9 Essential Elements of Black and White Photography

You may have heard people boldly proclaim that black and white isn’t just the absence of colour. But I always wondered: what is it then? There seems to be a ghostly presence in black and white photos that can never be made visible.

This almost eerie sense is the interaction between a number of key elements, mostly shadow and light. But also the individual hues and contrast play a role in how good a b&w shot is.

I gathered some of my thoughts and found nine factors that make a difference in black and white photography.

1. Shadow and Light

Have you ever seen the light fall through your window in the morning, and then observed it again in the evening? Our eye is naturally drawn by the light, so we completely forget about the shadow that all light creates.

Where there is light, there must be shadow, and vice versa. When I started drifting from colour photography into black and white, one of the first tasks for me was to adjust my perception of the world. When I look through the lens I need to envisage the shot in black and white, even though I only saw colour.

The best way to change how you see the world is by focusing your eyes on shadows. Instead of looking at the light, look at the dark space the light creates and see what shape and depth the shadow is.

A shadow isn’t just one shade or shape. It isn’t just a single dark region. There are so many variations of shadows that you will slowly notice after a while, just as many different shades of light. Shadows can be fully black or they may just be deep grey with some details. These details can add interest and complexity to your photo.

The shadows strongly depend on your object and composition, so you need to carefully tune into your object (a bit more about this below). Certain objects create darker shadows than others, and the closer an object is to a light source, the lighter your shadows.

When photographers play around with shadows and light, they use the whole spectrum, sometimes from pure white to deep black. Saying this, for the perfect black and white photograph, you don’t need the entire spectrum. You just need to be aware of where the shadows are. Pure black next to pure white creates a strong contrast (more on this below), whereas adding a little bit of detail into both can make the contrast less obvious and stark.

2. Shapes

You may take a photograph of a dog or your friend but when you look closely, then you will notice that everything is made of shapes. Some are more complex than others. You can see the shapes easier when you turn your photo into black and white. That’s when the details of your object and its surroundings become clearly divided into lighter and darker regions.

The individual shapes and how they interact with each other in a black and white photograph make your picture appealing. For example, a photo of a mountain is always a popular shot because the triangular shape of the mountain top simply stands out.

The human eye can follow shapes so much easier. The first thing we spot in the first millisecond of looking at a photo is the shape, and only then we look closer at the details.

It takes a little bit of time to consciously recognise the shapes in a black and white photo. Sometimes it’s quite obvious (as in the example with the mountain) but other times, you will need to look at the picture for a while before you can spot something. Similar to seeing shadows, it’s all about training your eyes to see the shapes in a shot.

3. Dark and Light Tones

There are never just contrasts of stark black and white but what makes this type of photography so unique is how the brighter areas of a photo play together with the shades of grey, fading into black.

You will find that some photos seem either very dark or very bright, that’s what is often referred to as the tone of a photo. It’s also the atmosphere and mood that the photographer creates in the image.

Lighter black and white images are typically happier, dreamy and etherial, whereas darker black and white photos are more moody, foreboding and mysterious.

The right tones that work the best depend on your object or scene in the image. As a photographer, you have the power to choose what you want your image to be, and how you want it to feel. So, it’s worth playing around with a few landscapes and scenes to find out what works best for you and certain settings.

4. Texture

A photograph may be a two-dimensional, flat surface but a good photo can lift the scene off the page, making it look almost three-dimensional. Just think of all the 3D art on a screen or in street art. These images feel just so real, as if you are right inside the shot.

That’s exactly the role of texture in photography.

Nothing you photograph is just a simple, smooth surface. Everything has texture, from a beautiful meadow with swaying grass to the seemingly smooth surface of a piece of paper (when you look closely, even paper has a textured surface).

Texture is just as important as shadow and light in black and white photography. It gives your image personality, emotions and mood. A black and white photograph only comes to life with texture.

Depending on what you are photographing, textures can vary a lot. Take the example of a fast flowing river. The texture of water is generally very soft but you can capture deep shadows and boost the contrast to show how powerful the flow is.

In colour photography, you can easily depend on different colours and tones to create balance and harmony but in black and white photography, you need to use texture to shape the emotions that come from the photograph.

