Topical and timeless: get creative with black and white photography

From landscapes and portraits to weddings and nature, discover how to shoot stunning black and white imagery in every scenario with our expert tips, techniques and kit suggestions.
A black and white image of a ballet dancer in motion in a large, opulent room. Sunlight streams through an open door.

Good black and white photography has a timeless quality that simply can't be conveyed in colour images, while also adding drama, emotion and passion. It is therefore always popular in portraiture and wedding photography. But monochrome (images composed of only one colour) can also be magical for emphasising shape, texture, tone and detail, making black and white equally well suited to landscape and architectural shooting, action and sports photography, and much more besides.

Creating striking black and white photography can sometimes feel like a challenge, however, as we're so used to seeing the world in colour. Below you'll find a collection of expert tips to help you master this photographic style.

What is black and white photography?

A close-up image of a large orange and white shell with an elaborate spire.

Two examples of a shell image, one in colour, one in black and white. In the mono version, the entire shell draws your attention, rather than just the spiral tip. Taken on a Canon EOS 250D with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/5 and ISO200.

A black and white close-up image of a large shell with an elaborate spire.

Which image do you think works better: colour or black and white? When it comes to photography, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder – there is no right or wrong answer, and experimenting is half the fun.

There are two options for creating your black and white photos: you can shoot in colour and convert your image into black and white in post-production, or select the Monochrome option in the Picture Style menu on your camera, which enables you to see how the image will look on your camera's LCD screen or through its EVF.

Bear in mind that a scene that looks good in colour might not work in black and white – and vice versa. For example, red flowers stand out against a green background when shot in colour. But shoot the same subject in monochrome and you may find that the red and the green both convert to similar shades of grey.

Practice will help you to 'see' in monochrome, but you can speed up your learning. Generally, you will find that black and white images will require more contrast for the same subject in colour. Shoot the same subject twice, first in colour and then in black and white and compare the images.

Shooting in RAW is recommended for black and white photography as it allows for more adjustment of the image when using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software than is possible with JPEG files. Setting your camera to save RAW files also enables you to retain all of the image's colour information, even if you shoot in monochrome.

5 black and white photography tips

  • Use a small aperture and as low an ISO as possible
  • Check your camera's histograms
  • Experiment with filters
  • Shoot in RAW and look at your camera options
  • Emphasise the contrast in your black and white pictures

A black and white image of a bride on a staircase looking up in surprise. Shadows on the wall beside her show a group of women attempting to catch a thrown bouquet.

Colour can distract from natural form in beautiful portraiture and wedding shots, whereas monochrome gives a more aesthetic treatment of the subject. It also allows for clever light play, as seen in this image. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT (now succeeded by the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT) and Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT at 1/100 sec, f/1.8 and ISO3200. © Fabio Mirulla

A black and white close-up of a baby's face. Particular focus is given to the child's eyelashes.

Black and white images generally work well for portraits; the often-cited reason is that the absence of colour reduces distraction and focuses the attention on the subject. The simplicity of this photograph is also what makes it so striking. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Helen Bartlett

Often favoured for wedding photography, black and white images can accentuate a sense of emotion and drama. Monochrome can also have the effect of focusing interest on facial expressions, as well as accentuating the details and shapes of key elements, from small items such as wedding rings and shoes, to the bride's dress and even the overall location.

Black and white photography works very well with portraiture in general. This might be because many iconic portraits from the past century or so are monochrome and we are familiar with the style. Adding side lighting is particularly effective as it gives strong contrast between highlights and shadows.

Black and white nature and wildlife photography

An ostrich peers inquisitively at the camera in this black and white close-up.

Converting this image to black and white enhances the facial plumage of this ostrich to such an extent it appears more like fur than feathers. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/5000 sec, f/11 and ISO1600. © John Dickins

A black and white image of a wintry forest scene, framed by rows of snow-covered trees.

Black and white can produce a strong image from a subject that might look weaker in colour, for example this wintry forest scene. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III at 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Helen Bartlett

Many landscape images rely on the vivid blue of the sky or the warm red tones produced by a setting sun. Likewise, many nature shots depend on the rich natural hues of animals and wildlife. Black and white landscapes convey a different feeling, often associated with mood and drama, while monochrome nature shots can also be used to highlight the beautiful details we see in animals, insects and plants.

Learning which images to convert to black and white is a skill in itself. In essence, you want to 'add' something by removing the colour, so ask yourself how the image will be improved by presenting it in monochrome.

Look for photographs that don't rely on colour to create interest or where the colour is distracting to the subject. Landscape scenes that have a certain mood or intensity generated by light and shade are perfect, as this will be accentuated by the dramatic contrast of mono. Nature photographers should look for patterns and details that can be brought to the fore by removing colour, such as age-old tree bark or the beautiful texture of a bird's feathers.

Black and white landscape and architecture photography

A black and white image of leafless trees in a barren landscape.

Landscape images with brooding skies and moody lighting can look much more dramatic in black and white, with the colour stripped away. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 105mm, 1/320 sec, f/6.3 and ISO100.

A black and white image of a concrete building, shot from below to create geometric shapes with shadow.

