Lessons Learned from shooting Black & White by Rob Lloyd

Lessons Learned from shooting Black & White by Rob Lloyd

Hi Steve,

I love your site and the interaction it generates between the readers because we all can learn from each other. I’ve been shooting black and white film recently and I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve learned. I love b/w film because it can create incredibly powerful and emotional images. The texture and depth that can be achieved with b/w film is truly remarkable and can be downright gorgeous. However I’ve found that shooting b/w film to be very difficult because you need to find subjects that are simple shapes and high contrast. Simple shapes – Often in b/w intricate shapes become too complex for the eye to distinguish. It’s easy for things like tree branches to turn into a messy blend of grey in the background which ultimately distracts from the subject.

High contrast – I’ve found that many of my photos didn’t turn out because there isn’t enough contrast to isolate the subject. Colors that contrast well (red roses against green leaves or orange sunset fading to a dark blue sky) become similar shades of grey. How often do you see the skin tone of a persons face or color of their clothes blend into the same shade as background. Use the light and create shadows to provide the contrast. Henri Carter-Bresson was great at knowing which colors will contrast well in B/W and used it to his advantage. If his subject was wearing a dark suit he would wait until the background was light enough to provide adequate contrast.

Spending time with black and white film will ultimately pay off the next time I use some color film as it is forcing me to think more about composition and light.

Attached are some examples of these lessons I’ve learned. Keep in mind they are not great photos and are only used to illustrate my points. Everything is straight out of the camera with only some cropping on Fuji Neopan which has become my favorite B/W film.

Cliff – There is enough contrast between the creek and the cliff and the shadows on the rock and ripples in the water provide excellent texture and depth but the red backpack and blue shorts of my wife hiking in the creek blends into the background. The trees on the left side just from two messy and distracting shades of grey.


Cactus – The red flower contrasted so well with the green cactus and grey rock in color but in black and white all of that got lost because your eye cannot distinguish between the red/green.


Wine Tasting – There is enough contrast between the light picnic table and the dark sweaters of the ladies and the rocks in the foreground are big enough to become simple non-distracting shapes but as you look at this picture your eye is drawn to the mess of grey in the background trying to distinguish what all those little intricate shapes and shades are and why they’re in the photo.


Clover – This one is closer because the shadows contrast well with the rock and the plant but think of how much more beautiful it was in color. Bright green clover against an orange lichen covered rock with nice dark shadows to provide depth.


Dog – I really like this photo because there is enough contrast between the white/black fur and the grey background. The shape of his body and head are simple enough to break up the photograph and capture the eye.


Tree – This is another example of high contrast and simple shape captures the viewer with no distractions.



  1. IMHO — We (myself included) often make the mistake of believing every single pictoral element should be full of clarity, but that’s not always needed or even desired. Seeing what’s essentially a highlighted outline of your wife (cliff shot) leaves a bit of mystery- nice! It also does something else – it makes the shot one of the overall scene; a hiker approaching the cliff as opposed to a shot of the hiker.

  2. I find the article frustrating.

    It is saying what B&W is, as if set in stone, but failing to recognise that the chain of events that leads to too much contrast, or flat images, starts and ends with the photographer.

    If you are getting overly contrasty negatives don’t blame the nature of B&W, start by using a less contrasty film, and process it so you don’t have high contrast (expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights). If you are wet printing in the darkroom use a less contrasty paper, if you are scanning and post processing gear everything towards lowering the contrast. This is easy to do, make a flat low contrast scan with all the information from higlight to shadow, it will look awful, and then use post processing to increase the contrast to the level you want. And as others have said, use filters to change the tonal balance of the negative. But all this is back to basic’s B&W stuff that seems to have been overlooked if it was ever known.


  3. Great stuff….. never stop experimenting and you’ll find out whatever works for you. Two good exercises could be 1) toy around with local adjustments and 2) evaluate the darkness of the shadows around you. Good luck!

