Black and White Photography

by Alister Benn | February 11, 2010

© Alister BennThe development of black and white photography prior to the 1930’s was the byproduct of technical limitations rather than desire. I am quite certain that had color been available from day one, people would have used it and perhaps the history of photography would have been quite different. Because, once color film did come into the game, it was used and developed in extreme increments until the 21st century, when digital had pretty much taken over. Now, with all this new technology and computing power at our fingertips shooting in monochrome seems a strange discipline.

As we look at the world, we see it in color, sometimes in monotone in particularly dim or flat light, but essentially in color. It is only natural for us to represent this colorful perspective in our images, especially at those times of the day or night when the lights and colors are truly spectacular. As a nature photographer, it is expected for me to use the glorious colors of the natural world in my work.

Panorama © Alister Benn

“It’s not so much about finding your voice, it’s about deciding what you want to say”
-A. Benn

For the month of January 2010 I was involved in a challenge on an online site in which I had to create a monochrome photo each day. It has been a great reminder to me of how effective the genre of black and white photography can be and prompted me to restudy a lot of what I knew before, but had subsequently forgotten. The purpose of this article is twofold, firstly for me to refresh my own memory and commit a lot of this knowledge to a cohesive format, and secondly to share it with others who may find it a useful learning resource.

To create a black and white image, many people click the desaturate button and leave it at that, convincing themselves they now have a fine art shot instead of a boring color image. However, when we start to look at the process of creating black and white images we soon realize that it takes a lot more than that and we have a lot more to think about than just converting to grayscale and adding a pretty frame. What I want to do is not only consider which of our existing color images make good candidates for black and white treatment, but also the whole process of finding new suitable compositions and also what we need to do to make the most of them in post processing. So strap in and get ready for the ride; it could take some time.

Article Table of Contents

I. Not Just the Absence of Color

II. Composition

  • Choosing Subjects
  • No Rules, Just Guidelines
  • Reflectance Edges

III. The Zone System

IV. The Raw Essentials

  • Why RAW?

Processing A-Z

  • Adobe Camera RAW
  • Photoshop
  • Seeing Colors in Black and White
  • Layers
  • Masks


Part I: Not Just the Absence of Color

The art of Photography is one of communication, speaking with light, available light. That is the raw material; harvesting the light reflected off objects and recorded by our camera is what we do. Through this visual communication, we hope to instill in our viewers a sense of place, a hint or two of our intent and what we are trying to articulate. The measure of our success as artists is measured by the impact it has on our viewers. As Ansel Adams said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”

Guitar © Alister Benn

But, as I have already stated, we see in color. The color spectrum is the very nature of light, it is light, and in fact, light gives objects their color. And here comes the crunch, once when we take color out of our toolkit, we have to be more articulate, not less. I think of it like this, if we go into a dark room and can’t see anything, very quickly our hearing becomes much more tuned in and acute; one sense compensates for the removal of the other. And something I was not expecting when I embarked on the monochrome photo a day challenge was the new insight it gave me into perspectives and compositional strength, which I believe will go some way to making me a better photographer in the future.

This is why I say successful black and white photographs aren’t just color photographs desaturated; we have to tell our story without color, with just tones of white, black and grey. As we will see later on in the processing section, there is nothing more important in the production of a great black and white image than our understanding of color and how we represent them in monochrome.

Grayscales © Alister Benn

Part II: Composition

Without strong compositions we are limiting our creative vocabulary, handicapping ourselves and watering down our expression; simply, we are not talking effectively. Composition is obviously important in color photography also, but in black and white, as I said above, we have to be even more articulate in our presentation, because we have been stripped of one of our tools of speech. And this is the key to being a successful photographer, the seeking out of intriguing strong compositions and being spatially aware of the tonal interactions going on in our frame of vision. I wrote once in an article a few years ago, “The genius takes the image the rest of us walk right past.”

Many subjects lend themselves very well to black and white imagery – still life, portraits, architecture, nudes, flora and fauna and of course landscapes. But the thing all of them share when they are done well is contrasts, the interaction of light and shadows to show texture, depth and form. Some words often used to describe successful images are Graphic, Abstract, Flow, Form, Contrast, Details, and Negative Space.

