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3×3 quick tips for improving your black and white photography

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Black and white, Composition, Photography Ideas, tutorials   |   4 Comments

3×3 quick tips for improving your black and white photography

9 things that Keith finds useful for his black and white photos

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3 lots of 3 things to think about

B&W print on viewing stand

The final result? – a print

I was recently asked by a magazine, for some quick tips to take better digital B&W photos…

3 general B&W photo tips

  • Think of shadows as ‘real objects’ and part of your composition (this is related to the use of negative space)
  • Take more photos – explore how colours and textures can be recast in B&W – after a while you get a feel for this and it can become more intuitive.
  • Pause to think of how you might want your final print to look like – what do you want to show? what do you not want to show? [Picture to the right is from my ‘Making a B/W print’ tutorial]

The steps leading up to the chapterhouse, Wells cathedral

A different view of the ‘sea of steps’ (see previous sea of steps article) A processed fisheye lens shot, I had to visualise how the image would be transformed in the computer, not just what I could see in the viewfinder. The shot was exposed, knowing that the bright window would be burnt out to white. Taken handheld, although in this low light I’d have used a tripod, if I’d not been on holiday, without one…

3 technical tips

  • Shoot RAW – do your conversion to black and white on your computer, not in the camera. Use any B&W mode on your camera to experiment with and check on the back screen, but for best quality, do the colour to B&W conversion yourself [see this review of Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for some examples].
  • Expose to the right – look to overexpose as much as possible without burning out highlights where you might want detail. Remember that camera histograms and over exposure indicators are not accurate, so you will need to experiment. [See this article for a bit more info].
  • Remember that a great print is a result of a series of processes from visualising the shot, right through to printing. Look for your weak links in this chain.

3 things I personally wouldn’t do

(YMMV – so experiment!)

  • I don’t use physical filters and indeed if I can see that a grad filter has been used, then it’s been over used…  Use of a strong ND filter can make for an interesting effect, but probably not as often as people using it like to think (it’s all too tempting for a technical trick to become a shortcut to photographic ‘style’).
  • Tinting/toning – this rarely improves an image. If it does, then this is all too often an indicator that the image didn’t quite work in the first place.
  • Slow down a lot – I’ve never been a methodical, meticulous/perfectionist person by nature – I’ve tried taking a lot longer over my shots and whilst it works with some of my commercial work (architecture, industrial, products) I really don’t like it, when it comes to my landscape work. It drains the emotion and elan from my work. You may be similar or completely different – take time to find out what works for you…

There are many more of my articles and reviews on the site specifically related to B&W photography and printing – There is a specialised B&W Index page for them, or you can explore the drop down list of article categories at the right.

One that I’d particularly recommend is the walkthrough from concept to print for my Hood Canal B&W photo

Hood Canal

Hood Canal.
Hood Canal, Washington.
One of those places I was just driving along and saw a potential location for a picture. The Pacific Northwest can be a damp and grey place, but here the damp morning just feels restful and quiet.
— Sizes:|11×7|16×11|25×17|36×24

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  • Keith Cooper | Jul 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Whilst that’s perfectly reasonable, it’s rather too complex (IMHO) for a general technique.

    Black and white based on HDR is just as prone to the excessive halos and artefacts that, to me, spoil so much of its use in colour photography.

    I did look at B&W HDR in my review of Nik HDR Efex Pro a while ago

    I’ll be revisiting this shortly in a look at HDR Expose 2

  • Mario Vargas | Jul 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Nice tips. As i´m getting older I love much bw photography, is not a good tip to brackett or make HDR o exposure fusion in color and then tone to bw?, Best wishes, MArio

  • C. McMullen | Oct 17, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Nice tips, Keith! Thank you for sharing your wisdom, I love your work. I look forward to seeing your results from digital IR. (I provided you a link to some of my images online; you can go straight to the “Infrared” set).

  • James Ribniker | Oct 10, 2011 at 5:43 am

    I agree with your point about tinting/toning. I will use it only if the image is good without it, looking for another mood. But you need a good B&W image as a base.

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