  4. I had a studio professor who described photos with excessive contrast chalk and soot; he was of course British. Black and white photography has never been about recording reality but interpreting that reality and displaying it for others as you would like them to see it. Contrast is a thing to be manipulated for the benefit of communicating what you saw, in other word visualization which is lacking form your photos. To be certain, these experiments are worthy of undertaking if one has resources to waste however a brief read on black and white photography as written in Ansel Adams’s The Camera,The negative and The Print could have saved you effort and time for anyone who read this.


  5. I’m sorry to say, but these photos don’t show the power of black and white film….

    Black and white is about contrast, indeed, but you have the freedom, if you have the knowledge to compress or extend the contrast. The goal is generally to distribute tones from (almost) black to (almost) white with nice shades of gray.

    You can influence that by making sure you’ve got information in the dark zones of the image (very light zones of the negative) by chosing your exposure. Then you have to take care of the highlights (dark zones of the negative) to make sure they don’t block out and stay pure white or muddy grey at best. That’s something you handle by determinating the time of your developement. If you’re doing it on 135 or 120 films then you have to determine a time that suits most of you photography and adjust contrast in post-processing. As a rule it’s better to overexpose then the opposite. If you’re serious about film photography you should try to develop your films at home, then you can control all of the parameters. It’s much easier than you think. Otherwise you should at least remember to expose for the shadows.

    The final stage is printing, either wet printing or with a negative scanner, where you determine contrast and also wich zone you want to make lighter or darker (dodging shadows and burning into highlights). The amount of work you’ll need in that step depends on the two first steps, the scene you want to photography and your personnal interpretation of it.

    For example the wine tasting photo has no whites but only from mid-gray to totally dark tones (this is how it appears on my screen). The highlights are not correctly set : try to lighten them it’ll raise the contrast of the photo. Maybe the blacks are too dark also. If you’ve got more informaton on your negatives, try to reveal it (otherwise it’s the sign that you didn’t expose your negative enough).
    The tree photography leaves the tree in almost pure black : the shadows are too dark, try to reduce contrast to see if you have the information on your negative. Ditto for the photo of your wife : she desappears in the dark : if you can reveal some detail on her backpack by lowering the contrast try to do it. If you can’t it’s because your negative is underexposed.

    A black and white negative is never “straight out of the camera” but always the addition of exposure, developement and interpretation to get the final print. I agree you should learn how the negative reacts, and also the effects of some filters. A yellow filter is mandatory.

    But I confirm you have a good photographic eye, fuji acros is a great film, and you should read some books about black and white film photography, about the artistic and the technical side of it.

    (Sorry for my english but it’s not at all my first, neither second or third language…)

  6. Rob,
    I believe you may be mistaking contrast (as a range of tones from pure white, through various shades of grey, to pure black) and which is mainly a function of a film’s ability to reproduce these to a distinguishable degree, and the need to “contrast” one subject as against another i.e. to make it stand out.

    Too much contrast in the film can be detrimental to image quality as the range of tones is reduced, unless this is what the photographer set out to achieve. And as has already been said, too little contrast makes for dull and “muddy” images, as will be evidenced in severely underexposed negatives.

    In your examples, I read the need to “contrast” one subject as against another, as you have found that panchromatic b/w film, whilst it is broadly sensitive to a broad colour spectrum, it interprets colour as contrast and this is why you see little difference in the way green foliage and red flowers, for example, are rendered.

    Seasoned b/w film users are familiar with this “shortcoming” in film, and use coloured optical filters, originally termed “contrast filters” to change how film renders different colours. The simplest example, is to change what you have already discovered: how to render a red flower against a green background.

    You can achieve two different results. If you remember that a colour filter renders subjects of the same colour as lighter in the print, and darkens complementary colours, you can easily separate the red flower from its green background. Using a red filter will make the flower very light against a darker green background, conversely a green filter lightens the background and darkens the red flower. It depends upon which result you prefer.

