Black and white photography is a unique art form with both historical and modern-day value. With a nearly two-hundred-year history, this photographic technique has played an integral role in shaping modern-day art and culture.

As such, it’s important to understand both the history and the uses of black and white photography. Though it’s easy to associate this art form with days gone by, understanding the purpose and techniques of black and white photography can give you further appreciation of one of the world’s most influential artistic mediums.

In this piece, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about black and white photography—from its fascinating history to helpful tips and tricks. Use this ultimate guide as a reference to all your black and white photography questions!

Are you ready? Let’s begin!

What Is Black and White Photography?

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Before we go any further, let’s start with a simple question: what is black and white photography?

Technically, black and white photography is the process of producing black and white images by fixing light patterns onto sensitive surfaces. Or, in layman’s terms, this type of photography is the process of capturing the world around us in black and white.

History of Black and White Photography

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Black and white photography is the oldest form of photography. Though it’s likely not what you and I first think of when we hear the term “photography,” the medium was the only form of photographic production for over a century.

Though black and white photography has been largely faded out, there are still several instances where the medium is preferred.

Let’s take a look at the different eras of black and white photographic production to get a more holistic view of what black and white photography is and where it stands now.

  • Early—Though the first successful photographic process was invented around 1824 with Nicephore Niepce’s heliography, it wasn’t until Louis Daguerre’s invention of the daguerreotype in 1838 that the photographic medium took off. Daguerreotypes played an integral role in the history of photography. These were medium resolution, black and white portraitures that maintained popularity until the 1860s. As the first mainstream and popular photographic process, daguerreotypes would come to define the early stages of photography.  
  • Heyday—As photography became more advanced, its role in society increased. By the 1860s, photography was used to capture not only portraits but also battle scenes and landscapes. In the coming years, this medium would have a significant impact on culture, as black and white photography and film were used in advertising, politics, print, and other popular media.
  • Present Day—Currently, black and white photography is still a popular medium for beginning and advanced photographers alike. Photographers of today have the choice of using either black and white or color photography, giving black and white pieces a distinction they did not once have.

Why Do We Use Black and White Photography?

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You might be thinking, “What’s the point of using black and white photography today?” After all, what’s the point of setting the clock back fifty years?

You may be shocked to find that there are still a variety of situations that call for the use of black and white photography.

Let’s take a look at them and see why this art form is still popular today.

  • Aged Effect—Many photographers shoot in black and white when attempting to create an “aged” effect for their work. For example, a photographer may opt to shoot a dilapidated farmhouse in black and white to emphasize the element of time in the piece. In this way, black and white can be used to highlight the central dimension of work.
  • Creativity—Every artist wants to break convention. I’d wager even you do, too. The same way we like playing with our selfie effects, photographers play with color to add extra meaning to their work. By using black and white, modern-day photographers can break from convention and draw attention to their work.
  • Expertise—Shooting in black and white requires a different skillset. In fact, photographers who shoot in both black and white and color emphasize the former’s ability to train their eye to the quality, quantity, and direction of light when taking pictures.

If you are a photographer or are looking to have pictures made, consider shooting in black and white to add an extra element to your piece.

When to Use Black and White Photography

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This brings us to another question. Namely, when should you use black and white photography?

This is a question that’s stumped photography students for years, and one to which there’s no easy answer. Here’s the deal: not everyone agrees that using black and white photography is a good thing.In fact, critics of black and white photography call the practice dated and limiting. Still, as we discussed above, countless artists use the medium as an avenue for creative expression.

If you are unsure of when to use black and white photography, consider it in the following instances:

  • You wish to emphasize lighting, form, or image texture
  • You are looking to make a statement

For starters, shooting in black and white can help you focus more on the content of your piece than on the lighting.

How so?

Simply put, many photographers find color distracting. Having even one wrong hue can throw off the mood of your piece, so it’s important to neutralize as many distractions as possible.

By shooting in black and white, you will be able to emphasize the form of your image. If you take color out of the photographic equation, you are freer to focus on shapes, shadows, and textures, which often gives you more room for an artistic shot.

You can also use black and white photography if you are looking to make a statement. For many photographers, the use of black and white is an excellent way to draw attention to their work.

The reason is simple: we don’t think in black and white.

The idea behind this is that black and white suspends reality, capturing our attention and allowing us to focus on the subject of the work.

Types of Black & White Photography

As you might expect, there are several types of black and white photography, with each serving a different purpose.

