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How to take spectacular black-and-white pics

There’s an art and a science to capturing eye-catching monochrome images – here’s what you should know

Taken with a Huawei P10 (photo by David Wright).

You’ve probably heard that black-and-white photography is making a big comeback, but the truth is it never really went away. Even when colour film became more popular and affordable back in the mid-20th century, monochrome photography (as it’s also known) always held its ground. These arresting images just look and feel different – we see the world in colour and yet a black-and-white version can seem strangely more real – and when properly executed, a monochrome photo is about as contemporary as it gets. It’s a bit harder to shoot a truly standout black-and-white picture, but here are a few pointers to help get you started.

Taken with a Huawei P10 (photo by David Wright).

Equipment

There’s an ongoing debate about whether digital photography could ever match the quality of film – soaring megapixel count notwithstanding – but since most of us now use our smartphones and digital cameras to take pics, let’s stick with that method. For years, shutterbugs have been able to convert colour jpegs to monochrome using Photoshop and similar editing suites, but most cameras and many smartphones now let you switch to black-and-white mode – and there are advantages to creating original monochromes right at the source.

One German camera manufacturer has taken this concept to the nth degree: a couple of years ago, the legendary Leica brand launched a state-of-the-art model designed to take only black-and-white photos. With a 24-megapixel sensor devoted exclusively to rendering black, white and shades of grey, the aptly named Monochrom produces astonishingly sharp images – but at a steep price. The camera retails for about $10,000 here in Canada, lens not included.

Then the new Huawei P10 and P10 Plus smartphones came along, boasting a top-notch dual camera – co-engineered by none other than Leica – with 12-MP colour and 20-MP monochrome sensors. Image information from both are combined to provide enhanced image detail, high dynamic range and low noise levels for sharp, vivid photos. Needless to say, it’s way more affordable than the Leica M Monochrom.

Taken with a Huawei P10 (photo by David Wright).

Composition

It’s been said that to take great monochrome pics, you have to train yourself to see in black and white – and that’s not as hard as it sounds. Contrast is key: look for bright patches of light situated against darker ones and imagine all the colour drained from the scene.

In black and white, shapes, lines and patterns leap out, so try to include these sorts of eye-catching touches in the frame. Similarly, textures often come to life in black and white more effectively than in colour.

Keep these details in mind when shooting portraits, as well: use shapes, patterns and textures to your advantage, and avoid any unflattering disadvantages, such as a distracting shadow on someone’s face. As in colour portraiture, make sure the subject’s eyes are the focus of attention.

Taken with a Huawei P10 (photo by David Wright).

When shooting landscapes or street photography, overcast skies and foggy weather can be your ally, giving photos a moody atmospheric quality (unlike in colour photography, which can suffer in low-light conditions).

Practice makes perfect: don’t be discouraged by lacklustre results on your first attempt. Take lots of shots. Examine them closely and objectively. Learn from your mistakes and you’ll discover that monochrome photography can be just as vibrant as its counterpart – the best black-and-white pics are sleek, dynamic and colourful in their own way.

Taken with a Huawei P10 (photo by David Wright).