Black and white photography tips: three pros share their advice

Why, when and how to use black and white photography according to three experts who share their best results for monochrome.
A black and white image of a girl in silhouette holding a butterfly, taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Helen Bartlett.

Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett has built her career photographing black and white portraits of families and children, fine-tuning her technique to capture striking images that convey a sense of mood and personality. If you're looking for a lens with reach, try the RF equivalent of the lens Helen uses. The Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens is lighter, faster and has a 5-stop Image Stabilizer for shake-free photos. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 88mm, 1/1250 sec, f/8 and ISO 100. © Helen Bartlett

With our modern world awash with colour, shooting in black and white presents the opportunity to strip a frame back to its fundamental elements, guiding the viewer into a scene, an emotion, a moment in time. It is effective in most genres – from timeless portraits through to weddings, wildlife and architecture. So what's the best way to capture images when you have mono in mind?

Self-made professional photographer Helen Bartlett specialises in capturing memorable moments of families through monochrome portraiture, while award-winning wedding photographer Sanjay Jogia shoots couples across the world in both colour and black and white, using the latter to hone in on the energy of these vibrant, large-scale events. Fashion, dance and portrait photographer Sascha Hüttenhain's dramatic style encompasses black and white, accentuating the expression of his subjects.

Here, the three professional photographers and Canon Ambassadors share the tips and techniques they have accumulated over years of experience behind the lens shooting in black and white.

A black and white portrait of two young girls kneeling on the floor; one is pulling a scary face while the other shrieks in mock fear. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L lens by Helen Bartlett.

The super-fast autofocus of the Canon EOS R5 enables Helen to concentrate on capturing those special moments, such as the playful expressions on the faces of these young children. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.2 and ISO 1250. © Helen Bartlett

1. Set your camera to Monochrome mode

Black and white photography is very different from shooting in colour, so Helen advises taking advantage of any settings your camera offers to help. The Monochrome mode in the Picture Style settings on most EOS cameras, including the Canon EOS R5, enables you to shoot in black and white.

"Shooting black and white with the electronic viewfinder of the Canon EOS R5 has been a game-changer for me and allows me to 'see' in black and white," says Helen, who always sets her camera to Monochrome mode.

"It really helps me compositionally and means that I don't have an extra layer between the image in my head and that in front of my camera. I like to be able to see the exposure changes and find this makes me more experimental, particularly with complex lighting such as rim-lit images or partial silhouettes. Working in Monochrome mode helps me to focus on graphic elements, which are hugely important in black and white images."

2. Look for light in unexpected places

"When I go into a house, I will wander around. I'll look in people's bedrooms, loft extensions... I'll be looking for the spot where the light is the best," says Helen. "And I find it's often not in the places my clients expect to be working. The living room, for example, might be dark and cavernous, whereas the bedroom where Grandma is staying at the top of the house might have a skylight with fantastic light."

A ballet dancer stands on pointe, a beam of light illuminating their head and torso and the rest of their body in shadow in a black and white photo by Sascha Hüttenhain, taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

"A classic tutu was used here," reveals Sascha. "By using hard light, I was able to illuminate the dancer and the background in a special way." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 32mm, 1/125 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

A dancer wearing large white feathered wings is illuminated, posing against a studio wall in a black and white photo by Sascha Hüttenhain, taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

"I got these wings from a designer," recalls Sascha. "We were able to work with them in a very creative and unusual way. Again I used hard light to create a special effect." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 39mm, 1/125 sec, f/5 and ISO 200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

3. Use the light

When colour is (literally) out of the picture, it's all about light and shade. Helen mostly uses natural or available light. "I do have a continuous LED that I sometimes use, but I use whatever's in front of me," says Helen. "I'll be looking at where the light is falling, to see if I can get a bit more drama, a bit of graphic intensity, while still making sure I get what the family wants out of the picture.

"I find that different light works for different ages. If you've got really beautiful but strong light, for example, that's great for older children because you can point them in the right direction. But I shoot whatever the weather and a grey day can be a great day with gentler, more diffused, light."

