Black and White Photography with a DSLR

Posted by Gary Ramey on April 8th, 2012

Why Shoot in Black and White?

The answer is simple; black and white is timeless. Black and white images transcend the here and now to stand on their own. It is easier to see the art in a black and white image because the image is removed from reality. Rather than mentally comparing the photographic image to the actually subject as perceived by the eye, the viewer is forced to examine the image as something separate from reality — something that has a life of its own.

Using a DSLR to Take Black and White Photos

Even though you can use Adobe Photoshop to convert a color photograph into a black and white photograph, the best results are obtained by taking the photograph in black and white. There are those that would contend that Photoshop is better but I prefer being able to get instant feedback via my LCD while taking the photo. Being able to evaluate a shot immediately after taking it is one of the main advantages of using a digital camera. I don’t have to imagine what the image would look like in B/W — I get to actually see it. I prefer to not lose that ability. Besides, if you save your images in camera raw and JPEG, you get the best of both worlds. The camera raw file will be in color and can be processed later. I prefer to have the most opportunities to make creative decisions. For me, creativity occurs before, during, and after the shoot.

Thinking in Black and White

When shooting in black and white, you need to be more conscious of shadows, contrast, and the range of values. Also think about whether your shot would be better if it was high-key or low-key. Shifting the value range one way or the other can sometimes make the difference between an average photograph and an amazing photograph. Remember, the viewer will be more aware of these elements. Don’t forget about composition while you are concentrating on shadows, contrast, and value! The underlying structure of a photograph is also more apparent when shot in black and white.

Settings for Black and White

All you have to do is to select Monochrome in your camera’s menu. Look under Picture Control for Nikon cameras or Picture Style for Canon cameras. When I’m shooting in black and white, I always shoot camera raw plus JPEG. The JPEG file is in black and white but the camera raw file is in color. If I need to make any adjustments using software, I can use the camera raw file. There have also been a few times that I ended up preferring the color version.

Virtual Filters

Shooting in Monochrome (B/W) will give you the opportunity to use some of the virtual filters that are probably lurking somewhere in your DSLR. In the old days, we had to carry around red, orange, yellow, and green filters when shooting black and white. With a digital SLR, the filters are virtual and produce the same effects as show in the following chart:

Camera Settings for Monochrome Filter Effects
None Normal black-and-white image with no filter effect.
Yellow Blue sky will look more natural and white clouds will look crisper.
Orange Blue sky will look slightly darker. Sunsets will look more brilliant.
Red Blue sky will look quite dark. Fall leaves will look crisper and brighter.
Green Skin tones and lips look fine. Tree leaves will look crisper and brighter.

Use the most appropriate filter for your subject. For instance, if you are taking a portrait and your subject is wearing dark red lipstick, the person’s lips will look black in the black and white photo. Unless you are going for a Goth look, you should use a Red or Orange filter when taking the shot.

To read about an excellent plugin for Photoshop that does an amazing job of converting color photos to monochrome, read my review of Silver Efex Pro 2.

So, now that you know how to take black and white photos with your DSLR, taking impressive black and white photographs is only a few settings away.

If you found this post instructive, please comment and share it with your friends.


8 Comments so far ↓

  1. Sherman says:

    I’m looking at getting a new camera sometime in the coming year and I love to black and white photos so I am glad that I ran across this blog. You have taught me some things that will come in handy when I do finally get my camera like where to find the Picture Control (I’m pretty sure I will be getting a Nikon). Thank you so much for this information I really appreciate it.

  2. Jerry says:

    I signed up to take a photography class this summer at our church and I’m sure that I will learn some of this there but I always figure it is best to know as much as you possibly can before you get into the class so that you can follow along better with what the teacher is saying. You did a great job on this blog and I look forward to anymore you might post.

  3. Kenneth says:

    I have learned so much from your article that I can take away and put to use right away. I love black and white photos especially of landscapes and things, people are another story because sometimes it makes the features look a little off but for the most part I like it. Black and white photos to me add flare and class to any photo. You have a great blog here thank you.

  4. Tracey says:

    Does it take a special camera to take black and white photos digitally I mean? I’m looking at getting a new camera sometime in the coming year and I want to make sure to get the right thing. I remember when you had to buy black and white film in order to take black and white photos, we’ve come along way with digital. Thank you for all the help.

    • Gary Ramey says:

      Most digital cameras refer to black and white as Monochrome so look for that setting. If you get a DSLR then you will definately find that it has a Monochrome setting. If you get a compact camera, look under the Scene settings.

  5. James says:

    I’m looking at getting a new camera sometime in the coming year and you have taught me some things that will come in handy when I do finally get my camera like where to find the Picture Control (I’m pretty sure I will be getting a Nikon). Black and White photos are so classy and look so pretty on the wall. I am taking a photography class and hope that it helps as well.

  6. Cortney says:

    I have so much to learn about photography and all the parts of the camera. I am taking a class in school that I hope will help me understand this all better because I would really like to get a job in the photography field when I graduate. Thank you for the detail that you have put into your blog it helps a great deal. Which do you think is better Nikon or Cannon?

    • Gary Ramey says:

      You can’t go wrong with either Canon or Nikon but I prefer Canon. I have been using Canon cameras since the film days and continued to buy Canon brand cameras when I made the jump to digital. One bonus for Canon DSLR cameras is that they come with quite a few programs. One of these programs allows you to tether the camera to your computer and capture photos directly to a folder on your hard drive. This is especially handy in a studio setting. Nikon has the same kind of software but you have to purchase it separately for about $145.

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