Tips for Creating Better Black and White Photography

By Theano Nikitas

An image from Jacob Aue Sobol's "Arrivals and Departures" series, shot with the Leica M Monochrom.

For some of us, black and white photography brings to mind Tri-X and Plus-X (and more recently, T-Max), hours in the darkroom and the magic of seeing an image emerge in the developer tray. But whether you shoot film or digital, black and white never goes out of style. In fact, it’s been on an upswing for a while thanks, in part, to the availability of digital tools, many of which simulate the look and feel of various film types, that help create beautiful monochrome images. 

Today’s wedding and portrait photographers often offer monochrome shots—mostly digital but sometimes film—to their clients, for example, while street and fine art photographers have always been champions of black and white imagery. While we love film, we wanted to pull together some of our favorite digital tools to help you get the best black and white photographs possible. 

Although most digital cameras offer a special black and white option or effect, it’s best to shoot in color and convert to black and white in post processing. A color image contains more data and you’ll always have a choice of presenting your work in color or monochrome.

However, there’s one major exception to this rule of thumb: the new Leica M Monochrom.

Leica M Monochrom

Last May, Leica stunned the photography world with the first black-and-white digital SLR. Built around a special 18 megapixel Kodak CCD sensor, this full-frame, 35mm format digital camera is similar in many ways to the M9 both in design and operation. As such, this is truly a photographer’s camera, with manual exposure control and manual focus. And it’s compatible with almost all Leica M-lenses from as far back as 1954.

It’s equipped with an optical viewfinder, a hotshoe and a 2.5-inch, 230k dot LCD. Controls and shooting options are fairly streamlined, bringing to mind true rangefinder photography. The M Monochrom offers DNG (RAW), JPEG and DNG + JPEG, with the ability to adjust sharpness and contrast. Toning—sepia, cool or selenium—can be applied in-camera as well. Exceptional sharpness and great image noise control (with ISO up to 10,000) are only a couple of this amazing camera’s many attributes. 

Sure, it’s pricey but look at Magnum photographer Jacob Aue Sobol’s images accompanying this article to see the M Monochrom’s capabilities. We think you’ll agree that this is one amazing camera.

Leica M Monochrom
Comes bundled with Adobe Lightroom
and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Most photographers, however, will probably opt for more economical options. Here are some suggestions to get your images from camera to print in glorious black and white.

 Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Joel Grimes’ portrait of US Olympic track and field gold medalist Kerron Clement and Josh Haftel’s photograph of the Marble Temple in Bangkok, both processed using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Whether you want to emulate Cartier Bresson or Ansel Adams, perhaps the best black and white conversion software on the market is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Like its predecessor, this plug-in is compatible with several versions of Adobe Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Equipped with preset black and white styles, black and white film simulations (Nik used actual film samples to develop the presets) and a broad range of adjustment options, Silver Efex Pro 2 is also equipped with Nik’s U Point technology for selective application. 

If you’re still on version one of this software, be sure to upgrade since version 2 offers a number of different benefits, including the ability to take advantage of multi-threaded, 64-bit GPU processing. The browser has been improved considerably and there’s now a history browser so you can see exactly what effects have been applied. The software is highly intuitive and extremely effective at creating a limitless number of black and white looks for your images. You can save and share presets, too. Download a trial version if you don’t already have Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 in your digital toolbox.
$199.95 full version
$99.95 upgrade

Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 3880

The 17-inch Epson Stylus Pro 3880 is one of the best printers for creating black and white output, thanks to its excellent print quality and its four black inks: photo black (which automatically switches with matte black depending on paper type), light black and light light black. Additional UltraChrome K3 inks include Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Light Cyan and Light Magenta, along with a user-replaceable ink maintenance tank, so you can easily switch between color and monochrome.

Black and white prints from the 3880 are, in a word, stunning on a variety of papers (see paper recommendations below). Blacks and shadows are deep and rich, while highlights are clean and bright. And you’d be hard-pressed to find any anomalies like bronzing. I threw some tough images at the printer—brightly lit with lots of highlights, dark and moody, landscapes, portraits and everything in between. With each print, the 3880 continued to impress and proved, without a doubt, that it is at the top of its class.
$1295 (base model)


Choosing digital inkjet paper is highly subjective, so it’s difficult to make any hard and fast recommendations. But here are some suggestions that you should consider, including a couple that we wrote about in the July issue of PDN

Canson Baryta Photographique: 

Designed to deliver the look and feel of silver halide print, this paper is coated with a layer of barium sulphate. This acid-free paper is pure white that, in combination with its ability to deliver rich blacks, makes it ideal for monochrome prints. Available in cut sheets from 8.5” x 11” to 44” x 50” roll, this 310gsm paper is designed for use with pigment inks. If you’re curious about some of Canson’s other papers, too, pick up a Discovery Pack with 12 assorted papers—including the Baryta—for under $20.
Price: $12 - $232

Epson Exhibition Fiber: 

This fiber-based paper has a gloss finish that works exceedingly well with a variety of Epson pro printers for black and white prints. Images are rich and clean, with virtually no bronzing. Available in cut sheets from 8.4 x 11” to 64” x 50’ rolls (note: the 3880 doesn’t have a roll feed).
Price: $39-$599

Moab Slickrock Metallic Pearl 260: 

The name of this paper pretty much says it all—it’s slick, smooth and its high gloss surface has a metallic look. Slickrock is wonderful for black and white fashion, product shots, landscapes, some portraits and black and white infrared. It comes in cut sheets from 5 x 7” to 44 x 100’ rolls.
Price: $26-$500

A couple of other papers to check out include Moab Entrada and IT Supplies ( Silver Semi-Gloss. And don’t be afraid to try black and white prints on some of the papers you already have in your stash. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.

For black and white inspiration, look at the work of the masters, old and new (we’re particularly fond of Eugene Atget, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Harry Callahan, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Irving Penn, to name just a few). If you haven’t yet been entranced by black and white photography, spending some time with the masters may spark your creativity.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



Tout VTS



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