Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes in Black and White Photography
Black and white photography has been around for nearly 180 years, ever since Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the world. It is still hugely popular despite the rise and ease of color photography. And yet, whenever I look at other people’s black and white photos, I see the same mistakes over and over. Are you making any of these? Let’s find out!
Mistake #1: Shooting in JPEG format
Ouch! This is a big one. It’s the single worse thing you could do.
The difference between RAW and JPEG
To understand why, you need to appreciate the difference between Raw files and JPEGs. Raw files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor. A Raw file is not a finished picture file. It has to be processed (using software like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw) and converted to a JPEG or TIFF file in order to be usable.
You can think of a Raw file as the equivalent of a negative (as in from film photography). You can’t send a Raw file to a photo library or a magazine any more than you could send a negative. You need to process the Raw file (or scan and process the negative) first.
JPEG files are created by the camera. It takes the information captured by the sensor, processes it (much like you would do with a Raw file in Lightroom, but according to the camera’s built-in parameters), compresses it, discards the unused information, and saves it as JPEG. They don’t necessarily need processing in software like Photoshop or Lightroom, although most can be improved by doing so.
Advantages of shooting RAW
Using the Raw format gives you the following advantages.
- Control: You process the file yourself, rather than letting the camera do it. You can process it to your taste from a stylistic point of view. Using Raw lets you interpret the file as many ways as you want. Using JPEG means the file gets interpreted one way only – the way the camera does it.
- More data: The Raw file contains much more information than a JPEG, especially in the highlights and shadows, that you can draw out when you process the file. The extra information helps prevent banding in areas of smooth continuous tone like clear skies.
Using Raw helps you get from the before image shown above to the processed version here. With Raw, you can increase contrast and make the sky darker without introducing banding in the sky or halos along the edges of buildings. You can’t do this with JPEG files.
More advantages of shooting RAW
- Adjust sharpness: JPEG files created by your camera are sharpened. The sharpening limits the amount you can change tonal values before introducing halos and artefacts. Yes, you can turn JPEG sharpening off in-camera – but how many people bother?
- RAW format keeps the color info: Raw files contain all the color information captured by the sensor, so you can create a color version of the photo in Lightroom, Photoshop, etc., as well.
Using Raw let me create both a color and black and white version of the same image in Lightroom, without any loss of image quality.
- Improvements: The software gets better every year. The version of Lightroom or Photoshop you use in five or 10 years time will be much better than the current one. With Raw, you can take advantage of these new improved tools and reprocess your images in the future.
So please, don’t use the JPEG format any more for black and white photography. There are, however, advantages to using your camera’s monochrome mode, as discussed in my article Mastering Monochrome Mode.
Mistake #2: Trying to save photos by making them black and white
Black and white is not a method for rescuing poorly crafted color photos. If your photo is bad in color, it will be bad in black and white too (although there are always photos that work better in black and white for compositional reasons).
There is nowhere to hide in black and white. In color, if the lighting or composition isn’t as good as it could be, the emotional impact of the colors in the photo may rescue the image (or, depending on how you look at it, cover up its shortcomings). Black and white images rely on factors like tonal contrast, textural detail, line and strong composition to work.
That’s why some photographers consider black and white to be a kind of higher art form than color photography.
The texture in this photo is essential to make it work in black and white.
Mistake #3: Not processing the photos properly
Before digital cameras and Lightroom came along, many pro photographers used a professional printer to print their images. Creating top quality black and white prints in the darkroom is hard, and it was often outsourced to professionals.
This was a beneficial arrangement that let photographers concentrate full-time on photography and left printing to the specialists. Perhaps the best known pro printer in the UK is Robin Bell, who has worked with big names such as David Bailey, Terry O’Neil, and Eve Arnold.
Nowadays it is much easier to create beautiful black and white images in programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Silver Efex Pro 2, than it is to master the chemical darkroom process. But, sadly, many photographers don’t get to grips with the basics. The result is that their black and white photos are not nearly as good as they could be.
Take the time to learn how to use your software properly and your photos will get better.
This before and after example shows the photo how it looked straight out of the camera compared to the final version, processed in Lightroom. Learn how to get from one to the other in order to get the most out of your black and white images.
Mistake #4: Not shooting in the best light
One of the advantages of black and white is that you can often shoot in lighting conditions not suitable for color photography. For example, on a cloudy day you can create beautiful black and white seascapes with a tripod and neutral density filters (this is called long exposure photography). Yet, in color, you would really need to shoot close to dawn or sunset to make the most of the scene.
But what some people do is use black and white to shoot in lighting conditions that are simply unsuitable for the subject. Using black and white isn’t the solution. The important skill is in matching the light to the subject. This takes a while to learn but it’s very important. Don’t be lazy just because it’s black and white.
A long exposure photo made on a cloudy day. The light suits the subject – it wouldn’t have worked in sunny weather.
Mistake #5: Not having a strong composition
Black and white is a true test of your compositional skills. The best monochrome images use visual elements like tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, pattern, and negative space. The emotional power of color can mask poor composition. But in black and white there is nowhere to hide. You have to learn how to use these building blocks of composition effectively.
That starts with learning how to see them. For example, you can’t use lines in your compositions if you haven’t trained yourself to see straight, diagonal, or curved lines in the scene.
The good news is that once you understand the fundamentals of composition in black and white, you will instinctively apply them to your color photos as well.
I took a lot of care with the composition of this landscape photo. It has foreground interest and plenty of texture – important elements in black and white landscapes.
Have you made any of these mistakes?
Can you think of any other mistakes that photographers make when working in black and white? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you’d like to learn more about black and white photography then please check out my ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White.
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