A brilliant photograph is like a skyscraper; it needs a solid foundation, great structural design and sweet light to look its best, and composition is like architecture, not so many rules, but lots of guidelines.

The Rule of Thirds

This is the most common rule of them all, I would imagine anyone reading this who owns a camera would have heard of it at some stage, however, I cannot overstate how fundamental this rule is; it is almost mythical in its origins and in some way echoes with the vibrations of the Universe itself. So much so, I cannot give up the opportunity to go through it here, with illustrations and examples.

A fundamental aspect of humans is our mind and our ability to rationalize. When we are confronted with an image or a scene in front of us, we seek order, patterns, something to use as a visual anchor; simply put, we are trying to look for threats like a lioness hiding in the long grass. It’s basic, primal and subconscious. The Ancient Greeks recognized this and began to analyze the visual arts in order to formulate artistic principles of composition. What came about was a system called The Golden Rectangle, which is an extension of a Golden Section. The visual relationship between the short side and the long side of a Golden Rectangle is 8:5 or 1:0.63, no coincidence that the dimensions of 35mm film is 3:2 or 1:0.67. Even modern visual media like HDTV has a 16:9 ratio or 1:0.57, all in the same general ballpark.

The first references to the “rule” of thirds was in 1797 and it has been used as a guideline ever since. It goes like this.

If we take a frame and divide it into thirds vertically and horizontally, we have four places in the frame where two lines cross, and these intersections have been shown to be the most visually appealing places to place subjects of interest. Horizons can be placed on the lower third line and leave 2/3 above the horizon, or a tree can be placed on the left vertical third line leaving 2/3 of the frame to its right.

Rule of thirds © Alister Benn

Of course, as so readily stated rules are there to be broken and there are often good reasons to centralize a subject in a frame or push elements off to one side, but as a general rule of thumb, if I had to live or die by one, this would be it.

The other compositional gold nugget is the use of curves, angles and straight lines to set a sense of mood and tension in our images. Objects running through a frame at an angle are far more likely to be noticed than vertical or horizontal elements; curves create more tension than straight lines. I have had in depth discussions about composition and cropping for years now with some of the worlds most influential photographers and summarize my philosophy like this:

If it’s not contributing to telling of the story, get rid of it!

Successful compositions should be free from clutter, unwanted elements and ambiguity. Don’t have other subjects and content vying for visual attention, try to isolate as much as you can; be articulate. Artists choose what they want to paint and only include relevant content; composers don’t add random notes to their symphonies, just the ones that add to the theme and fit. Photographic composition is the same, second only to the light itself in importance.

Egret © Alister Benn

The last section in this part is on reflectance edges, a quirky name for shadows, used often by Galen Rowell, my early landscape mentor. In color photography we need to be strongly aware of shadows, as they can become very strong graphic elements in their own right to the extent of swamping the compositional strength of the main subject. In black and white photography I believe they are even more important because of their tonal similarity to subjects. is the important thing about shadows is this: be aware of them and consider how they fit into your composition. Shadows can also make intriguing subjects in their own right, implying a subject in an abstract way without showing it.

Part III: The Zone System

I don’t believe I am being too bold by stating that few people have had as profound an effect on the history and development of our art than Ansel Adams. It was he, along with Fred Archer, that developed the zone system of black and white image making. Essentially what they did was subdivide the grayscale into 10 zones, numbered from 0 to IX on the Roman Numerical System. Each zone represents a one f-stop difference in brightness from the adjoining zones. This is a brilliantly simplistic way for us to look at our images and determine the relationships of structure, shade and form that not only aid the final output, but also in my mind, create the compositional strengths and weaknesses in our images.

Zone system © Alister Benn

Part IV: The RAW Essentials

Photography has always been, to a certain extent, about gear. Certain shots are not possible with more basic equipment and some cameras cost an awful lot of money. For the rest of this article I am afraid I have to make a couple of equipment requirements: 1) that your camera is capable of shooting in a RAW mode and 2) that you have access to Adobe Photoshop CS2 or above. I am not saying that amazing images are not possible without these bits of gear, but I am going to write the article based on those two prerequisites, as they cover the middle ground “prosumer” level up. For the sake of completeness and having no wish to alienate point and shooters using Jpegs, I will cover shooting ideas for them also.

