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In the Beginning, There Was only Black & White

March 12, 2015

Great black & white photos aren’t taken – they’re made.”

– Ansel Adams

In the beginning, there was only black and white photography. That’s all glass plate and film negatives were capable of recording on their emulsions. As film technology improved, these emulsions gained a greater ability to record not just “blacks” or “whites” but a full tonal range between these two points. Take a close look at an original black and white photo made by one of the masters, such as Ansel Adams. The nuances of the tonal range will knock your socks off!

One might apply Mr. Adams’ quote to all great photographs. You have to make them.  Being in the right place at the right time certainly helps, but that perfect image didn’t just magically appear on your film or camera roll. You had to have the good sense to capture that image. During that capture, it was your sense of composition and training that guided your hand.  During post-production, it was this same training and experience guiding you as you finalized your image. Yeah, you had to make it.

What black and white photographers of yesteryears and those of today didn’t have was color. Color is a cheat. Of course, love a fully saturated color photo or a photo where the color range has been carefully manipulated to bring out the full power of the image. There is a time and place for color but grant me this; take away the color in 90% or more of the images you see and what do you have? Nothing outstanding.

Black and white photography forces you to be aware of the most basic and important rule – composition! A good black and white photographer pays attention to their composition. They have to, there’s no color allowing them to “cheat”.


Today, digital photography rules the roost: be it DSLRs, point-and-shoots, or the ever present iPhones, Androids, and other mobile devices. Instead of chemical-coated plates and film emulsions, electronic sensors record the light. All of it. Not just the gray scales but a full range of color, in all its glory. It’s all there. And it is up to the photographer to decide how to do use it.

Let’s forget for the moment the capability of DSLRs and the like to record in RAW and just focus on your mobile phone camera. Great mobile black and white photos are something you should plan out, in order to get them close to what was achieved in analog photography.  Here’s a few tips that help me accomplish my  black and white photography goals.

First, THINK in black and white. When you are considering an image for this treatment, composition is first and foremost.  Then visualize the gray scale or tonal range of the images “blacks” and “whites”. Carry a gray card with you as a reference. Look at the shadows and the highlights of the image, consider the contrasts. If it’s all there, take the shot. Then in post-production, use apps that allow you to strip away the color be it through their filters or image controls.


Not comfortable visualizing in black and white? Use one of the many apps available that not only mimic the great black and white film emulsions but also allow you to preview your image in black and white before you shoot. Pick one that gives you a good medium tonal range…there are some out there that are skewed to one side or the other of the range. Do you like what you see in your screen? Is there obvious good composition? How’s the tonal range? Take the shot then go into post-production and make your image sing!

Ansel Adams is right. You have to “make” a great black and white image. My final tip to you is this. Push all those special effect apps aside for a while. Pick a good camera app that allows you to preview in black and white and then use a good all-in-one post-production app to tweak it. Use the same combo over and over until using both become second nature. Always make composition your king and good tonal range your queen. Then, and only then, will you start making great black and white photos.

Written by: David Hayes

All photos used in this article were edited with Enlight.



David Hayes
David Hayes

Photographer, mixed media artist, painter, explorer of life. My art expresses my life experiences & my take on things around me. I'm always surprised by what I come up with and invite you to come along for the ride! Visit my blog:

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