How to Compose Black and White Photos

Have you ever thought about taking Black and White photos?

When we talk about photography we imagine brightness, contrast and colors. However, Black and White photography has been popular across time and today it continues to grow, being the artistic preference of professional photographers and photography enthusiasts.

Contrary to popular belief, Black and White photography has never gone out of style, it still characterizes stability, balance and elegance.

Black and White Photography is also known as B&W Photography or BW Photography. This photo style has its own features, bringing to portrait photos a concept of timeless record, they translate thoughts and even highlight a specific topic.

Taking photos is more than an art, more than a profession, it is also an entertainment. In this post you will discover ways and techniques on how to compose Black and White photos in different contexts to get great results from this unique photo style!

Creating Black and White Portraits

Portraits are a type of photo composition that is very popular in black and White Photography. You shoot a portrait when you take a photo of a person from the shoulders above, focusing on the person’s face as the center of the image. A portrait is always thought out in detail before the shot. It is first built in the mind of the photographer.

Tips on Portrait Black and White Photography

When preparing to take a portrait, you need to remember that the photo lighting, the contrast and the color tones are shown in the viewfinder in case you have a DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera. In case you are using a smartphone camera, you can preview those features in the smartphone screen before shooting. Small errors in the portrait photo compositing can’t be corrected after the shot, only with photo editing software. So, it’s important to preview carefully what will be shot.

Shoot Your Photos in RAW

As in any photo production, for Black and White Photography you have to configure the camera before shooting. It’s before taking the photo that you decide to either shoot in Black and White straight from your camera or to shoot in color to add the Black and White effect later with a photo editing software.

But there is one way to do both at the same time:

RAW format, which works as a digital negative (as in film-roll photos). When you shoot in RAW format you need to process the photo in a software like Photoshop or Lightroom, but you get the advantage of being able to create the Black and White version and the color version of the same photo. In case you have a DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera, you can set it up to shoot it RAW in the camera settings. In case you use a smartphone camera, you may need an app for Android, iOS or other mobile system to shoot in RAW.

Tips to Take Better Portrait Photos in Black and White

How to Compose Portraits in Black and White

Generally speaking, in a portrait photo the most important part is the person’s eyes. They are the focal point of the image. Because Black and White photos only have two colors, what you capture with your camera will be the emotion transmitted from the image, to its viewers, most importantly the shapes and lines of the photo.

When you start to prepare a portrait scenery, make sure that there is enough light around the person’s eyes. Also, prepare a list of phrases and words to say out loud photo subject (the person you’re taking a portrait of). Say words and phrases that represent emotions and states of mind, like “love”, “sadness”, “joy”, “anger”, “lost” and “happiness”. Then ask the person to react with what they feel when hearing each word and phrase you say, and shoot photos of their reactions meanwhile.

The lighting for a Black and White portrait depends on the feeling you want to communicate through the photo. If you want to create high contrast in Black and White photos, it’s better to do that with lighting first, either through natural lightning (sunlight) or artificial lighting (such as LED accessories). A photo editing software should be used only to add small contrast adjustments to the portrait.

Inside the photo editing software, it’s recommended to adjust the photo contrast to around -15 (decrease) or +15 (increase). You can also use high contrast with strong Black and White color grading to create intense images, just remember to always work on the natural/artificial lighting during the photo shooting, that will grant you better results.

In other words, don’t leave all the lighting adjustment work to be done with a photo software because too much editing in Black and White photos can really make them lose quality.

Now let’s see how to shoot urban spaces in Black and White.

Creating Photos of Urban Spaces in Black and White

Urban places such as streets and squares, and urban elements such as buildings are great to compose unique Black and White photos. Also, urban photography is very popular and you can explore your city with your camera or smartphone to create nice shots.

Just remember to shoot in RAW as explained here in the post.

Search for Nice Places in Your City to Take Photos

To create your own Black and White photos of urban spaces, you can go out taking photos of places you like and of places that are popular in your city. Try to see the world in Black and White. Doing this frequently will make your photos better each day.

How to Compose Urban Photos in Black and White

Focus on urban places and urban elements that make the Black and White effect interesting. Don’t worry about colors in terms of texture, tone and contrast as those don’t don’t interfere with the Black and White effect.

