Enrolling in a beginner’s photography course can open up new areas of interest that you may not have even thought about before. For me, that area was black and white photography. While I initially thought I would enjoy portraits or landscapes more, I discovered the beauty of capturing my cats in black and white and I think you will enjoy it too.
Black and white photography has a timeless quality that can add depth to your cat photos. To create stunning black and white cat images, it’s important to understand the elements that make a successful image and how to capture them. With a few simple tips and techniques, you can transform your cat photography.
If I can enjoy getting creative with black and white cat photography and be thrilled that one of my black and white cat images wins the CWA’s Kuykendall Image Award, you can enjoy it too.
In this post, I will focus on the essential basics that will guide you to try this intriguing style of photography. I will define what black and white is by working on a sample image and then end with some cool tips.
- I am including a glossary of terms at the bottom of the post*.
Why Black and White Pictures?
I asked previously if anyone had considered taking photographs in black and white. It has been featured in my camera course and I wondered if any readers had encountered the style before. No-one had so I dived in to explore.
What is black and white photography? What is monochrome? Where does greyscale fit in? What difference does it make really? Here’s a quick review of the nature of black and white that will allow you to adjust your own photographs in a more informed way.
Is ‘Monochrome’ Different?
Let’s start by defining what the nature of black and white is, as the camera sees it, for you and I as beginner photographers.
Black and white photographs consist of:
- Black and
- White and, most importantly
- shades of Gray
What you think is black and white are actually variations on the colour grey. From deep dark charcoal to almost invisible misty white. Black and white alone is stark and unreal. Until you see it, you don’t realise how many subtle grey shades create an image.
It is these variations that give black and white photographs their impact and depth.
Once you remove the color, it is like stripping a scene down to the bare bones, removing the layers and leaving the form.Wendy Folse
What is ‘Grayscale’ then?
Photography apps and programs have a convert option that removes colour from pictures. I used to think these were the only way anyone converted a colour image to black and white. 3, 2, 1… instant black and white.
I was mistaken. There is a much better way for beginners to remove the colour from photographs. A photo editing program such as Affinity Photo or Photoshop Elements can help you make finer and more pleasing adjustments to a cat photograph.
Are Monochrome and Black and White the Same?
This question popped up in the comments to a previous post. The answer is ‘not quite’. Black and white include an almost limitless range of grey shades, but monochrome can be variations of any one colour, not necessarily black and white.
Check out this picture of Natasha. I ran it through an Affinity filter for a dramatic red-toned image to give you an idea.
TIP: Did you know, your camera manufacturer Nikon, Canon etc., allows you to set your camera to view in black and white? They often call it the ‘monochrome’ setting and it’s worth exploring on your own camera. You can also shoot on black and white but keep a colour copy so check my link.
- To do this you need to use RAW setting on your camera. Here’s my how-to.
Black and White Cat Photography Tips
The first thing to focus on is your approach and mindset when you think about taking pictures without colour. Here are my top tips for getting great pictures from your very first shots.
- Light and Shade
Plan to Shoot in Black and White
Do your best to go out with an intention to take black and white pictures. This works even if you shoot in colour and then remove the colour when you edit the image later in ‘post-production’*. You will forget sometimes (I do) but the intention opens your eyes to a different way of looking and thinking. I found this myself when I took the picture of Chenzou (below).
Look for Shape, Form and Texture
Black and white photography simplifies your pictures. Because there are none of the visual clues that colour can provide, you have to rely on only three things:
- Form from contrasts in light and shade.
This also means that you need to keep your pictures simple. No background clutter. Why? Because you want the viewer’s eye to focus on the point of your photograph, the message you have or the story you tell.
- You will learn to look for shape and light as you practice.
This picture of Chenzou shows a sunlit cat and clear in a visually clean space. There is a gentle reminder that cats love to play from the cat toy in the shadows and I was particularly happy to get the whiskers in focus. The picture tells a sweet story, this is a cat it can play or it can contemplate – his choice.
Thank you to Neko Ngeru Cat Adoption Cafe for the opportunity to take pictures of the wonderful cats. They have a lively FB page you need to visit.
One of the most popular black and white photography techniques you can use is simple shapes. These might not be immediately recognisable or take time for your viewer to figure out.
You can look out for:
- Negative space
- Lines across or down
- A subject and a strong shadow
This photograph is not abstract but it has strong horizontal lines and it may take you a moment to spot the figure at his desk.
Learn About Light and Shade
Apart from shape and texture, the one thing a beginner needs to experience and use is light. Light sculpts a subject into shape and can have a dramatic impact on your work. Light brings a black cat vividly to life.
With black and white photography, what you have to say counts more than the way you say it.Gian Marco Marano
Strong shade can be as much a part of your picture as the light. This photograph of Silver is a closeup in the sun that shows the effect. You can see the texture of fur illuminated by sunlight and he is framed by what seems to be deep shadow. It makes a lovely picture.