5. Contrast

There is a misconception that contrast means the difference between the darkest and brightest part of a photo. But there is more to it than just the basic differences between black and white.

When two objects are next to each other, and they have different brightnesses, then this can exaggerate the contrast. This means, you need to consider the proximity of objects to each other in a photograph.

The reason why contrast is essential in black and white photography is because it has an impact on how vibrant and active objects look. A high contrast photo usually conveys a lot of movement. On the other hand, low contrast images are much softer and muted. They don’t stand out as much.

I often prefer to create a higher contrast in my images to really bring the emotions in a photo across but I also tried a few more subtle low contrast photographs which use soft silver tones. Saying this, you will need to choose the right contrast for your subject. Often enough, photographers create the contrast in post-production, so they don’t have to worry about it too much when they take a shot.

Certain subjects just lend themselves to a higher contrast, such as wide, flowing landscapes. And lower contrasts are for scenes that look more peaceful and calm.

6. Composition

To be fair, composition isn’t just essential in black and white photography. It’s simply one of the main elements in photography overall. 

How certain shapes, objects, background and foreground play together in your photo has a big impact on what mood and emotions it conveys. Despite how easy many shots look, they are never just a snapshot of a moment but a careful combination of your objects. This may be intentional (such as with commercial photography) or unintentional (such as when you take a photograph of a couple dancing in the streets). But you always should be aware of the overall composition of a photo.

Composition in black and white photography however is very different to composition in colour photography. When you don’t have colour to depend on as a focal point, you will need to choose shadows, light and textures to create a well-composed black and white photo. This means, you will need to “see” your photo in black and white in front of you – use a monochrome mindset – to take a beautiful composition in black and white.

What makes black and white quite special to me is that you can create a true sense of mystery and wonder, even in some basic compositions. Viewers might look at your photo for a moment, then stop and look again to find just this unique spark hidden in the shot. This sort of magic is only possible in black and white photography.

7. Depth

This is often an essential part of black and white photography that’s forgotten about. Colour and monochrome photography show different layers. Our eyesight has evolved to distinguish between foreground, middle ground and background – in colours.

In black and white photography, creating depth is almost like peeling an onion in reverse. You will need to keep your composition in mind and check where each of your object is in the shot.

It’s a good idea to keep a balance between foreground and background, but this depends on what you want your viewers to focus on. If you want someone to look at a sheep in the background, then you can blur the foreground. The same also works in reverse. If you want to make a chair in the foreground stand out, then gently blur anything behind it.

But you don’t just have to depend on blur for this. Luckily, we can use shadows to make something disappear in black and white photography, so when your bright white chair is in focus and everything behind it is dark, then there is no need for a blur.

However, deep contrasts like full black or complete white can be a bit like a pitch black night or a snowy landscape. The viewer might find himself lost without a focal point, so don’t let everything disappear into a contrast.

8. Object

Perhaps I should have put this one at the top because everything in your black and white photo is about your object and what you are photographing. Your object dictates the shadows, light, texture and composition. It’s the most essential element in black and white photography.

You need to pay close attention to what you see through your lens. The more you can feel into your object, the more you will be able to convey the mood in your photo.

9. Mood and Emotions

Why do we enjoy looking at photography so much? Because it makes us happy or sad or perhaps it just reminds us of better times. Whatever a photo shows, viewers always feel something when they look at a photograph.

Each element that I have mentioned so far is simply a tool to create a certain mood and emotions in your photograph. A mood that your viewers will pick up on.

Of course, we are all different and we all react differently to black and white photos but black and white photographers can convey the mood of a setting. Take the example of a lonely tree up on a hill. This composition simply speaks of isolation and loneliness. As a contrast, a clown in a crowded circus tent performing his tricks is not lonely. A photo of this kind might show the happiness in people’s faces or the joy of the performer.

Final Thoughts

Black and white photography is not just the absence of colour but there are some basic elements that photographers need to consider when they want to shoot in black and white.

From creating a balanced composition to watching shadows and light, black and white photography can be just as powerful as colour photography – if not more so.