Timeless Principles of Black and White Photography

The tried and true world of black and white photography continues to mesmerize both advanced and beginner dSLR photographers.  Those who have seen a silver gelatin print from an Ansel Adams or Ed Weston negative will notice the depth to the image and the overall difference in "feel" to the entirely different process of capturing light on film, making the film into a negative, and then printing in a darkroom with all the subtleties of burning and dodging.

I have begun to see excellent digital black and white work come out in galleries, and at first glance, some of these are rivaling the feel and depth of silver gelatin prints.  While the principles are similar, the processes have changed dramatically since the days when only film was available for photographers.  The processes of making great digital black and white photographs could be written in volumes of books, and we'll cover some of these in future articles, but to start, let’s review some of the principles that will keep your "black and white eye" finely tuned for excellent imagery.


Unless you are perfectly colorblind (which is rare), your black and white view of the world has been tainted by your ability to see color, and as most of you are aware, we live in a color-saturated world.  The first principle of black and white photography is that B & W photography is not reality.  That may sound strange at first, but to get to where your are going for an effective finished image, the photographer must realize that what is seen in reality will not be the final product.

This concept of altered reality is difficult for many photographers who enjoy the outdoors and who begin believing that an "untainted" photograph in nature is one that is unaltered in any way.  Black and white photography by nature, however, is altered.  In fact, it usually improves with alteration.  In addition, to relieve the photographer’s angst above altering reality, remember than all the great old masters of black and white film photography slaved over the "post-processing" of prints for hours.  In essence, they were akin to our best Photoshoppers, altering contrast with not only filters of various colors (both in capturing the image and in the darkroom), but also in regional changes (dodging and burning).

One reason that black and white photography continues to be so accepted worldwide is because of its longevity and historical value, as well as the prevalent use in print media until about five to six years ago when the daily newspaper industry has started to decline.  Images were seen daily in black and white all across the world as newspapers continued to be most people’s sole source of news.

The bottom line:  As you approach a scene, begin to previsualize the scene in its final form.  To get Ansel Adams’ view on previsulization, read the first chapter of his book, The Negative.


Contrast is most simply defined as the difference between the blackest part of an image and the lightest.  If you hold up an 18% grey card, you could say the card has no contrast.  There is no change in the density of the tone from one edge of the card to the other.  When an image has a pure black point and a pure white point, with a variety of tones of grey in the image, the image is said to have higher contrast.  The best amount of contrast in an image is certainly image-dependent, but most black and white images that have impact often have a strong amount of contrast.

Contrast may come naturally in a scene.  For example the sunrise and sunset times often have deep shadows (black points) and bright highlights (white points) where the sun hits directly.  In the post-processing phase of image making, you may also increase contrast.  I generally first set a new black and white point either in Camera Raw or Photoshop itself.  This tells the program what to make pure black and pure white.   From there, I actually never use the contrast slider, as I lose control of the tones in the highlights and the shadows, when I may just want to alter one or the other.

Instead, I adjust the sliders under a black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop, or if I have the image in Lightroom, I can easily adjust the same sliders on a copy of the original image.  Take note, however, when you export the image from Lightroom to Photoshop, you will want to add a Levels adjustment level and reset the black and white point as they sometimes do not have as much punch when exported.


Tonality is more difficult to describe.  In general terms, tonality mean the grades of grey tones and how they interact.  Smooth tonality will refer to subtle changes in shades of grey which can often lead to more pleasing photography.  One way to see poor tonality is to take any black and white digital image and increase the contrast to 100%.  Now there are no subtle changes in grey and the image looks poor.  Generally, the less you adjust an image the better, and you need to watch the tones closely as you adjust things we have already discussed, such as setting black/white points and adjusting the curves and levels.

Interesting tones are first seen in the previsualization stage when you are evaluating a scene.  In time, you will look at the sky and notice the tonal gradation.  You will notice that big billowy clouds will make excellent black and white images because they are almost perfectly white in areas and then almost black on their undersides.  The gradations between these areas are also pleasing because they subtly change through tones of grey, giving the cloud a rich, deep feeling.

I recently taught a black and white course in Antelope Canyon, and we focused on the tones, because the light wrapped so well around the small rock.  The depth was incredible!


Strong shapes scream to be photographed in black and white.  Something about the focus on shapes gives the viewer a stronger sense of the identity of an object and its meaning.  I enjoy very much following veteran film photographer Michael Kenna and his representations of shapes in the environment.  His long exposures often give the skies and water the perfect lighter background on which he builds the scene with trees, rocks, and mountains.

The famous 20th Century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, originally trained as a painter, transitioned to photography, keeping a strong hold on his roots of geometry that he learned through painting in the early 20th century.  He described in detail how he would wait for some time in locations that had interesting shapes, a geometrical background where he would wait for a scene of people to move across.  This style became his signature, and the monochrome nature of his film photographs only heightens the awareness of his use of shape.


Texture is one of the elements of photography that can dramatically enhance a black and white image.  Texture refers not to the actual feel of the paper the image is printed on, but rather the visual rhythms that the brain recognizes as patterns.  Depending on the subject matter of an image, the viewer can visually perceive strong texture in lines in the sand, shadows on a tortoise’s back, or bark on a tree.  Texture can also be sensed in the larger world as well, such as  repeating trees on a horizon or wispy clouds that again give space in the image a visual feeling.

As Ansel Adams taught, your ability to previsual this texture in color will translate to the final image.  Remember than as you develop your ability to perceive the final image, you may notice that even bright or uninteresting patterns in nature can suddenly became astonishing in black and white.  This is because your postprocessing with levels, curves and finally some regional burning and dodging (by a variety of approaches) can make a low contrast pattern come alive in high contrast and with adjustments.


Likely one of my favorite principles in black and white photography, using simple subjects and concepts can become extremely appealing, while they may seem uninteresting in color.  Michael Kenna constantly uses lone trees, religious icons, solo mountains or objects as dominating subjects, immediately transforming them into all important centers of attention.  The result is usually a pleasing calmness as the object is placed in either a white or black background.

The use of monochrome gives the simple photograph less of an interpretation of the color values and forces the viewer to think about the subject in terms of some of the other principles we have discussed:  its shape, texture, and overall meaning.  Try it.  Find an interesting subject that has very little background, or shoot a subject on pure black and white and evaluate the results.  Does it make you think more about the object itself without the distractions of a background?  Changed to black and white, the object is stripped of extra information, and often leaves it only with the essence of what it is or what it does.

Bottom Line: The principles of black and white photography go far beyond the medium on which it is stored: film or digital.  Either one will force the photographer to think in terms of tonal values, contrast, and shapes.  It remains a powerful way to convey information to a viewer and will continue to live on as a strong form of art as well as for commercial uses.



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Black and white; photography; seeing; previsualization; ansel adams; joel addams; principlesContrastFine art printsHawaiiJanuary 2012JapanMichael kennaMinimalismNepalShapeSimplicityTextureTipsTonality