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Digital cameras can take beautiful monochrome shots — even today’s mid-range point-and-shoot models. But you’ll need to do more than just flip the switch to Black & White mode. Here’s our guide to taking better black and whites.
Shoot in color. Digital cameras grab a wider range of tones in color mode because they’re capturing data for three channels – red, green and blue. For this reason, it’s best to shoot in color and convert your images to black and white in post-production. Since you’ll be doing more post-production work than usual, shoot in RAW if your camera allows it. Also, if you can adjust your ISO settings, shoot with the lowest ISO possible. This will help reduce image noise, which tends to surface during your post-production tweaks.
See the Light. Lighting is key to all types of photography, but when producing black and white photos, you’ll need to pay special attention to highlights and shadows — they’ll “pop” much more than they will in color photos. So watch for those rays of sunlight and well-lit foregrounds, but avoid head-on lighting. This often results in flat, low-contrast images. Instead, try to have the light hit your subject at an angle. This highlights one side and throws shadows on the other. Avoid reflections and bright backgrounds which can detract from your subject.
Most photographers will tell you that gloomy, overcast days are perfect for shooting in black and white. So the next time the fog rolls in or the clouds hang a little too low, take it as your cue to get creative with the shades of gray.
Dress the Part. People look great in black and white, but make sure they’re dressed in simple, solid colors. Loud patterns or prints won’t represent as well. If you want a particular feature or a person to be noticed, have them wear something with a lot of texture. Rougher, more textured garments will “catch the light” and stand out. Smoother clothes and objects will appear flat no matter how bright they are in real life.
Adjust Exposure Manually. Identify the key element in your image and decide how dark you want it (light gray, or whatever). Then over- or underexpose the shot until it has the tonal value you’re going for.
Use Photoshop’s Channel Mixer. To maximize contrast and impact, convert your images to black and white with the Channel Mixer. It lets you select the best tones from the red, green, and blue information in the file. Once you have your black and white image, bump up the contrast a little bit using the Levels tool (Control+L or Command+L on a Mac).
Use Photoshop Actions. Photoshop Actions let you perform multiple tweaks to an image in one click. They’re especially helpful if you’re just starting out, or if you’re processing multiple images, because using an action will keep your results consistent across all of your images. Actions also sometimes give you more fine-tuning options than the Channel Mixer.
There’s a helpful site called Action Central where you can find actions that will convert your color Photoshop images to black and white. Go to the site, and on the left hand side, you’ll see Actions by Category. Click on “Black and White Conversion” and you’ll find several free Photoshop actions you can download and use.
Not a PhotoShop user? Several other photo editing programs offer some level control over black and white processing, even some of the free ones. Picasa calls this “Filtered black and white,” and the PicNik editing tool in Flickr allows selecting a color filter for its black and white conversions, too.