    As a very general rule, if you use a green filter for your foliage/landscape images you will get a closer approximation in a b/w image to the scene as you saw it. The green filter helps lighten the greens in the scene but still retains their respective densities relative to each other.

    In my opinion, it would help your understanding if you shoot a set up and use yellow, green, orange and red filters in sequence so you can see the different renditions. If you did this with a Rubik’s cube you’d readily see how these filters change how it is rendered in b/w.

    If you shoot cityscapes, an orange filter helps bring out detail in brickwork.

    But the answer for you is to keep shooting so you build up a knowledge of which filter is best in a given set of circumstances. There’s no “quick fix” save your own experience.

  7. P.s.: the wine tasting shot looks severely underexposed; very thin negative I think. That explains the muddiness.

  8. Tastes vary. Here’s my 2cts.

    Contrast, in b&w, is a result of light, shapes and tonality (the range of greys, and where that range is).

    The wine tasting shot, imho, is totally off. It has a mud like tonality, and I can’t really believe it is the result you envisaged.

    Busy backgrounds make it difficult to create a strong image; you can solve that problem by reducing depth of field (making the background more even), or changing the point of view. I always try to wait for a situation to evolve into strong contrasts, or change my position so that the main subject (if there is any) stands out the way I want.

    I have struggled with the muddiness of digital (originating in film or digital) b&w images myself.

    In originally digital images (D700) I needed to pay a lot of attention to the contrast in LR.

    In originally film images (TX400, Plus-X) the development and the scanning of the film play a large role as well.

    Kep trying; informative post!

  9. I like the first photograph. Does it matters about the detail in the back pack and shorts. Is this a photograph of a cliff and pool with a person in it, or a picture of a person with a cliff and pool in it. Your interpretation of what you visualised, that for me is what really matters. Great post, I can see that you enjoy your photography.

  10. It’s interesting – to me! – that you say “..Colors that contrast well (red roses against green leaves or orange sunset fading to a dark blue sky) become similar shades of grey..” ..as that’s pretty much how I see red and green anyway ..like about 1 in 7 men, I’m rather red/green colour-blind.

    I just don’t see “red roses against green leaves” ..they completely merge into one another, and I can only distinguish the flowers from the leaves (..when they’ve been pointed out to me..) by their different SHAPE, not by their colour.

    “..Cactus – The red flower contrasted so well with the green cactus and grey rock in color but in black and white all of that got lost because your eye cannot distinguish between the red/green.” That’s how I see the world.

    So I look for ‘Tone’ ..differences in degree of light and shade, and that helps things stand out from each other in black and white.

    You say “..There is enough contrast between the light picnic table and the dark sweaters..” ..but “contrast” implies a harsh difference between black and white ..I’d call it ‘Tone’ ..the degree of lightness and darkness, which can includes many shades of grey, whereas “contrast” suggests sharp transitions from black to white without much grey in between.

    Tord’s right: your ‘Cliff’ picture is very like the “pictorial” photos of 50 years ago ..when colour printing (in books) was very expensive, and colours often didn’t print properly “in register” on top of each other, and thus so many photography books were printed in only black and white, and the shots they showed were country walks and nature scenes ..and occasionally “high contrast” shots of shapes and people by Bill Brandt.

    Have you tried thinking about where you stand to take your photos? A little lower down, nearer to the dog’s level, and you could have got rid of the distracting rocks in the water behind the dog ..a little lower down, on your haunches, and the people in the ‘Wine Tasting’ would have been more dominant in your photo, and the “..mess of grey in the background..” would have been LESS dominant. (These comments are intended to be helpful, not just criticisms.)

    Instead of looking down on things from standing eye height, try shooting from a little lower ..waist height.. and see if that makes a difference – as well as trying those filters, and looking for “contrast” or “range of tone”.