Also, let the weather determine the aspect of your photos, when you work along with the weather, your photos never get bag lighting. On cloudy days and rainy days, the reflections of your photos will be much more interesting. When the sun is high, use a backlight: position your camera in a way that the sunlight will be behind the focus object/subject of your photo.

Another thing you can do is use the architecture of your city. Try to find places that will let you create architectural photo compositions that put together the perfect trio: a good photo subject/object, a good place and the ideal lighting.

Pay Attention to Lines, Shapes and Contrasting Colors

Learn to Compose Black and White Photos

For any Black and White photo, it’s important to highlight lines and shapes. Those are particularly expressive in the Black and White photos of external environments, such as urban spaces.

In a Black and White photography, you need to pay attention to colors before taking the photo: you should look for all color shades, so make sure that your photo has a good range of contrasting color shades.

For example, if you’re taking a photo of a person with a coat in dark tones in an urban place, you need to look for colors that contrast with the coat, a background in light tones would be ideal. That will result in a better Black and White photo.

The image doesn’t need to have a lot of negative space (which are empty spaces with no people and no objects) but try to place a good amount of color tones in the same photo, that will result in great Black and White photos.

Creating Photos of Natural Landscapes in Black and White

Now that we’ve talked about urban spaces, you can also create Black and White photos of natural landscapes. Those are great because they have a nostalgic look like no other photo style. You can take photos of natural landscapes and also green areas, places rich in flora (plants, flowers and trees) and also places with natural water streams, such as lakes, rivers and even the sea.

Look for Tonal Contrast and Texture

Learn to Compose Landscape Photos in Black and White

To create Black and White photos of natural landscapes, you need to learn to look for the building blocks of photographic composition, such as leading lines, pattern shapes, texture and tonal contrast.

Tonal contrast is the term used to describe variations in brightness between different parts of the image. All the elements that make up a landscape photo, such as cliffs, grass, trees, mountains, sea and man-made objects (piers and bridges, for example) have their own distinctive textures.

When you learn to see the curves and lines of the landscape that is being used to compose your photo, you are learning to see in Black and White.

Set Up Your Mirrorless or DSLR Camera for Landscape Photography

In case you’re using a Mirrorless Camera or a DSLR, there are some basic settings used for landscape photography to get better image quality:

  • Set the ISO as low as possible (ISO 100 or ISO 200)

  • Set the diaphragm aperture (f) to f/11 or f/16 to ensure that the entire scene is on focus

  • Avoid smaller diaphragm openings in your camera to don’t lose image sharpness

  • For bright sunlight days, set the shutter speed to around 1/125 sec

  • For low sunlight days or low light environments, set the shutter speed to around 1/2 sec

Shoot Photos in a Cloudy Day

Even the weather can be used to create unique Black and White photos. Cloudy days are great for this style of photography, especially for natural landscape photos because they grant you shots with low sunlight interference and vintage look. Taking photos on a cloudy day will make it easier to edit your photos later on a photo software and it will require less contrast/lighting adjustments.

Use Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density filters partially block the light from entering the camera lens. They are also known as ND Filters. You can use ND Filters to capture better images of water streams or clouds. ND Filters work on Mirrorless Cameras and DSLRs. You can also find ND Filters for smartphone cameras. Just remember to always look for a ND Filter specific for your camera/phone model.

Set Your Camera to Monochromatic Mode to Preview Your Photo

One of the advantages of digital cameras (Mirrorless or DSLR) is that they help you learn to see in Black and White: you simply set your camera to the Monochromatic Mode and you will see the scene in the camera viewfinder in Black and White in real time, which makes it easier to preview the tonal contrast, texture, lines and light patterns of the photo before you shoot. Those are great for natural landscape photography in Black and White.

But don’t forget to set your camera to shoot in RAW as explained here in the post, that will grant you a photo that can be processed in Black and White and in color.

How to Compose Photos in Black and White


Great! Now you know how to create unique compositions of Black and White Photography of portraits, urban spaces and natural landscape. So don’t hesitate to take your camera, set it up and start shooting your own Black and White photos!

You can also share your thoughts in the comments below!

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