All screenshots used are from Adobe Bridge, Camera RAW and Photoshop CS4 on a Mac Pro Desktop.

Jpegs are the most common file format we look at on the Internet, for their size they hold a lot of detail and represent our colors well on monitors when we use the sRGB color space. But every time you open and close them, they degrade a little bit and any editing you do to one is called destructive editing. This is because in the jpeg file format you have specified a particular value for two things on every single pixel, its color and its luminosity. Most DSLR’s these days have a number of different file formats you can choose to shoot at, from small, medium and large Jpeg, through TIFF and ultimately RAW. Many amateur photographers shy away from the RAW format for a couple of reasons: 1) they think it will add a lot of time to their workflow and 2) they worry about the RAW format files taking up more space on their memory cards.

To the first comment I say, you get out of your photos what you put in to them. Ten minutes on the computer can make an insane amount of difference to just about any shot. These days, memory cards are so cheap and storage space is much more affordable, making the second argument a weak one as well.

Landscape photography © Alister Benn

The Reason for RAW

As I mentioned before, as soon as you do anything to a Jpeg it is destructive editing. You are degrading the pixels, which causes loss of image quality, creating jagged edges near smooth transitions and artifacts all over the place. Once you have specified a value for color and luminosity your range of possible changes in a jpeg become very limited.

A RAW file records a huge range of potential values for color and luminosity within the limitations of the sensor, and any editing we do to that file before we convert it into a TIFF for final editing is called non-destructive editing.

Many cameras also have a function allowing you to shoot in black and white mode, sometimes complete with colored filter presets. With RAW there is no need to do this as all these values can be replicated in post-processing. I like to retain the color in my images so I can adjust that before I convert them to black and white. Obviously if you are committed to shooting jpeg (despite all the evidence to the contrary) or your camera doesn’t have RAW but does have these black and white presets, then by all means this is a smart way to go.

The advantages of RAW are many and varied, but can be summarized by the ability to change the following non-destructively after the image has been taken:

  • Exposure
  • White Balance
  • Saturation
  • Clarity
  • Contrast
  • Vignetting
  • Sharpening
  • Noise Reduction

The list does go on, but for me the top two are just so important. The key thing one cannot change in a RAW file is ISO, it is vital to take images at the most suitable level as dictated by our required ratio of shutter speed to aperture. For example, if you have to shoot an image at 1/60 for it to be sharp and your minimum aperture is f2.8, the required ISO in low light may be 1600. If that is the case, there is no point in shooting it at ISO 100 or the shot will be 4 stops under-exposed and trying to rectify that will generate a whole load of noise in the end result. Equally, make sure you check your ISO is at the right level often, because it’s too late by the time you get home and start editing.

The whole point of the rest of this article is to get us from a single 11Mb RAW file on my CF card to a 200kb jpeg on the Internet, and it is a long journey, so we’d best get started.

Part V: Processing A-Z – From Card to Computer and Beyond

Any number of CF card readers are available, and many PCs come with them integrated into the tower. My Mac does not and I use a Sandisk Firewire CF card reader as it’s a lot faster and more reliable than a USB one, but they too work fine. My typical workflow is to use Adobe Lightroom 2.3 as my import interphase, and I also use that program to catalog my files with keywords, and add metadata such as copyright info and my name/address and contact details. But for the rest of this exercise I am going to use Abobe Bridge (included as part of Photoshop) for the initial RAW editing.

The classic thing with Photoshop and image processing is there is always more than one way to do something. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen ways to turn an image from color into black and white, and then I also have a couple of other programs that offer another handful of ways. This can be bewildering and to be honest it can be confusing to start with, but the trick I feel is to keep experimenting and don’t be afraid to try something out, as you can always go back. I have chosen an image of a waterfall from our trip to New Zealand last year, for no other reason than it provides a nice exposure problem and allows me to demonstrate why color is important in black and white image.

