Photography 101: Shooting in Black and White

Here, Merilee Mitchell of The Gravel Ghost talks about her passion for black and white photography — and the power of telling stories in monochrome.

© Merilee Mitchell

Our last Photography 101 installment focused on color, so it’s only fitting that today we talk about black and white! If you’ve developed your own film in the darkroom, you know that working with black and white is a fun, rewarding experience. These days, many of you use digital cameras, so we’ll focus here on digital photography.

Over on The Gravel Ghost, photographer Merilee Mitchell wows us with her moody and evocative black and white images and photo stories: she captures vast desert landscapes, particularly in Death Valley and around California. In this post, she talks about her passion for black and white photography — and the power of telling stories in monochrome.

A nod to film noir

My photography has taken on a life of its own and has ended up being mostly in black and white. My images are not the norm and are quirky, dark, and creepy — I sometimes say, with a laugh, that they are “Hitchcockian.”

When I go out to shoot, I don’t scout or plan anything. I look at the world as an observer. I see things as if I’m filming a scene for a movie — I’ve done this my whole life. I’m an old movie fanatic, particularly film noir, and this has had an impact on my photography.

When I work, I allow “it” to come to me. So, let’s say I’m driving on the highway in the desert. My Nikon is always on the seat next to me, while my Leica is in my purse. I’ll invariably see something that needs to be photographed and most likely it’s something weird, unusual, or that strikes me as meaningful. It could be the light falling across the landscape, strong shadows, a person walking, or the wind blowing someone’s hair.

My shooting process — and the journey to black and white

I shoot in JPEG and RAW and always in color, then convert to black and white in Lightroom 4.

Daily Post tips to convert to black and white:

Depending on your type of camera and photo editing preference, you can convert an image to black and white in various ways.

Mobile/touch device cameras. These devices generally have edit and filter options. In the iPhone, for example, select the “mono” or “noir” setting to change a picture to black and white before posting.

Digital cameras. Most models let you change an image to black and white in-camera, pre- or post-shot, and you can see the black and white version on-screen. Shooting in color and then switching to black and white is great, as you can compare both effects. But if you already know you want a black and white shot, shooting in this mode allows you a wider range of options from a shooting session.

Photo editors and software. If you prefer to edit images on your computer, open an image in Photoshop, Lightroom, PicMonkey, Pixlr, and more. The change is simple — for example, in PicMonkey, select “Colors” and then adjust the lever under “Saturation” to remove the color. Or, in Pixlr, head to “Adjustment” and choose the “Hue & Saturation” tool.

It’s difficult to describe in words, but I innately know what something will look like in black and white. I see things geometrically: I sense large shapes in view, I see “values” (the degree of lights and darks) in a shot, and I know how they will translate.

In the editing process, I emphasize deep blacks and work with just enough light to create the mood that I want, altering elements like contrast and sharpness. If I’m working with photographs of, say, a ghost town or a place with a history, I might use a sepia tone rather than strictly black and white to tell the story, so it feels historical and aged, yet monochromatic and simple.

© Merilee Mitchell

© Merilee Mitchell

In my photographs, I strive for the interplay of dark against light and light against dark. I’ve noticed my eyes become bored quickly without this element in a picture, so I try to create this sort of dynamic, as you can see in this image, “Eastern Sierra Forest”:

Eastern Sierra Forest

© Merilee Mitchell

When I look up at these trees, I notice how some trunks are light against dark and others are dark against light, coupled with a variety of branches and verticals. I knew the image would keep my eyes entertained. This element of sustained interest is key to making successful black and white images.

From Merilee’s About page:

“I mainly love black and white for photography because it’s simple, straightforward, and not distracting. It gets my point across. But there are times when color is called for. Just because.”

Black and white versus color

I’ve always loved the feeling of black and white images because of their directness: they are no-nonsense and clean. You don’t get distracted and seduced by color. Black and white is a separate language from color: it can tell a visual story quickly and cleanly, and I feel comfortable maneuvering inside this monochromatic world.

But you can make a jaw-dropping or poignant visual statement in color, of course, as Ming showed us in her color tutorials. While I use color sparingly on my blog, sometimes it’s necessary for me to tell a visual story with color — when I can’t convey what I’d like with a subject in black and white.

The photos below are shots of an old window pane and building with peeling paint. I couldn’t convey these physical layers of history as effectively in black and white, so I displayed the images in color for the reader to experience them:

Consider the blue door, the yellow boards in place of what used to be windows, the hints of past graphics and peeling paint, and the color of the adobe walls in the sunset glow. These shots are melancholy and tell the tale of a place that’s slowly dying, and they’re much more powerful in color than in black and white.

From The Daily Post editors: Think of the image you shared in the recent Hue of You photo challenge. Why was color so important? Would the photo be less effective in black and white?

But in general, I think black and white photography delves deeply into the psyche and can puncture through the veneer of what we perceive as being real. It simplifies a story, a statement — what it is you’re trying to say with the photograph — and gets to the truth.