Sascha uses lighting to accentuate contrast, a pivotal tool in black and white images. "Light is a very important aspect in my work," he says. "I like to use very hard light which emphasises the contours even more, and looks suitable for black and white photography.

"For me, photography is the play with light and shadow. It doesn't always have to be a large light structure, as many meaningful and timeless photos were taken with just one light. Less is often more and is much easier to handle than complex lighting set-ups."

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A bride's family wish her farewell, her relative embracing her and crying, as others look on in tears in a black and white photo by Sanjay Jogia.

"This moment at the end of a Sikh Wedding ceremony called the 'Doli' where the Bride's family wish her farewell," says Sanjay. "This is without fail an emotional part of the day, and what makes this image work is that every face here contributes to the story either with emotion, curiosity or wisdom." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 25mm, 1/60 sec, f/4 and ISO 10,000. © Sanjay Jogia

4. Be intentional about shooting in black and white

Sascha considers wardrobe choices before determining whether a shot will work best in monochrome. "Before the shoot, I think about styling and what outfits my models will wear," he says. "This is an important aspect in my photography, so that the shoots remain timely. That's my style and it runs through my photography, from the idea to the lighting, and the appearance of my models in front of the camera."

Meanwhile Sanjay considers emotion. "Anything emotionally charged tends to be the most powerful in black and white, because you focus on the narrative of the story," he says. "With Indian weddings, there are moments that are heavy with emotion and combined with all the colours, it's easy for the narrative to get diluted slightly because a viewer is distracted by the clothing and everything else that's going on. I tend to only convert images to black and white when I want to focus on expressions or an interaction. The way I photograph is not just photographing what I see, but photographing what I feel."

5. Shoot in RAW

Sanjay shoots with a Canon EOS R5 and a Canon EOS R3 and prefers to preview his black and white shots in camera, so that he can showcase a potentially strong monochrome image to the couple there and then.

"If I switch the Picture Style to black and white, it's only so that I can see the tonality across the image, or if I think it's a great monochrome shot that I want to show the bride and groom," he says.

"It will show all of the tonality, the amazing dynamic range, but I still know that the RAW file in colour gives the latitude of being able to do both versions of that image. Canon's colour science has always been so flattering to human skin that even when converted to black and white, the shift in tonality is evident."

Shooting RAW is always a good idea as it gives you the freedom to explore editing treatments, but there's no definitive 'right way' to shoot black and white. You switch your camera to black and white mode if you're the type of photographer who prefers to see an accurate preview of your final image. But equally, converting colour images into black and white is easier than ever thanks to editing presets in programs such as Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP).

Helen Bartlett stands next to a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer looking at an A2 black and white photo print.

Steps to the perfect black and white print

Printing specialist Jay Sinclair shows family photographer Helen Bartlett how to produce great black and white prints of her photos.
A black and white portrait of a child examining a bug on her father's hand. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens by Helen Bartlett.

Helen says images created with the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens have "incredible depth and beauty". Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/1.4 and ISO 100. © Helen Bartlett

6. Watch for distracting hotspots

"Look out for distracting light when you're shooting in black and white," says Helen. "For example, a picture frame can catch the light and become an annoying hotspot in the background, so look out for them, and reflections. You don't need to worry so much about that red toy fire engine!" Canon's zoom lenses are useful in situations like this as you can simply zoom in to crop out strong light spots by changing your framing slightly.

7. Boost tonality with great dynamic range

Portraits without colour can be truly compelling if your camera can capture both the darkest and lightest tones in a scene, says Helen. "Dynamic range is really important when creating beautiful black and white images, and getting stunning tones from deep blacks to bright whites can really make or break an image. "The 45MP files of the Canon EOS R5 are astonishing in their detail and depth, and the tones are fantastic. I often blow my images up to at least 75cm across and they look amazing," she adds.

Cameras with lower resolutions can also be used for large prints as decent quality RAW files combined with Canon's Neural network Upscaling Technology can fill your images with photo-realistic details which allows for double resolution magnifications. A free one-month trial gives you the opportunity to test it out and see how you like this subscription based service.