A summary of what we are going to do is this:

  1. Open image in Adobe Bridge
  2. Open from there into Adobe Camera RAW
  3. Adjust the various parameters to show the waterfall at its best:
  4. White Balance
  5. Exposure
  6. Clarity
  7. Open this image in Photoshop
  8. Go back to Bridge and open the same file again in Adobe Camera RAW
  9. Adjust this copy for the green vegetation and the foreground:
  10. White Balance
  11. Exposure
  12. Fill Light
  13. Clarity
  14. Vibrancy
  15. Curves
  16. Vignette
  17. Open this copy in Photoshop as well
  18. Copy one layer on top of the other and rename them
  19. Add a hide all mask to the top layer
  20. Paint in the waterfall details using a soft brush
  21. Add adjustment layer(s) for the black and white conversion
  22. Save and Flatten
  23. Resize, frame, sign and save for web

Sounds a lot, but it’s not too bad.

Image 1

Image 1 shows Adobe Bridge, a filmstrip of images along the bottom and my selected image to work as a large preview and highlighted in red in the filmstrip. As this is a Canon CR2 RAW file, I have to convert it to a TIFF before I can further edit it in Photoshop.

Image 2

Image 2 is the same image opened in the Adobe Camera Raw program. This is the default RAW converter for Photoshop and comes as part of the package. Many of the features on here can be done inside Photoshop itself, but it’s best to do as much here because you are working with a RAW file. Even with a big 16-bit TIFF, big adjustments can be irreversible, the more you can do in ACR the better.

As detailed above, I made some small adjustments to three variables on the right to make the waterfall only look its best. The shot was taken on a very dull day and water is quite a bit brighter than the surrounding mossy rocks. If I was to raise the exposure of the whole image to make the latter look there best, the highlights of the waterfall will get blown out and loose all detail. So the plan with this image, is to make two copies of the RAW file and convert them to 16-bit TIFF and blend them together in Photoshop, then change it to a black and white image. There is a perfectly useable convert to grayscale function in ACR, but I prefer to do it later, otherwise you have no color data in your TIFF and you’re committed to that conversion. By doing it on a layer later in Photoshop you have way more creative control and you can make as many layers and changes as you like without actually changing the value of the underlying color pixels. This is an important point.

The first version I worked on above was used to bring down the waterfall exposure to make it more useable for the final image, which resulted in the rocks and moss being even more dull than they were before, so I need to open this same RAW file again and make adjustments to bring the details and colors of the moss and rocks up to where I want them to be. Image 3 shows this stage.

Image 3

Image 3

If you hold down the ALT key on a Mac at the same time as clicking the OPEN IMAGE button, it opens the image as a copy, sometimes useful.

Image 4

Image 4 shows the two RAW files side by side in Photoshop and we can clearly see the image on the right is very bright and the moss glows nicely green, whereas the left image is very flat, but the water is better exposed. The next stage is to combine these two images into one image and to do that you use the MOVE tool (little arrow at the top of the tools palette, and holding down the SHIFT key click and drag the DARKER image over the top of the LIGHTER image. Holding the SHIFT key down at the same time as dragging over ensures the two images will be perfectly aligned.

Image 5

Image 5 At this stage I also rename the two layers, in this case the brighter one is called Rocks & Moss, while the top one is the Waterfall Layer.

Now comes the first fun part!

We need to add a hide all layer mask: and the easiest way to do that is this:

Layer/Layer Mask/Hide All
Which creates a little black rectangle next to the waterfall image on the waterfall layer. Image 6 shows this layer mask in place and moves us on to the next stage, which is to paint over the over-exposed water with the black layer mask selected. You must do this gently and gradually with a soft brush with Opacity set at about 20, Flow less than 50 and the Hardness at 0.

Image 7

The secret with Layer Masks is this: Black Conceals, White Reveals…

In our example we created a hide all Layer Mask, so NONE of the waterfall layer is actually showing, we are looking at the Moss and Rocks Layer here. With the white paint selected (the little Black & White Palettes on the far left are used to select the white) we can no paint white onto the black layer mask and slowly reveal the waterfall details on that layer.

Image 8

Image 8 shows the shot after that white painting has been done. Gradually, we have painted in details on the waterfall from that layer and now have a far better balanced image.

Image 9a

Image 9 shows a detail of the Layers Palette and you can clearly see the white painted onto the layer mask.