To show you the power of black and white, here’s a photo I took of a white horse:

Horse in color
© Merilee Mitchell

He was sweet, though looked lonely. I felt like he was telling me something — like he wanted me to know what it felt like to be a horse stuck in a stall. He wanted to be free, out in the pasture. I wanted to transfer the energy I picked up from him.

The picture is just okay (and kind of boring) in color and doesn’t have the emotional impact I’m looking for. But after switching the photograph to black and white, and swinging the darks and lights widely apart, I’m better able to tell the horse’s story:

Black and White Horse
© Merilee Mitchell

There’s a sweet sadness and longing here that I couldn’t portray in the color version.

Final tips from Merilee

Photograph things that speak to you. Go out and find something — a building, a person, a part of a landscape, etc. — that hits you an emotionally. How can you further create a feeling of romance, melancholy, wistfulness, or another emotion by using black and white?

Look for shapes of dark and light. When you’re out taking photos, look for large shapes of dark and light. Try not to be swayed by bright colors. Any bright colors you see will become different shades of grey when switched to black and white. So, let’s say you see an ice cream truck painted in bright blue, red, and yellow. These colors may “read” as the same shade of grey when the image converts to black and white, which will make a different kind of shape in your photograph.

Train yourself to “see” in black and white. I’d encourage you to start seeing colors as greys. Once you see colors as values — degrees of light and dark — you’ll see a scene in your mind’s eye in black and white, and can make your compositional decisions based upon the larger areas. Notice light and shadow and the interplay of both, and then arrange them within the frame so the eye is entertained.

Practice, practice, practice

To begin honing your eye for black and white, here are some quick assignments from The Daily Post editors:

  • Place your camera in black and white mode (via setting or filter, etc.) and take practice shots that capture lights and darks — and shades of grey in between. What type of effect do you prefer: a hard juxtaposition of light and dark, or subtle shades of grey within your frame?
  • Select a color image you’ve taken and convert it to black and white in a photo editor, either in a camera phone app, or online service or software program (examples listed above). Move the dial on the “Contrast” setting to the left and right and watch how the lights and darks change. What kind of shot do you prefer?

We’ve covered a lot in this Photography 101 series! We hope you’ve learned something new in the past several months about your digital camera, and that our guest photographers have helped open your eyes to new ways of looking at — and capturing — the world.

As we wrap up our 101-level series, we’ll cover basic editing, important topics like metadata and protecting your images, then talk about ways to get the most out of your theme. Stay tuned for these final posts.

Merilee Mitchell

About Merilee Mitchell

I see myself as an “accidental photographer.” Photography wasn’t something I set out to do in life — it just happened. Seven years ago, I began traveling to Death Valley National Park in California to paint; I found the landscape to be incredibly compelling and it spoke to me in an unusual, deeply profound way.

The Death Valley landscape was so overwhelming that I felt the need to record it with a camera so I could continue working on paintings in my studio. But I never actually ended up doing that. I fell in love with the camera instead.

Previous posts in the Photography 101 series

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  1. Thank you for this. My former husband shot mostly b/w and I got him the equipment for a dark room, so he developed his own. Ansel Adam photos hung on our walls. I have b/w ingrained, yet I wasn’t sure how to do it with a digital camera. Now I will try.


  2. I love black and white photography, I always think it adds a touch of glamour or atmosphere, unfortunately I am no photographer, I am point, click and hope for the best enthusiast.

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  3. I was raised on black and white when I started in the early 1960s… For me the change to color was difficult… and now the change to digital brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for some real insite for an old timer like me!


  4. Great photography and article. I have always shot primarily in color but have done a fair amount in B&W. I have looked at slides and though this would look better in B&W, and I am not a dark room person. Then came photo shop and film scanners, game on.a quality digital camera now I can see in color or tones ( dam learning the zone system) the freedom of not having to carry two cameras


  5. I did a ton of black and white darkroom work in both high school and college. There’s nothing like it. It’s also possible to create beautiful images in color, but there’s something about a monochromatic photo that just doesn’t compare to anything else.


  6. thank you for your step-wise guide in shooting black and white photos. Your pictures are lovely as are your examples for illustrating the difference in using a particular kind of setting vis-a-vis the other.


  7. Thank you all for your kind comments. Black and White/Monochromatic photography is my passion. I work endlessly with it, day in and day out. The more you work in Black and White, the more you will understand it, For me it’s almost scientific. In order to make some photos work in Black and White, you must create a push/pull through light and dark, texture and composition. Really, going out and practicing a lot is the way to learn it.


  8. Black and white is very emotional – the photograph needs to be felt. I adore black and white and loved shooting in black and white – film! You had one click! Now with dslr I have set black and white for basic shooting and adjust as I shoot. To convert is not as easy as one may think – not every shot will work converted. Each photo walk always includes something shot in black and white.


  9. I’ve recently taken up photography as a hobby and I found this post both informative and inspiring. Thank you!


  10. I was once told that color was a distraction and black and white was raw emotion. Color has its place and is life. It really isn’t a distraction. What I like about digital photography is that I can shoot color, then, if I want,easily convert to black and white. Many photos that aren’t so great become alive when converted to black and white.