Photography Tips

Mastering Black and White

A selfie of me and my little one. Strong sun (contrast and hard shadow) is your best friend for B&W. It also allows you to shoot faster (to freeze motion) while using a smaller aperture on a base ISO to get more sharpness, more details and more depth of field.

A selfie of me and my little one. Strong sun (contrast and hard shadow) is your best friend for B&W. It also allows you to shoot faster (to freeze motion) while using a smaller aperture on a base ISO to get more sharpness, more details and more depth of field.

Many amateur photographer think that to achieve a black and white picture they just need to get rid of the color of a regular shot. Nothing could be more wrong than this belief. Here is why…
By Franc Peret

In my teaching, I always say to my students that Black and White pictures are “dangerous”, Which means something potentially going against their progress.



Because many people are using that trick to make their “so so” pictures in color, suddenly look more “artistic” in Black and White, as B&W print is vastly associated, in many people’s mind, as artwork.

Shooting black and white means seeing things that might be not attractive in colors but appealing in shade of grey with lines, shape and structure.
High contrast scene are the way to go to start to work in B&W, as the strong shape of the shadows are going to compensate the lack of colors.

And some easily pleased people are enjoying the trick very much, without knowing they are going against their own progress in general photography that way.
Using B&W as a cure to compensate a weak composition in color is not the best way to face the problem, finding the solution and improving framing skills.

By using a Yellow filter in my B&W post processing, I did a double action: brightening up the barrier while darkening the sky a lot. I also reinforced the contrast to give more strength to the shadows in the foreground.
The diverse structures (barrier, steps, wall, stadium…) the strong shadow and the presence of the 2 opposite colors (yellow and blue) attracted my B&W vision.

Also, with that misunderstanding in mind, those photographer are certainly not going to learn how to shoot interesting Black and White pictures, as well. This is a dead end for creativity.


Somehow, Black and White is too attractive.
For many people, B&W looks more “cool” than color.

Street vendors in Winter shot against the light to emphasize the separation between elements and to fill up empty space with shadows. Panasonic GM-5 ISO200 1/320s, 12-32mm f/3.5-f/5.6 @ 13mm f5.6

This is due to the fact that, back to film time, Black & White negative film was the unique post processing accessible to everyone, technically and economically, especially to independent artists.
A laboratory was easily set in the bathroom or the kitchen with few key equipment, accessories and chemicals.

On the B&W shot, human presence becomes more unique and important as the rest of the image is filled with common element, rectilinear structures which are not differentiated by their colors anymore. It is like pure life (a mother with her baby) versus a globally dehumanized environment.
Another example where color and B&W are working fine but in a different way. The color shot emphasize the separation of the image in 3 layers surrounding the main subject: the black shadow, the yellow fence and the white building with the blue sky.

This was far to be the case with color film, and back to 1986, I had only one friend, a famous wedding photographer near Paris, who had his professional color lab at home.
It was a huge and very costly installation, needing bunch of preset, test, set up and maintenance to deliver the right result. And, worst of all, the chemical’s smell was constantly allover the place…

Hard light creates sharp shadows, usually a difficult combination for portrait due to too strong contrast, but it suits B&W very well.

Color lab were scaled for commercial use, not for personal expression.


Therefore, for decades, many photographers expressed themselves in Black and White as they could afford its treatment and manipulation.

On the color shot, blue is dominant as everything is
“paint ” in that color.
On the black and white version, lines and patterns with sharp contrast from the tree branches and the palissade are taking other as color is not part of the message anymore.

Exhibiting their printed work, they were able to make the difference compare to amateur by improving a lot the quality of their shot by working precisely in the darkroom, the ancestor of Photoshop.

In Black and white, structure and metallic feel is taking over life. For example, we notice more the wet ground and the straight patterns (doors, broom…). The lady seems to be part of the surrounding (absorbed) like a cosmonaut or a cyborg at the gate of her spaceship.
This picture of the old lady sleeping in a garbage container is working very well in color too as red and blue are the only two main dominant colors related to the lady’s occupation (tools and apron). The color in the center of the image reinforce the cold and lifeless feel of her surrounding.

Brightness, darkness, contrast, grain, blurriness, re-framing, cropping, erasing element were all at hand for the artist to get much more dramatic and impressive shots than average Joe.


Nowadays, with digital pictures, too many photographer are taking it easy and consider B&W as an easy cure to their far to be perfect color shots.

Marion on the bike. The most important common point between B&W and color shot is quality of light. Good lighting means more potential for a good shot.

Instead of working harder and more efficiently on their composition, they prefer to get rid of colors when the diverse elements in their image get too confusing: with too many tints and shape badly mixed together.

Give me five. The alternance of highlight and shadows are reinforced by the B&W treatment. Important is to get the main subject under a good lighting.
Shooting against a strong light with a frame filled with reflective surfaces and dark silhouette creates powerful structure which does not need color anymore.

And they wrongly think that the job is done that way.
Somehow, this statement sounds like it is easier to achieve a successful B&W shot than a color one.
Somehow it is true, as you do not need to worry about marrying colors together, but it is not that simple.
All depends on the skill of the photographer.


Hanging clothes are also great subject for both B&W or color shots.
Street Life in Shanghai are offering very nice opportunities to detect B&W subject, such as those reflective windows and electric.lines.

