Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 1



In the earliest periods of its history, photography was about black-and-white, or monochrome, images in the form of photographic prints, tintypes, and daguerrotypes. Later, colour films were developed–both colour transparency and colour negative films–and colour and black-and-white film coexisted side by side, as they still do in specialty camera stores. At the time digital photography arrived, most serious film photographers owned at least two camera bodies: one for colour film and one for black and white. Today there’s no longer any need for an extra camera body because beautiful black and white images can be crafted from digital colour images.

Despite the understandable popularity of colour images, black-and-white (B&W) photography still thrives as an art form. B&W photography is a parallel but different medium to colour photography and it offers a different kind of artistic experience. Rather than relying on beautiful and/or striking colours, it relies on strong subjects, interesting contrast and lighting, texture and form, and a silvery essence to set the mood.

Traditionally, B&W images have been crafted in the photographer’s darkroom, with an amber or red safelight and trays filled with developer, stop bath, and fixer. With the advent digital photography, this has been replaced by the digital darkroom: photo editors allow you to recreate the craft of B&W photography in the comfort of a well-lit room with no chemical smells.

What we will do in this series of tutorials on digital B&W photography is explore the craft of creating beautiful monochrome images to post in your online galleries or to hang as finished prints on your wall.

Autumn Melancholy

The requirements for this tutorial are simple: a digital camera to take photos with, and a good photo editor to turn them into compelling B&W images. The camera can be your cell phone, a compact point-and-shoot, a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera, a DSLR or, maybe if you’re hobbyist, one of each. You don’t need a fancy digital camera to get started.

One thing you do need is a strong photo editor. While there are many easy-to-use, lightweight editors around, like Apple’s Photos for the Mac, and Google’s Picassa, you’ll need to use a more sophisticated editor to get the best results in producing B&W images. Aperture, which Apple has discontinued, is still a good medium-level image editor, as is Adobe’s LightRoom. On the iPad and Android tablets you can do good work in apps such as Snapseed.

For best results, however, you may want to use an editor that allows you to work on layers. These editors range from the top-of-the-line Adobe Photoshop CS, and its remarkably capable yet inexpensive cousin, Photoshop Elements, to the excellent, free, editor, GIMP, available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and BSD. The advantage of Photoshop and Elements is that there are a number of commercial plug-ins for black and white that can be used with these products, like the amazing Silver Effects Pro, from Nik Software (now owned by Google). The advantage of GIMP is not only that it’s free, but that it’s a sophisticated editor offering layers as well as other advanced tools. In this set of tutorials I will be using Photoshop CS for my examples, with references to corresponding features in GIMP.

Your Instructor

My name is Gene Wilburn and I’ve been captivated by photography since the age of 12, which was now over 50 years ago. I grew up developing film and making black-and-white prints and, although I shoot a lot of colour, I’ve always had a special fondness and affection for black and white. When I was growing up I devoured the technical photo books by Ansel Adams and was influenced by the writings of the great photography teacher David Vestal. I am, and have always been, an amateur photographer, delighting in photography for the sheer joy of it.

When I discovered digital photography, in 2002, I was hooked immediately, though I still shot film for several years after. Above all, I fell for Photoshop, for the images it would allow me to craft in both colour and black and white. What I hope to do is pass on some of the techniques and tricks I’ve learned along the way in the hope that you’ll find black and white photography as interesting and fun as I do.

For the most part, the tutorials will not be overly technical. I’m a believer in the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) approach to photo editing and will stick to the basics, with a few twists.

If you find these tutorials helpful, or have a question about technique you can’t find the answer to, drop me a note at or post in the comments section following each tutorial and I’ll do my best to reply.


Gene with PEN and Lumix Lens

7 thoughts on “Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 1

  1. As always, interesting & worthwhile reading, Gene! A pity you look rather stern & a bit (down turned mouth, etc) miserable in your, er, “selfie”. Cheer up – you’ve got lots of approving readers!

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