    Which would I pin on my wall? The ‘Cliff’, because your eye wanders ‘through’ the picture, following the woman, then going between the bush and the rock ahead of her, then veering off to the right. And you have a contrast of “textures” (often important in black and white, where you can’t distinguish between colours) with the hard rock on the left, and the softer frilly shrubbery on the right.

    The other pics are more “full on from the front”, with less for your eye to explore ..what you’ve shot is there in front of you, in plain sight. In the ‘Cliff’, your eyes can search and explore, and travel “deeper into” the picture, and be intrigued by what may be hidden behind the next bush.

    The others are ‘snaps’ which can be taken in at a glance .. the ‘Cliff’ lets your eyes explore and search and wander through the picture, up to the distant single tree at the top ..doing, in effect, what the person in the picture is doing ..so it produces a connection between the person who’s looking at the picture, and the person who’s IN the picture!

    (When I teach, I suggest people should photograph “empathy”, or “ridiculousness” or “gravity” ..and you have made a great shot of subliminal “empathy” ..the person looking AT the picture is going where the person IN the picture is going!)


  11. Good article. There is a lot to learn from every failed b&w shot. Recently I have begun to make digital contact sheets of my films strips to study each frame with care instead of just working on the best shots. Great learning process.

    Black and white photography strips images of everything superficial. If your image does not have a strong subject and a clear singular idea it does not help to have good contrast and isolation. There are no candy colors or special effects to save a sloppy idea, lazy framing or lack of vision.

    Looking at the first shot. Even if she would have been better isolated from the background the image would still be much better in color. In color it would better reflect the backpacking experience and the surrounding nature and get is content from that. But in b&w its weak. I think b&w needs to draw from emotions, juxtapositions, visual tensions, geometries, abstractions etc to show its true power. Perhaps a closeup of her sweaty face with the sun flaring from behind, perhaps scratches on her wet hands, perhaps shadows and shapes aligning to form a geometric composition, perhaps a shot from above looking down at her, perhaps a shot right from the surface of the water…

    There more I look at my own failed shots I realize that b&w needs that extra effort to realize the unseen “b&w potential” in a scene. Its just so difficult on the spot.

  12. Sorry,

    don’t see the quality of “film” b&w in these images.

    Rather “dull” with a limit range of grey.

    Try digital!

    Best regards

      • Sorry Mikael,

        but even my photos with a cheap bridge camera have more depth and shades of grey than I see here on film.

        Film was, digital is.

        Best regards

        • Both are possible Heiner and can lead to great results (as you well know, ha ha!).

          B&W digital never really have that “film” look, unless you drag them through Silver Efex Pro or something. That doesn’t mean that digital b&w can’t produce great images of course.

          • Hi Michiel,

            yes you are right,

            Digital audio had to mature as well, I really hated my first CD player.
            Then came WADIA with a new algorythm and I started to buy CDs.

            But honestly, shooting pictures that look like 1925 does not make much sens for me. Technically I miss a lot in the photos on this page, dull, no depth, compressed, etc.
            Just had a look at some HCB photos and they are actually remarkeble “clean”and transparent, especially considering the technical possiblities he had in the early stage of his carreer.. Many people who try to follow in his footsteps don’t understand what he wanted. I truIy admire the pioneers of our hobby but wouldn’ t Ansel Adams shoot with a Nikon D 700 or 800 if he was still alive?

            Just got the first 2 mags of LFI (new subscription), some of the photos are not my “style” but nevertheless of excellent quality.

            We all can learn a lot from this mag.

            Best regards

  13. Nice article on black and white photography. Very informative about contrast and isolation. I once heard from a friend who took up photography as a lesson in school. He said his prof told him that a good black and white image is one with only black and white and nothing else. I guess everyone has their own school of thought. I agree that high contrast images are very powerful, but there are also times you want a more subtle feel to the image, so a more grey image will do the job. I’m also still learning, so any pointers will be welcome!

  14. I think you are taking this way to serious and trybto analyze it way too deep. Black and white is as is, simple black and white and most of the time it works fine, no science behind it.

