The Allure of Black and White

In the natural world, where there is light, there’s no escaping color. Luckily, black and white images provide a momentary glimpse of the beauty found in a colorless universe. Black and white photos provide us a place where contrasts and gradients reign supreme. They allow us to be taken away from the natural world we’re used to, and in doing so, they spark wonder, excitement, and evoke emotion. Though they lack the element of color, they can often seem more complex and complete.

Seemingly simple, yet often more complex

What we'll discuss in this lesson


To start, it's always good to know what common terms are associated with the field of study.

Black and White vs. Monochromatic

We often use these interchangeably, though we'll discuss why they are quite different.

Contrast & Grayscale Gradients

How varying brightness levels within a scene and their proximity to each other changes an image.

High Key Images and Low Key Images

The process of taking black and white images to an extreme by tipping the scales in favor of either darkness or brightness.

Camera Settings

Knowing the ideal camera settings will help in foreseeing and producing the final black and white image.

Developing B&W Images in Lightroom

Import color images into Lightroom and convert them to Black and White, then use the B&W sliders to produce better images.

Removal of color allows the viewer to focus on contrasts, texture, and form.


Black and White Image

An image consisting only of pure black and pure white.

Monochromatic Image

An image consisting of one color.


In photography, it is the intense difference of luminosity or color between two or more elements.


In photography, it is a transition from one level of luminosity or color to another, either in steps or in a smooth transition.


Varying levels of luminosity that fall within a colorless spectrum between white and black.

High Key Image

An image that is intentionally produced with extreme levels of brightness and reduced levels, or areas, of shadow.

Low Key Image

An image that is intentionally produced with extreme levels of shadow and reduced levels, or areas, of brightness.


Image recording format that captures the greatest amount of information possible for the specific camera being used.

Black and White Vs. Monochromatic

By definition, black and white images are made up entirely of pure black and pure white. However, when we envision black and white images, we typically visualize them with an array of varying tones of gray, known as a grayscale. This is because black and white images that include a grayscale are much more common in the natural world. Scenes of only pure black and pure white are quite rare in comparison and are typically produced by means of extreme light manipulation, or during post-production, by the artist creating them.

Unlike black and white images, monochromatic images are comprised of one color. A monochromatic image may be perceived as possessing multiple colors due to varying contrasts levels within it, however, it is still only comprised of a single color-tone. Sometimes the added color is so mild, it is hard to tell it is there unless there is a true black and white image held next to it for comparison.

In the early days of photography, innovative artist would add dyes or other chemicals during a photos development process to instill a feel to the image that black and white alone could not do. If we assume the base for their image was originally a black and white, and they added only one color dye, they would produce an image that had the same contrasts and gradients of the original black and white but with the addition of a single color. While the image started as a black and white, it is now monochromatic.

Image of grayscale contrast steps and smooth gradient

Black and White images are made of colorless contrasts and gradients which can be thought of as brightness intensity.

Image of monochromatic color tones

Monochromatic images contain one color. Each color can birth many variations due to brightness levels within the image, as seen here.

Prussian Blue monochromatic image of Hawaiian Mountain with clouds

Monochromatic - Addition of Prussian Blue

Black and white image of Hawaiian Mountain with clouds

Black and white - No addition of color

Contrast & Grayscale Gradients

Elements that create black and white photos

Contrast is a noticeable difference in illumination (the intensity of light) between elements within an image. Without the assistance of color, tonal contrast is how we define various elements within black and white images. Looking at the image above, we can clearly set a distinction between the man fishing on the edge of the cliff, and the sky. The silhouette is close to black, while the clouds are much closer to white. Imagine the same shot with dark storm clouds in the background. The contrast would be much less since there would be less change of luminosity between the fisherman and the clouds. In this particular instance, the contrast is strong enough to create the desired separation of elements, the fisherman and the sky.

There are varying types of tonal contrasts that can be used to create artistic interpretations of a scene. For instance, a sense of intensity can be produced if the darkest tones are pure black, and the lightest tones are pure white. To create a more subtle tonal contrast, the darkest and lightest tones can be reduced in their degree of separation. The following are three examples of tonal contrasts.

Low Contrast

Medium Contrast

High Contrast

High Key Images and Low Key Images

Often, to express artist vision, one might want to create an image that is made up mostly of very dark or very light elements, excluding much of the mid-level brightness values. When mostly dark elements dominate an image, it is known as "low key." When mostly light elements dominate an image, it is known as "high key."

High key image of a young model looking up

High Key images are bright and often ethereal

Low Key images are dark and often mysterious

Preparing your camera for black and white photography

While shooting black and white images using film specifically made to do so, for our purposes, we’re going to focus on creating black and white images using a digital camera and post processing software such as Lightroom.

If you haven’t yet started shooting in your cameras RAW format, you will want to make sure you change your cameras setting to do so prior to shooting for black and white images. Essentially, you should always shoot in RAW, be it color or black and white images, to ensure you’re capturing as much of a photographic scenes’ information as possible. You should be able to easily find the steps to do so for your specific camera by doing a quick web search.

Once your camera is set to shoot in RAW, you’ll want to check your cameras built in filter options. Many options include a black and white feature. If you turn this on, you’ll be able to use your cameras rear screen, or digital eyepiece for newer mirror-less cameras, to see what your image will look like in black and white before you press the shutter. Since you’re shooting in RAW, you’re not actually recording the image in black and white. It’ll still have all its color information once loaded into your post processing software, such as Lightroom.

It’s important to follow these steps we can hold on to the color information. If we shot only in JPEG and used the black and white filter, there would be no way to regain the color information later. If we shot in JPEG and didn’t use the black and white filter, we wouldn’t have a good preview of our work, and we would also loose huge amounts of scene information.

Developing B&W Images in Lightroom

As artists, we want as much control over our final image as possible. When we import our images into Lightroom, we are given that control through an array of tools. Being able to take advantage of these tools is ideal when trying to create images that best represent our personal stylistic preferences. By importing in color, and converting to grayscale, we gain access to the "B&W" adjustments tool which let's us manipulate each colors luminosity as seen within the grayscale. The example above shows how we could select which colors brightness we want to change within an image, and how doing so will then specifically change the luminosity of the final black and white image. Had we imported an already converted JPEG image, this essential tool would be useless, as there would be no color information to adjust.

To convert a color image to black and white in lightroom, you can click on the "Black & White" text in the Treatment area of the tool control panel. You can also press the shortcut button "V" to convert to grayscale.

Once your image has been converted to Black and White, you can access the "B&W" section of the tools control panel. Here you can make luminosity changes specific to each of the listed colors.

Here you can see that luminosity has been increased for the red, orange, and yellow sliders, while luminosity has been decreased for the green, aqua, and blue sliders.

By accessing the "Calibration section of the tools control panel, you could further manipulate the intensity of the effects seen within the converted image.

Original color image

Image converted to grayscale in Lightroom

Smooth gradients of the grayscale help to create softer images.

Stronger contrasts help to create more dramatic images.

Using the rule of thirds helps create a more desirable composition.

Look for subjects that have interesting textures and highlights.

Using hard shadows with strong contrasts can make for a great image.

Incorporate shadow, texture, gradients, and strong contrasts, to create desirable composition.