If you feel your photograph works well but that parts of it could do with a bit of help, you can selectively lighten or darken small sections of your image using the dodge and burn tools. These two tools can transform a black and white photo when used with a light touch.
Shoot in RAW
When shooting in RAW, your Camera captures all the details as they are. This is an unprocessed photo file format that allows you to edit without compromising its quality. Most modern digital cameras can shoot in RAW format. Some of the latest smartphone cameras can also capture RAW images.Akaso
This is an optional second step for when you feel more confident shooting and editing in black and white. It increases your range of creative options when you work on an image later on your computer.
‘Shooting in RAW’ might sound technical but it is worth trying to see what the process is. Don’t feel you need to rush in and try this immediately. It is another skill you can develop when you feel ready using your DSLR or smartphone images. Yes, smartphones are beginning to arrive that have the option to shoot in RAW mode!
- Read my post about shooting in RAW here.
RAW is not obligatory
I need to stress that working with RAW images is not essential. The process gives you more photo information to play with so when you feel confident and able to take the step – RAW will be ready for you. You do not have to know how the technology works when you start your explorations. A program like Affinity Photo opens and processes RAW files easily.
Important note: when exploring RAW please remember that you cannot take a long and rapid sequence of images. This is because your camera processes photographs as it takes them and, after a few pictures, it will start to ‘trip over its technological feet’ as it stops taking pictures to processes earlier ones.
- Be kind to your camera, take RAW pictures at a slower pace.
NOTE: Photoshop Elements (PE) can open raw files only from supported cameras. PE does not save your changes to the original raw file (non-destructive editing). After processing the raw image file using the features of the Camera Raw dialog box, you can choose to open a processed raw file in PE.Photoshop Elements (Affiliate link)
Let’s Transform a Photograph (How-To)
I am using this image of Pan from my local cat cafe as a sample to show how adjustments can make a difference to a photograph, after using the basic conversion to black and white.
I am using Affinity Photo but there is a similar option in all brands of photo software. The adjustment sliders, shown in colour here, show the potential you have to transform an image by adjusting each colour in turn.
Using a Photo Editing Program for Better Black and White Photos
When you turn a photo black and white don’t just desaturate** the image using the ‘Black and White’ function
To check the impact of your program’s colour sliders on a photograph, I recommend working on a duplicate copy of your picture. You can go crazy with the sliders in complete safety without damaging the original image. You may be surprised by the difference each adjustment can make too.
Compare this second photograph with the ‘ready-made’ conversion above. I made a difference by choosing cooler tones. The picture is slightly darker but the overexposed bench back that Pan is posed behind has been toned down.
Check out the third picture below. I adjusted these colours for a warmer tone. The results are not what I expected! One of my favourite black cats looks like something from another planet. The red, green and blue sliders have created an unsettling effect.
Filters Fun for Black and White Photos
You might hear talk about ‘filters’ with black and white photography but for beginners these risk adding a layer of confusion especially with thoughts of shape, light and texture on your mind but I did come across one fun idea I wanted to share.
Explore The ‘Sunglass Filter’!
You will need one camera (of any kind) and one pair of sunglasses!
- Grab your camera.
- Make sure your settings are OK for your situation. It can be anything sunny really!
- Hold the sunglasses in front of your lens.
- Take your picture.
- See how it comes out.
- Rinse and repeat!
Some Things Don’t Work in Black and White
You will learn, as you explore, that not everything is going to work in black and white.
A good black and white picture will have a wide range of tones** and if your picture’s colours are subtle and magical they will radiate a glorious range of breathtaking colours perfect for a canvas print, but they will look disappointing and lifeless in black and white. The best way to discover what works for you and your cat photos is to experiment.
Are You Ready to Take Black and White Photographs?
Whatever device you use, DSLR, compact or smartphone camera, you can use these tips to take a photograph with tremendous impact and have a lot of fun. Black and white is a new way of looking, but the skills are simple to learn and over time you might find yourself automatically thinking ‘that would make a great black and white photo’.
Black and White Photography Resources
- *Post Production Work done on an image or movie after shooting has taken place.
- **Tones What are they? The particular qualities of brightness, depth, or hue of a shade of a colour – Lexico
- ** Desaturate – to remove the colour from an image.
- Photoshop Elements and Camera RAW – Full details on the Adobe website.
- Casey’s detailed how-to for a sunglasses filter.
Marjorie is a motorbike riding blogger and award winning cat photographer who believes that everyone can create impressive cat photographs and fun movies with the camera they carry.
She is a Professional Member of the Cat Writers Association, Kuykendall Image Award winner and published photographer at the Guardian newspaper.