  15. I forgot to thank everyone for the positive feedback. It helps so much to have more experienced eyes point things out.
    Harry – I have a red and yellow filter I don’t know how to use it. Your description was simple and easy to remember!!
    Tom – I’ve heard of the Zone System and am now inspired to learn about it!
    Tord – I hadn’t even noticed the blown highlights on the nose! Post processing is something I have yet to explore.
    Twitch – I agree that b/w looks great for portraits and maybe the first step in post processing will be playing with the levels/curves.

  16. I enjoyed your article and as a recent b&w film shooter find myself agreeing with your points. If I could add one of my own lessons learnt, it’s that b&w is particularly suited to people shots, candid portraits or pictures of people interacting in particular. Actually one other, don’t be afraid to play with levels/curves in post production of your scanned negative, I think it enhances the film look rather than ruining it.

  17. Thanks to Steve for taking a risk in posting some of my sub-par photos on his site. I think it shows his commitment to inspiring others to learn this beautiful medium. Sometimes the best way to learn is from your mistakes and I hope these examples provide a good learning tool for others.
    The beauty of photography is that the class lasts a lifetime and I look forward to continuing my education (Tom – thanks for the book recommendations). Next lesson for me: filters, exposure and depth of field (and some of these photos are great examples of that too!)

  18. Rob,

    Thanks for sharing your photos with us!

    Must say I don’t like pictures where highlights are blown away, like the huskie’s nose, nor when everything is just grey, as in the vine-tasting picture. But that rock side is close to superb, some post-processing and it would be just great – get some details of your wife and her backpack, for instance! Everything in this shot is interesting, thus, in this case, it is perfect that everything is as sharp as possible!
    But that isn’t always best!

    I seem to avoid grainy shots as much as I can, no matter if I shoot digital, or film, so some PP would be needed, to get my seal of approval.

    And the normal way is to use DOF to isolate the subject you’re interested in (like you’ve done with the shot of the Huskie, alas overexposed the nose, a pity). You’d want both the foreground – if there is any , and/or background out of focus, so that the thing you want to show us is sharp, not overly contrasty. Steve is an expert of this, give his shots some study!

    The photos you posted here actually look a lot like the photos I took 40-50 years ago, but I am, slowly, improving! And I nowadays avoid shooting colorful objects with B&W, as it becomes pretty dull! I agree that a yellow filter is a great investment, but I have never tried a green – interesting idea, though!

    The best thing with digital is that you can experiment as much as you like, as you very seldom run out of space on your memory cards!

  19. Rob, go and get two filters, a yellow and a green. The yellow will put some detail back into your skies and darken anything blue, and the green will darken reds and oranges. I leave a yellow on most of the time until there is a need to darken down some reds in a picture, in which case I swap it for the green. A polarizer is a big plus, too.
    You’re taking good pix, but you’ll find those two filters will take it another step.

    • +1 on the ‘always-on’ yellow filter. and if shooting surf/ocean scenery, you can also experiment with an orange filter too (higher contrast without being as dramatic as a red filter).

    • I agree with Harry and would add that you might want to read the Ansel Adams books on Negative, Print and Zone System as well as Fred Picker work on the Zone System. Monor White is another master worthy of study. An afternoon at a good library will provide valuable information as to what is possible with black and white. We might live in a digital age but the old masters still have something to teach us all.

      You have a great eye and a lifetime ahead to develop your technique.

    • A filter can introduce vignetting and flare where it would not appear with a good lens. I don’t see the point of having an “always on” color filter when its beneficial in only specific situations. Reduces light input too.

      • A yellow filter must be always used with black and white in daylight to obtain realistic skies and a good contrast in normal situations. Other colour filters are also used as explained by Harry and Jeff. But the contrast in a B&W image is a combination of film type, objective, filters, developer and, most importantly, printing paper. Most of the images showed here could be somehow saved in the darkroom… except the third one, which looks badly exposed to me.

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