most black and white photographers would use a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter can reduce the reflections from glass or water surface to enhance the subject’s contrast, and result in a bluer sky when taking pictures of the sky and clouds. This means an increase in overall contrast in black and white photography, thus an effective way to outstand the subject.

Take Black and White Photos in HDR

HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode* is also useful when it comes to black and white shooting. Technically, the HDR mode decreases the exposure in the highlights to retain details while increasing the exposure in the shadows to capture more details, resulting in a HDR image that contains rich data. The colors of a HDR image may look unnatural to some people, but it works perfectly well in black and white photography. As there is no color, a black and white HDR photo appears visually natural. One thing to bear in mind is that a HDR photo is more grainy. It works fine for portraits but may not be suitable for subjects with strong lines.

*Currently cameras with built-in HDR mode include: EOS 5D Mark III, 6D, 7D Mark II, 70D

Composition Technique

Camera Settings for Black and White Portraits

It is not easy to take black and white portraits, especially in the Chinese society where a black and white photo may look like a photo for the funeral if not handling well. There are several things that require our attention when it comes to black and white portraits. For camera settings, we should decrease the exposure level by 1/3 to 1 stop and use the highest possible contrast and sharpness levels for more exaggerated facial details.

Although there is no specific requirement for composition, a close-up shot of the face or half-length portraits are preferred as contrast plays a significant role in black and white photography. For full-length shots, we should choose a background that can complement the subject well. A general rule for portrait shooting is to capture the expressions and interaction between the subject and photographer. There is no exception in black and white portraits. Static interaction such as a look in the eyes or a thoughtful expression goes well with the black and white treatment.
By increasing the contrast and sharpness levels to outstand the wrinkles of the old lady, this photo makes the viewers think about age and time.

Title:《等待》 Club Canon Member:ManTai
EOS 5D Mark III.EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM.1/25s.f/4.0.ISO 800

The Importance of Lines and Patterns

Unlike a color image that attracts the eyes with colors, a black and white photo uses lines and patterns as attraction. For example, the geometrical lines of a building, a symmetrical scene, an intersection where the straight and curved lines converge are all good subjects for black and white photography. Adjust to a higher contrast in post-editing to add more depth and mood to the photo.
The lines on the ceiling of the museum are both repetitive and radiative. Taken with a wide-angle lens, this photo is very strong in visual even without colors.

Title: 《British Museum.》 Club Canon Member: Teenylife
EOS 5D Mark III • TS-E 17mm f/4L • 1/80s • f/8.0 • ISO 160
If this photo were in color, the road lines in different colors would distract the tram rails. The originally conflicting colors now appear in harmonic black and white by changing the photo to monochrome. The pedestrian in the middle also adds a nice touch to the photo.

Title: 《三岔口》 Club Canon Member: Daniel Lo
EOS 5D Mark III • EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM • 1/250s • f/6.3 • ISO 200

Use of Shadows and Silhouettes

Apart from lines and patterns, contrasts created by light and shadows and silhouettes are also common techniques in black and white photography. For color photos, most people would prefer to shoot in the morning or evening when sunlight is soft. For black and white photos, we can shoot anytime in the day, even during the midday hours under a bright sun. Whenever there is light and shadows, we can take good black and white photos with distinctive lighting contrast without the downside of harsh sunlight.

One thing to bear in mind is that despite a higher contrast level as recommended for general black and white shooting, when shooting under a bright sun a contrast level too high will result in over-exposure in the highlights and under-exposure in the shadows, leading to lack of image details. Therefore, we should adjust to a lower contrast level for more apparent gradation. To do this, simply decrease the contrast parameter by 1 to 2 stops in the built-in “Picture Style” function.

When shooting in midday or when the sky is overcast, we can try black and white silhouette photos. A silhouette photo is very much like a black and white photo in nature, but the combined result will show even richer gradation, especially when shooting on a cloudy day. While a color photo can capture the gloomy weather faithfully, it is weaker in terms of visual impact than a photo taken in black and white.
This photo features a composition using light and shadows. Apart from a distinctive black and white contrast, it also creates an interesting effect with all shadows falling on the same plane.

Title: 《太極宗師》 Club Canon Member: Allen Yip
EOS 5D Mark III • EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM • 1/2500s • f/2.8 • ISO 100
While the silhouette itself is already a black and white treatment, by changing the photo to monochrome the surrounding colors are unified in black and white harmony, creating a greater contrast between the statue in the middle and the sky in the background. The all black areas in the periphery also play an important role in complementing the stately statue.

Title: 《氣勢》 Club Canon Member: Ken
EOS 5D Mark II • EF 17-40mm f/4L IS USM • 1/500s • f/6.3 • ISO 100
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