How to master black and white photography

It's not all black and white

Light and shade

Successful black-and-white images don’t always have to contain an even mix of light and dark tones. Look for subjects that  have mainly light tones to produce clean-looking ‘high-key’ images. 

These images work best when you have a light-coloured background to work with, and also soft, diffused lighting to prevent too many dark shadows spoiling the high-key effect. Close-ups, still lifes and portraits – where you often have control over the lighting and background – make good subjects for the high-key treatment, but don’t discount the possibility of shooting high-key landscapes when there’s snow or mist, as these conditions are naturally dominated by lighter tones.

Successful black-and-white images don’t always have to contain an even mix of tone

Alternatively, try shooting scenes made up of mainly shadows and midtones. The dark tones give a sense of mystery, making it an effective technique for intense portraits.

For successful ‘low-key’ images you need to make sure that little or no light falls onto your background, so only the main subject is lit. This is usually achieved by controlling the lighting using flash or continuous lighting, such as a reading lamp, but you can achieve low-key results using daylight alone; you just need to search out areas of shadows to use.

Conversion tips

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Lighten the background

Even if your background  is illuminated, you may still need to use a Curves adjustment layer in Photoshop to make it lighter. Do this by dragging the right-hand end of the curve upwards.

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Sharpen the detail

To really draw attention to the sharpest areas of the subject, add a little extra sharpening using Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter. The lack of shadows makes noise much less noticeable.

Try this...minimalist mono

This technique involves using Photoshop to add one color to a shot’s highlights and another to the shadows, replicating traditional chemical toning. 

While you can split-tone any black-and-white image, the effect is perfectly suited to minimalist high-key shots, like the snow scene featured above.

Low-key

For successful 'low-key' images you need to make sure that little or no light falls onto your background, so only the main subject is lit. This is usually achieved by controlling the lighting using flash or continuous lighting, such as a reading lamp, but you can achieve low-key results using daylight alone; you just need to search out areas of shadows to use.

To make the image appear even more low-key, we used a Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop. In the Levels window, we dragged the grey centre slider and the black left-hand slider to the right of the histogram to darken the midtone areas and the shadows. We then selectively masked out this adjustment to bring back detail in the model's face.