Sascha, who shoots with the Canon EOS R3 and EOS R5, agrees: "A camera's large dynamic range gives a photo enormous depth and charisma, as you can find a lot of details and image information there that would otherwise be lost. This improvement is a big gain and makes images higher quality and more exciting."

A bride poses next to her wedding cake with her bridesmaids in a black and photo by Sanjay Jogia.

Sanjay suggests desaturating colour channels individually to gain more control over things like skin tone and help draw attention to the aspects you want to focus on. "The environment, whilst picturesque and beautiful, is a distraction; the monochrome nature draws the viewers' attention to the elegance of the subjects and the flattering lighting," explains Sanjay, speaking of this portrait of the bride, her bridesmaids and the wedding cake. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/160 sec, f/5 and ISO 2000. © Sanjay Jogia

8. Choose the best lenses for black and white portraits

Helen prefers not to change lenses while shooting portraits, so she shoots with one camera in her right hand and one in her left. "I use prime lenses, so I don't want to swap them all the time while I'm shooting, but I want the flexibility of more than one focal length," she says.

Helen has been photographing solely in black and white for 17 years and uses prime lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM and the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM on her Canon EOS R5. She often pairs her Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM or Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens.

"I always recommend people start with a prime lens for portraits," she says. "I love to shoot using a single fixed focal length as I find that the constraints actually enhance my creativity, forcing me to move my feet and explore different angles and approaches. Shooting with a fast prime allows you to really get to grips with wide apertures. The sublime Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM is one of the best lenses I've ever used. It's really extraordinary, great in low light and for photographing fast-moving children at wide apertures.

"The EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is the traditional portrait lens and a particularly flattering focal length that I love. With the 85mm, you can still be close enough to interact but you've also got beautiful perspective. If you're photographing kids running around or cycling off on their bikes, it gives you that little bit of extra reach without losing conversational space, which is where you get interactions and expressions."

9. Process your images differently for monochrome

Sanjay has specific advice on processing images in black and white, adding that some less experienced photographers create a conversion by just desaturating which, though a valid technique, can be limiting.

"It depends on how much control you want over certain things," he says. "For example, if you want to control things like the brightness of skin tone or the sky, the best thing to do is to desaturate the channels.

"I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom* where you have the red, yellow, orange, green, blue, magenta and purple channels, and when desaturating those individually, you still have control of the luminance and brightness of each of those channels. So what it means is that when I'm photographing an Indian wedding, and you've got slightly darker skin combined with bright clothes or a decorated room, the brightness of those things will overpower the faces and the skin. So what you can actually do is push the luminance on the yellow, orange and red up slightly, because those are the key channels within skin tone. This brightens up the skin independently of everything else."

Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software is also excellent for processing monochromatic images. DPP's Lens Correction tools can be used to manually correct chromatic aberration, distortion and other lens-related flaws using simple sliders. This is an important step in editing black and white photos.

10. Get the best Canon camera for black and white photography

Helen uses a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and a Canon EOS R5 for her timeless monochrome portraits.

"The EOS R5 has phenomenal autofocus capable of tracking the face of a child jumping on a bed, leaping around as they run in the woods, or playing in a sea of bubbles," she says. "This enables me to concentrate on composition and creating a unique image. Swapping between different focus modes is made easier by the extra controls on the Canon EOS R5, as you can set the control ring on the back or on the lens, making it very easy to shift mode as you work.

"The EOS R5 also has incredible low-light capabilities and when you're working with kids, you'll often be outside for part of the session and then indoors so you need to be able to keep your shutter speed up and the ISO." With enough amount of light outdoors, you can keep up with the shutter speed even at low ISO, but indoor shooting is easy and seamless at higher ISO and the camera eliminates any noise.

For those still not brave enough to shoot fully manual or even for pros who simply want to shoot a little more laid back additionally, the EOS R5's Auto ISO settings help you avoid underexposed or overexposed images, especially when you're photographing kids running between dark and bright scenes.

Erlingur Einarsson, Lorna Dockerill and Marcus Hawkins

*Adobe, Photoshop and Lightroom are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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