Black and white photography: 8 expert tips

A young boy climbs a tree with no leaves on its branches.
Contrast provides a greater differentiation of tone in black and white photographs, as Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett explains. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Helen Bartlett

In today's colour-saturated world, Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett focuses on capturing memorable moments by taking photographs solely in black and white. Specialising in family and children's portraits, Helen has built her successful career around capturing images that people will treasure. Here she shares the tips and techniques she has learnt over the years, as well as her advice on the best Canon camera for black and white photography, to help you take more striking black and white pictures.

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Helen is a self-made professional photographer. Her mother ran a nursery in their home, and Helen saw the opportunity: still a teenager, Helen began photographing the children and selling the black and white prints to their parents. "I realised that there was a difference between how people look at colour pictures and how they look at black and white pictures," Helen explains. "With colour pictures, your reaction is often, 'Ah! What was I wearing?' With black and white pictures, you never say that. In black and white pictures you just look at the situation, the emotion and the relationships."

It's a traditional viewpoint, more commonly adopted by the photojournalists of yesteryear, but with principles that can be applied to subjects as far-ranging as landscape to macro photography. So what advice does Helen have to improve your black and white photography?

A boy emerges from a pool of water, his arms spread out like wings.
When shooting in black and white it's useful to look for different textures to add more contrast. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Helen Bartlett

1. Set your camera to black and white mode

Black and white photography is very different from shooting in colour, so you should take advantage of any settings your camera offers to help your immersion in it. "I have everything set up in black and white," Helen says. Not only does it help you while shooting to see the monochrome image on the screen, but "it also means my processing is faster," she explains.

2. Get the best camera for black and white photography

Helen mainly uses a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, but her favourite camera today is the Canon EOS R, which she says offers her a unique benefit. "On the EOS-1D X [as with most cameras], in monochrome mode, the picture on the back screen is monochrome, which is fantastic, but looking through the viewfinder, you still see in colour. Over the years I've trained myself to 'see' in black and white, but with the EOS R, you can set the [electronic] viewfinder to black and white, which to me is a total game-changer." Particularly for those less accustomed to black and white photography, Helen recommends using the EOS R. "So much of it is about the light and how you sculpt the light around your subject. Being able to see what you're doing in the viewfinder really, really helps."

A portrait of young boy wearing a puffa jacket looking away from the camera.
"I'll be looking at where the light is falling, to see if I can get a bit more drama, a bit of graphic intensity, while still making sure I get what the family wants out of the picture," says Helen. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens. © Helen Bartlett

3. Use the light

A mother playfully dangles her laughing baby by the foot at home.

How to take candid family photos like Helen Bartlett

Helen Bartlett explains how she takes memorable black and white family photos in everyday places – and how the EOS R helps.

When colour is (literally) out of the picture, it's all about light and shade. Helen mostly uses natural light, or whatever light is available. "I do have a continuous LED that I sometimes use, but I use whatever's in front of me. I'll be looking at where the light is falling, to see if I can get a bit more drama, a bit of graphic intensity, while still making sure I get what the family wants out of the picture.

"I find that different light works for different ages. If you've got really beautiful but strong light, for example, that's great for older children because you can point them in the right direction. But I shoot whatever the weather and a grey day can be a great day with gentler, more diffused, light."

4. Look for light in unexpected places

"When I go into a house, I will wander around. I'll look in people's bedrooms, loft extensions... I'll be looking for the spot where the light is the best. And I find it's often not in the places my clients expect to be working. The living room, for example, might be dark and cavernous, whereas the bedroom where Grandma is staying at the top of the house might have a skylight with fantastic light."

A close-up of a smiling, young boy wearing a hood with fur around the edges.
"In black and white pictures you just look at the situation and the emotion and the relationships," says Helen. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Helen Bartlett
A baby is looking up, their eyes bright and curious.
A grey day can be a great day with gentler, more diffused, light. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. © Helen Bartlett

5. Learn to see in grayscale

"You have to be a bit careful with in black and white when you don't have the differentiation of colour – similar tones can blend into each other. For example, if you've got a child in a bright-red t-shirt running around in a garden where everything's green and you look at it with your 'colour eyes', and it's really obvious – they pop. Whereas in black and white, the two tones are quite similar. So you have to get used to seeing those things."

6. Work with contrast

"You need to be able to differentiate between light and shadow," Helen continues. "If you've got a dark-haired person in a shadowy area, they might blend into the background. You need to manoeuvre them into a spot where you've got a little bit of light behind them, just to create a bit of differentiation there."

In a woodland clearing, a young boy and girl are standing facing each other.
Helen always looks for the spot with the best light. It may be in a loft with a great skylight, beneath a window or outside. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens. © Helen Bartlett

7. Watch for distracting hotspots

In the same way, Helen says, "look out for distracting light when you're shooting in black and white. For example, a picture frame can catch the light and become an annoying hotspot in the background, so you need to look out for them, and reflections. You don't need to worry so much about that red toy fire engine!"

8. Don't worry about trends and fashions

Helen recommends having simple actions set up for your post-processing, for several reasons. As you develop your technique, you'll find what produces pleasing output (black and white prints can look quite different from digital images on-screen) but also, this will help the end results stay consistent with your style, and prevent your images looking dated because of isolated trends. "I like to keep things very simple, very classic, and my processing really hasn't changed much since the early years, so I know the pictures will work well together."

Written by Erlingur Einarsson

Helen Bartlett's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II camera bodies, a Canon EOS R body, and various lenses, batteries and memory cards, plus a child’s toy train and gingerbread man.


Canon EOS R

A pioneering full-frame mirrorless camera that sets new standards. Helen says: "Now you can look at the viewfinder as you're shooting and immediately see what you're doing wrong, and make the changes in-camera in real-time."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

High-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture. "Its rugged build quality is equal to sandcastle-building, bubble-bath splashing, sticky fingers, and all the other perils of photographing young children," says Helen.


Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A wide-angle prime lens with a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture and macro capabilities. Helen says: "The 35mm's quality is just superb. It has a macro facility that's perfect for me when I'm photographing newborns or younger kids"

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