To build an interesting shot, a photographer needs to put elements together with a certain sens of harmony or conflict.
And color is an added value to light, shadow, contrast, shape, lines, patterns and motion.

Happy mom and her kid in before the fence. Recipe is the same for portrait in color or B&W. Best is to use the sun as a kick light and to get the subject standing on a reflective surface to fill up the shadow.
Kids behind the fence. I was attracted by 2 common point:
1- the round face of the kid and the round shape of the air conditioner fan on top of him.
2 – His straight and symmetric posture compare to the straight lines (tube, pipe, fence, window, shadows) surrounding him.

If the photographer knows what he is doing, he is going to play a lot with colors to accentuate his subject, his mood or his concept.
A pure amateur without much technique is going to suffer with this overdose of elements and option, and being overwhelmed by it, he might be happy to get rid of colors to reduce his amount of decision making to achieve something going well together.

Playground on grass. Black and White composition needs details with loads of things in focus which imply a rigorous placement of every element in the frame.

This is a reductive approach which is not helping personal progress.

At the opposite, the professional photographer, while switching from color shooting to black and white shooting, might feel at first that something is missing in his usual creative arsenal: colors.

Written text and reflective surface are very interesting subject in B&W as well.
Lines, shadows and reflection are very powerful creative tools.

Therefore, he is going to work harder on his composition to compensate the lack of colors with more intense contrast, details, lines, shape, patterns and motion.


As you can understand, at this stage, I make it clear that creating a Black and white shot means SEEING black and white in your head and SHOOTING as you imagine it.

This B&W portrait in subway emphasize people connection by holding the same aluminium pole.
Silhouette are working very well in B&W creating a cut out effect with very sharp details (hair style).

It means being able to see the scene in front of you not in colors but in shade of grey, from black to white.

With film camera and DSLR, this vision is quit difficult to achieve, as the viewfinder is showing the scene as it is, and lots of experience is needed to be able to predict what will be the B&W result out of the colorful scene you are framing.

Fisherman in Shanghai Century Park. Path way (dam), lake shape and man posture altogether create motion in the shot even nothing much is happening.

According the post processing (filtering), red, yellow, green and blue element in the shot are going to appear completely different (huge luminescence difference) in monochrome.


Key point in Black and White shooting are still contrast (highlight and shadow), shape, lines, patterns and motion.
First of all, higher contrast scene are helping a lot as they emphasize all those elements, taking over any notion of color.

Motion can be physical movement, another way of creating powerful lines.
A surveillance camera is spot on in focus while the pattern in the background provide a feel of space and perspective. People are secondary element under this oppressive structure.

The alternate of highlight and shadow helps to cut out the image, to split the different elements and to create a hierarchy among them.

An old bed spring used as a fence is a great source of patterns.
Modern city landscape are filled with lines, shape and loads of interesting element in B&W.

Contrast becomes as powerful as focus point to determinate the main subject and most of the time, it is a very good idea to close down the Aperture to get more depth of field and to grab sharper details in a B&W shot.

Pigeon House in Shanghai Century Park. Some material such as leather, rusted iron and wood are gold mine for textured pictures.

Shape, lines and pattern are the other creative tools that you are looking for in a B&W shots to render a more dramatic (emotional) feel.

Facing a strong sun, the portrait works well in B&W especially with a wool hat which offers lots of texture and details.
Under soft light, I still prefer color pictures, with a pastel feel to it. Skin is so beautifully rendered that way.

Motion is not only about physical movement (walking people, running kids, passing by bicycle…), it is also a feel of dynamic you create with pattern (repeated element such as square windows on a building or branches of a tree), swirling shape (such as cloud in the sky) and lines (often present in city or natural landscape).

Shanghai Century Park. Winter landscape are among the best topic for Black and white photography.

Actually, winter is the best season of the year to learn how to shoot in B&W as the nature is lifeless and colorless (full of lines as no leaves on branches) while the lower sun is offering plenty of contrast and very long shadows.

The Panasonic allows me to see the world in B&W with its electronic view finder and I can also switch lenses. Here I mounted my lightest portrait lens: Olympus 45mm f/1.8
My favorite B&W shooting companion, the tiny Panasonic GM-5 next to my working tool (Nikon D750).


Picnic in Century Park. Depth of field is a welcome addition to most of B&W shot to reinforce texture (mother shirt, grass and trees) an important element of composition.

Thanks to new technology, mirror-less cameras using electronic viewfinders offer the possibility to frame and see any scene in Black and White through the lens.
And this is amazingly valuable to get the shot as it should be in term of framing, composition and setting.

I personally do use different mirror-less cameras such as Nikon1, Panasonic GH4 and Panasonic GM-5.
I love those cameras, as they are compact and their lens line-up is very diverse and of great quality.
It is a very interesting addition to my usual Nikon DSLR System.

Anyway, pictures are telling more than words and I think I had wrote enough here.
To complete the subject, please, get a look at some of my Black and White samples, all fully explained with caption.



Former photo journalist, Film maker and ELC Shanghai Photography teacher, Franc Peret is teaching Essential Photography Classes, Advanced Photography Workshop and Film Making Classes in Shanghai, for the last 11 years.
If you wish to contact Franc, just drop an email to