ARTICLE

Black and white photography: 10 expert tips

A black and white image of a girl in silhouette holding a butterfly.
Canon Ambassador Helen Bartlett has built her career photographing black and white portraits of families and children, fine-tuning her technique to capture striking images that convey a sense of mood and personality. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 88mm, 1/1250 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © 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 cameras and lenses 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 black and white portrait of two young girls kneeling on the floor; one is pulling a scary face while the other shrieks in mock fear.
The super-fast autofocus of the Canon EOS R5 enables Helen to concentrate on capturing those special moments, such as the playful expressions on the faces of these young children. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/1.2 and ISO1250. © Helen Bartlett

1. Set your camera to Monochrome mode

Black and white photography is very different from shooting in colour, so Helen advises taking advantage of any settings your camera offers to help you immerse yourself into it. The Monochrome mode in the Picture Style settings on most EOS cameras, including the Canon EOS R5, enables you to shoot in black and white. If you're shooting RAW, the colour information is retained, so in post you still have the option to revert to colour or convert to black and white.

"Shooting black and white with the electronic viewfinder of the Canon EOS R5 has been a game-changer for me and allows me to 'see' in black and white," says Helen, who always sets her camera to Monochrome mode.

"It really helps me compositionally and means that I don't have an extra layer between the image in my head and that in front of my camera. I like to be able to see the exposure changes and find this makes me more experimental, particularly with complex lighting such as rim-lit images or partial silhouettes. Working in Monochrome mode helps me to focus on graphic elements, which are hugely important in black and white images."

2. Get the best Canon camera for black and white photography

Helen uses a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) and a Canon EOS R5 for her timeless monochrome portraits.

"The EOS R5 has phenomenal autofocus capable of tracking the face of a child jumping on a bed, leaping around as they run in the woods, or playing in a sea of bubbles," she says. "This enables me to concentrate on composition and creating a unique image," she says. "Swapping between different focus modes is made easier by the extra controls on the Canon EOS R5, as you can set the control ring on the back or on the lens, making it very easy to shift mode as you work.

"The EOS R5 also has incredible low-light capabilities and when you're working with kids, you'll often be outside for part of the session and then indoors so you need to be able to keep your shutter speed up and the ISO."

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

Printing specialist Jay Sinclair shows family photographer Helen Bartlett how to produce great black and white prints of her photos.

Steps to the perfect black and white print

Printing specialist Jay Sinclair shows family photographer Helen Bartlett how to produce great black and white prints of her photos.

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. Boost tonality with great dynamic range

Portraits without colour can be truly compelling if your camera can capture both the darkest and lightest tones in a scene, says Helen. "Dynamic range is really important when creating beautiful black and white images, and getting stunning tones from deep blacks to bright whites can really make or break an image.

"The 45MP files of the Canon EOS R5 are astonishing in their detail and depth, and the tones are fantastic. I often blow my images up to at least 75cm across and they look amazing," she says. Printing black and white images on a Canon printer can help to translate this tonality and exceptional detail onto paper, taking quality to a new level.

A black and white portrait of a child examining a bug on her father's hand.
Helen says images created with the Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM lens have "incredible depth and beauty". Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/1.4 and ISO100. © Helen Bartlett

9. Choose the best lenses for black and white portraits

Helen prefers not to change lenses while shooting portraits, so she shoots with one camera in her right hand and one in her left. "I use prime lenses, so I don't want to swap them all the time while I'm shooting, but I want the flexibility of more than one focal length," she says.

Helen has been photographing solely in black and white for 17 years and uses prime lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM and the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM on her Canon EOS R5. She often pairs her Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM or Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens.

"I always recommend people start with a prime lens for portraits. I love to shoot using a single fixed focal length as I find that the constraints actually enhance my creativity, forcing me to move my feet and explore different angles and approaches. Shooting with a fast prime allows you to really get to grips with wide apertures," she says. "The sublime Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L USM is one of the best lenses I've ever used. It's really extraordinary, great in low light and for photographing fast-moving children at wide apertures.

"The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is the traditional portrait lens and a particularly flattering focal length that I love," says Helen. "With the 85mm, you can still be close enough to interact but you've also got beautiful perspective. If you're photographing kids running around or cycling off on their bikes, it gives you that little bit of extra reach without losing conversational space, which is where you get interactions and expressions."

10. Explore different subjects for inspiration

When Helen is looking for inspiration, she switches to shooting landscapes and her local surroundings, which then helps to inform her portraiture work. "You don't always have to work in your chosen genre. During the spring 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, when I couldn't shoot family portraits, I spent a lot of time taking pictures in my local parks and woods. My subject was the light. I'd look at the light on the trees and the leaves, how it fell, and experiment with shooting it in different ways," she says.

"I also shoot landscapes as I find the process of slowing down, and using a tripod and filters, helps my portrait work. I look at different elements within a scene and how they connect to create a coherent image. Then, when I'm back shooting portraits, those skills allow me to create more interesting work for my clients."

Autors Erlingur Einarsson and Lorna Dockerill


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.

Cameras

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 EOS R5

Capture sensational 45MP photos at up to 20 frames per second, or cinematic 12-bit 8K RAW video using the entire width of the camera's sensor. "The Canon EOS R5 feels like the EOS R System has come of age with the phenomenal autofocus, incredible low-light capabilities, improved ergonomics and the advantages of the R system lenses. I will, in due course, be adding a second Canon EOS R5 and retiring my DSLR cameras as I feel my future is with the Canon mirrorless system," says Helen.

Lenses

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"

Lenses

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

A 50mm f/1.2 prime lens for supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance. "The quality of the images that come from this lens is beyond anything I have produced before," says Helen. "The sharpness in the focused areas of the images is unparalleled, with beautiful bokeh when working with shallow depth of field."

Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM

A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 macro lens for wide-angle perspective, close focusing and Hybrid IS. "I'm a huge fan of this lens, especially its macro capability. I love being able to take a wider view and then come in close for a detail such as a child's eyelash or the curl of their hair. I use it a lot for newborn shoots, because I can take a picture of the whole family and then I can lean in and take a picture which is just detail. It's really sharp and really fast," says Helen.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional everyday L-series zoom that delivers high image quality with a constant f/2.8 aperture. "I prefer to shoot with prime lenses, but the 24-70mm is great if I just want something very light with maximum flexibility," says Helen. "If I know I'm going to get some very wide scenes and portraits, just having all that flexibility in one lens that has great optical quality is really helpful."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L III IS USM

A favourite telephoto zoom lens with photographers of every kind. "I use long lenses if I'm by the sea and the kids are in the water and I want to stay on the ground, or if I'm photographing kids water skiing or horse riding," says Helen. "For any sort of action shots where distance is necessary, that's when I'll reach for a 70-200mm."

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