Black and white can do full justice to the rich interplay of shapes and textures in architectural shots, taking the distraction of colour out of the equation. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 31mm, 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

Landscapes are well suited to black and white photography, especially when there is very little colour in a scene – no vibrant greens and few red or yellow flowers. You can concentrate on the shapes of leafless trees, stone walls and buildings. Composition and contrast become key elements of the image.

The rule-of-thirds grid – which can be viewed through the electronic viewfinder (EVF) of Canon mirrorless cameras such as the Canon EOS RP and Canon EOS R6, and can be applied to the rear screen of EOS DSLR cameras in Live View – is especially useful in black and white photography, with little colour to distract the eye. Placing your main subject at a point where one of the horizontal and vertical lines intersect will strengthen the composition.

Architectural photographs are often shot in monochrome to emphasise the shape of the buildings. The increased contrast possible with black and white over colour suits the subject well. These photographs are often taken in the early morning, partly to avoid the distractions of traffic and people, but also to take advantage of light from a sun low in the sky. This light throws long shadows and can produce an attractive aesthetic when it falls across rough stone or concrete. As with mood, textures are often greatly enhanced by the simplicity of black and white.

Photography at night is worth trying in both black and white as well as colour. Often the yellow shine of streetlights or the glow from a full moon brings a location to life. Alternatively, the texture and patterns in a scene are shown to better effect in monochrome. When you're aiming to convey a sense of strong shapes, shadows and light, black and white avoids any problems caused by multiple light sources having different colour temperatures.

Black and white sports and action photography

A black and white image of two teenagers jumping around in a garden setting.

This high contrast action shot works well in black and white. Minimising distracting background colours focuses the viewer's attention on the subject's face. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/2.2 and ISO400. © Ilvy Njikoktjien

By their very nature, sporting and action scenarios are often awash with colour – so much so that the main person or object you are trying to capture gets lost in the scene. Converting to black and white can cut through all the distraction, as well as enhancing the expressions on people's faces.

High contrast scenes work well in black and white, images shot in bright sunny conditions produce deep shadows and bright highlights. Black and white images make good use of these, and the effects can be pushed in post-production to create dramatic images.

Using filters for black and white photography

A black and white close-up of a large leaf taken with a green filter effect used.

Two examples of a large leaf shown, firstly, with a green filter effect on, and then without it. Green filters are useful for separating green tones, making them ideal for shots of trees and foliage. © Marcus Hawkins

A black and white close-up of a large leaf.

Many cameras include Filter effect in the Monochrome setting. Check if your camera does. © Marcus Hawkins

In black and white film photography, lens filters are often used to change the tones in the image. Yellow and red filters, for example, absorb blue light, making blue skies appear darker.

This not only makes the scene more dramatic, but also increases the contrast between any white clouds and the sky. Alternatively, a filter effect is often available in the Picture Style settings on Canon EOS digital cameras. You can select yellow, red, orange or green to change the monochrome tones to simulate the effect of filters and to emphasise specific colours by making them brighter or darker.

Suggested kit for black and white photography

Dramatic black and white images are often high in contrast. This makes it important for a camera to have good dynamic range, so that it can retain detail in both bright highlights and dark shadows. For any megapixel count, a full-frame camera will typically deliver better dynamic range than an APS-C model, so cameras such as the Canon EOS RP, EOS R6 and EOS 6D Mark II work especially well. Even so, crop-sensor cameras such as the Canon EOS M50 Mark II and PowerShot G7 X Mark III can deliver superb black and white photos, despite having physically smaller image sensors.

All of these cameras can capture images in RAW quality mode, with a 14-bit colour depth. This enables a much greater dynamic range than 8-bit JPEG mode, enabling far greater latitude in altering brightness and pushing contrast when editing images in a program such as DPP.

The Monochrome Picture Style featured in all of these cameras comes with additional benefits in that you can apply digital filters at the shooting stage, such as yellow, orange, green or red, for progressively enhancing the contrast and drama of cloudy blue skies. Toning effects are also available, like Sepia for creating an antique look. An advantage of mirrorless cameras is that you can preview filter and toning effects directly in the viewfinder while shooting. A preview is also available on the rear screen of a DSLR if you shoot in Live View mode.

An advantage of any EOS mirrorless or DSLR system camera is that you can mount the ideal lens for any given shooting scenario. Zoom lenses such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM and RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM give you the freedom to shoot with a wide variety of focal lengths without swapping between lenses. However, 'faster' prime lenses such as the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, RF 50mm F1.8 STM and RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM enable faster shutter speeds in low light, so you can freeze movement without needing to increase the ISO setting as much, which is good for black and white photography in that it keeps image noise to minimum. You can also get a shallower depth of field for isolating the main subject in a scene and reducing the distraction of a cluttered background.

Strong black and white images often contain very fine detail and rich texture. To help retain this in handheld shooting, effective image stabilisation can be a key advantage. All of Canon's 'IS' lenses listed above feature optical image stabilisation, whereas the two Macro IS lenses have a 'hybrid' Image Stabilizer that retains greater effectiveness when shooting close-ups. The Canon EOS R6 has 5-axis IBIS (In-camera Image Stabilizer) which delivers up to 8-stops of stabilisation when used with a compatible lens. The EOS R6 also helps to really nail sharpness in even the trickiest shots, with its next-generation autofocus system.

Written by Matthew Richards

Related Products

Related articles