  • Portraits—Some of the most famous black and white photographs are portraits. A few, such as Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, have become world-famous symbols that helped shape popular political perceptions for decades.
  • Newborn Looking at someone’s face, or into their eyes, without the distraction of color can provide a stronger emotional connection to the subject. The black and white images allow your brain to focus only on the main element of the photo and the emotional message is more easily conveyed as our brains become more perceptive and focused on the images core itself.
  • Landscapes and Cityscapes —Black and white landscapes typically focus on light contrast (from ultra-bright to pitch dark) to build timeless scenes with a focus on composition. If this sounds boring, remember that the first photograph ever taken was a black and white landscape!
  • Fashion—Modern day black and white fashion photography continues a decades-old tradition. By shooting in black and white, photographers are able to emphasize the emotion and mood of a particular fashion, rather than that outfit’s visual appeal.

Knowing the types of black and white photography is a great first step to producing quality black-and-white artwork. Keep these styles in mind as you start or continue your journey with the medium!

Tips for Beginners

Think in Black and White

It can be hard conceptualizing the world in anything but color.

If you’re looking to shoot black and white photography, however, this is a must. While many of the skills of color photography can be transferred to the black and white medium, excelling at black and white photography takes a unique skillset.

In other words, you will never be able to get that quality shot if you can’t see shapes, shadows, and contrasts in black and white. Therefore, learning to think in black and white should be the first step of any photographer looking to break into the medium.

Decide on Your Equipment

Once you’ve learned to think in black and white, you’ll be faced with another important decision: what should you use to take your photographs?

In order to take the most optimal of shots, consider using a camera. Established brands such as Canon, Nikon, and Sony provide great (if expensive) options for black and white photography.

If photography is simply your hobby, however, don’t be afraid to take shots from your phone. With the advent of “mobile photography,” high-quality pieces are now widely taken and produced on mobile devices everywhere.

Use the Right Lens/Filter

Depending on your device, you will likely need a lens or filter to maximize your photograph’s potential. That’s why this is considered one of the most important tips for beginners looking to get into black and white photography.

If you have ever taken a selfie, you already get the idea. Just as filters can help your pictures turn out better, they can help an artist gain the most value out of his shot. In fact, many photographers who have entered the realm of mobile photography use such filters to enhance their black and white shots.

Best Lenses for Portraiture 

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Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II Lens

Are you ready to take your portrait-taking game to the next level?

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II Lens can help you do that. Designed for high-quality portraiture and still-life shots, this lens provides top-notch foreground clarity.

To make things better, this lens comes weather-sealed so that you never have to worry about outside shooting.

At $1,899, this is one of the most expensive portraiture lenses on the market. Despite this, it’s a great tool for any photographer interested in black and white portraiture.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L Lens

This camera’s 50mm lens makes it the perfect option for beginning photographers. If you are looking to take high-quality black and white portraits, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L Lens is a great starting option.

Why?

To begin with, it’s a lightweight option that won’t hold you down. Furthermore, with a lens that literally sees the way you see, it has a quick adjustment period and will allow you to ease into the art of portraiture.

To make it even better, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L starts out at just $399. Without a doubt one of the best lenses for portraiture, this piece is a great, affordable addition to any photographer’s kit.

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G

If you’re looking for a lens that will really bring your black-and-white portrait into focus, consider the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G. With manual focus and a built-in stabilizing mechanism, this machine will provide a clear shot of your foreground image. What’s more, it will help bring the background out of focus to keep your composition attention-grabbing and tone-setting.

With a price tag of $1,496.95, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is a pricey investment—but a worthy one for anyone looking to seriously foray into black and white portraiture.

How to Take Black and White Portraits

With these tips and products in mind, let’s take a brief look at how to shoot a black and white portrait. Understanding this process is the key to producing quality work.

  1. Adjust Your Settings – Before you begin, make sure to adjust your aperture. This will determine the amount of contrast between your focal point and the background of the work. In general, you want your background to be soft and your foreground to stand out. You’ll find that your bokeh (or blurred areas of your photograph) is just as important as your foreground in black and white photography.
  2. Consider Lighting – Lighting is crucial in black and white photography. In essence, lighting is your story, as it determines the mood, tone, and attitude of your piece.
  3. Pose – Finally, you want to consider your model’s pose. In most cases, you might want to plan your photograph’s composition before taking the shot (unless struck by a certain blast of inspiration—which we certainly understand!).

If you’re unsure how to take black and white photographs, the above information is a great starting point!

Conclusion

There’s a lot to learn about black and white photography.

Luckily, this guide tells you everything you need to know to get started working in the medium. From the art form’s unique and fascinating history to beginner tips and tricks, this guide is meant to serve as a valuable resource to anyone looking to learn a little more about black and white photography.

I hope this proves useful! Questions or comments? Leave them below. Let us know how these black and white photography tips work for you!