lesson: a black + white love affair | by Holly Grams

I’ve had a love affair with black + white imagery for as long as I can remember. I remember taking my favorite prints and converting them to sepia on drug store photo machines back in the 90’s!  I’d like to think my conversions have come a long way since those days but my love for them hasn’t changed. Black + white imagery creates a mood and feeling that has a way of touching my soul in a way that nothing else can.    


When I first started photography I didn’t have a deep understanding of what made a powerful black and white image. Often the images I chose to convert were images I struggled to edit when they were in color. What I’ve discovered is this: An image with poor lighting that doesn’t look that great in color isn’t going to look that great in black and white either.  A great image is a great image. I know, I know...not a huge epiphany, but so important! Once I wrapped my brain around this, my black and white edits improved drastically. I started intentionally considering what an image would look like in black + white while I was shooting, which greatly improved my conversions.  Here is what I’ve learned:


Light:  First and foremost, lighting is key. To get a really rich black + white edit you have to have good light.  I prefer light that is soft and indirect for my black and white edits (purely personal preference). When shooting outdoors I like to shoot out of direct sunlight. If you can shoot during the golden hour, but away from the sun, you can find really nice soft light that produces a rich edit. When  indoors, I like to place my subject near a window that has soft light coming through.  A little light goes a long way with a black + white edit.


Mood:  A black + white image is all about how an image makes you feel.  I want to capture my subject with authentic emotion or engaged in some sort of natural activity.  I’m looking to capture who my subject is in that moment and the emotions that were present at that time.


Texture:  Consider the textures in your image.  I often dress my kids in a variety of texture when I know I’ll be photographing them, but you can incorporate many things into a photo to add texture (knit blankets, long grass, trees, leaves, a dirty face even works)  I especially consider texture if I don’t have much light to work with. I live in MN and there are times in the winter we just don’t see sun for awhile. If I’m really wanting a black and white and there is no interesting light to be found, I try really hard to incorporate interesting texture.  


A good mixture of blacks, whites + grays:  I always shoot in color and it’s sometimes hard to tell what images are going to give you a nice mix of blacks, whites + grays.  After shooting, I load my images into Lightroom and complete a quick conversion to black + white on images I think I might want to convert.  Don’t stress when you first look at them, RAW images are not going to instantly look good in black + white. They’ll look drab and flat. But, it’s a good starting point to see if there is potential.  


Here is a quick peek into how I make my conversions come to life:

I hand edit all of my black + white images.  I do the majority of my work in Lightroom and always start by pulling the shadows up as much as the image can handle.  From there I add as much contrast as I can while still maintaining a natural look, careful not to create a harsh looking image.  I usually need to decrease the exposure a bit as well. I go to the color sliders and start sliding them around until things look right.

I’m obsessed with the brush tool in Lightroom and do most of my work with the brush.  I basically brush on shadows and highlights like makeup to really highlight where the sun is hitting the subject.  I then pull the image into Photoshop to clean up any distractions I don’t want. I usually make a soft light layer and apply it at about 10%.  I bring it back to Lightroom and bump the contrast up just a bit more, lower the mid-tones and increase highlights just a tad to finish it off.  I have to say there is nothing that excites me more than a beautiful black + white image that turns out just as I envisioned. It’s just good for the soul!



xoxo, Holly G. @holly.grams