Now that I am happy with the overall balance of the color image I can start thinking about a Black and White conversion. As I said above there are many different ways to do this and to cover them all is beyond the scope of this article, but I will show you two.

Image 10

Image 10 shows how to click the new adjustment layer button and add a black and white adjustment layer to the image.

Image 11

Image 11 shows how to do exactly the same thing in a different way, you choose. Before I go onto using that black and white adjustment layer I wanted to show the Channel Mixer method.

Image 12a

Image 12a shows the default view you get when you add that layer to an image and check the Monochrome tick box on the left. The default setting is 40% Red, 40% Green and 20% Blue, adding up to 100%. But my image has a load of greens in it…

Image 12

Image 13

…so in Image 13 I have adjusted the sliders to boost the green channel, but to keep the overall total to 100%. I have to reduce the Red and Blues to compensate. If you go less or more than the 100% the image will become Lighter or Darker than before, rarely a desired result. I much prefer the second image and it highlights that point of why I keep color in my images because it allows adjustments like this.

Image 13a

Image 14

Image 14a

Image 14 however shows a Black and White Layer adjustment with the Green Filter Preset, similar to image 13, but not as much contrast. I could go on here and add additional BW layers and blend them in with the original to highlight certain areas, but I am happy enough this image doesn’t need it.

Image 15

I will add a very slight contrast boost in Image 15 and save that layered image as my master copy of this file.

Image 16

Image 17a

To add a frame I use a series of ACTIONS I have programmed into Photoshop, very easy to do and plenty of help online explaining that. All I have to do is select the 700 high action and click the go button, which gives my final image.

This was quite a straight-forward shot that didn’t require too much mucking about, but believe me they’re not all that easy and some take many hours of work to get right, but this is a basic routine for those unfamiliar with the process of multi RAW file processing.

Part VI: Summary

As we have seen from the above example, an image that was taken in color can be worked to become an acceptable black and white image. In fact it is the color information that gives us some tonal clues as to how the B&W version will look. In the channel mixer I could have muted and darkened those green tones and produced a far moodier example. If the pool of water had been illuminated more under a blue sky, I could have made that pool either black or very pale. By playing around with those channel sliders we can produce wildly different portrayals of the same scene.

And that boils down to the very opening statement I made:

It’s not so much about finding your voice, it’s about deciding what you want to say.

What do we want to say with this?

While I was researching this article and deciding what I wanted to say, I read in another article that color images should replicate reality, while B&W images should evoke the feeling of reality. When you strip an image of its color, it has to become an abstract, or a feeling, as it can no longer accurately represent reality. I believe through black and white photography we can create images that evoke truth, that capture something beyond reality. By stripping a photograph of its color we strip it of prejudice, getting beneath the skin to the bare bones of its structure, and I like that.

Many images can be equally successful in color or black and white. It boils down to personal preference. I know people whose work is so good, they make color and B&W images from most of their work. Some people are drawn to the colors, others to the raw, contrasts and graphics of the black and whites. They both work, there are no rules. What I want to reiterate though is that the black and white photography discipline teaches us so much about colors, contrasts, textures and composition. I have found myself now looking at scenes completely differently from before. If a composition works in black and white, which is the highest test, then it works in color. Composition is our written language in photography, it allows us to articulate exactly what we are trying to say without ambiguity. I believe practicing black and white photography helps us set the bar high for ourselves and demand the best of our work.

Portrait © Alister Benn

About the Author

Growing up in rural Scotland in a household that encouraged a love for nature and the outdoors, it was somewhat inevitable that Alister would end up traveling the World in search of wild places. Alister has lived in Asia since 1999, and became interested in nature photography in September 2003, but since then has traveled extensively to pursue this interest, particularly in China and Tibet, with extended overseas trips to Canada, Australia, Europe, the United States and New Zealand. His shooting style is quite diverse, with many publishing credits to his name, particularly of his Chinese bird collections, but he also had an exhibition of contemporary architecture images on display in a Beijing gallery for a year. After decades of travel, Alister now lives full-time in Yunnan, South West China with his wife Juanli, where they focus on extending their substantial stock library of Himalayan and Tibetan images. Visit

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