Black and White Photography Tips [Duel]

This week’s theme is black and white photography.  Most of the time, we all like seeing colorful images, but sometimes only black and white can make the viewer enjoy the simplicity of the tones.

New to the weekly Improve Photography Duel?  Check out this page, where we explain how it works.  A new camera duel will be released each Monday, and we’re asking YOU to vote on the photos below.

Jim Here:  It’s summer time in the northern hemisphere, so my two boys spend most of the day in the backyard playing in the mud, running in the sprinklers, and drinking from the hose.  It was the drinking water from the hose bit that inspired my black and white photo this week.

The reason I decided to make this photo black and white is because I want the viewer to focus on the tones of smooth skin, the drops in the water, and the simplicity of a boy taking a drink.  I usually find that it’s the simplest subjects that make the best black and whites.  With more complex subjects and textures, I usually feel like color helps the viewer to understand what is in the photo.

Jim’s Process:  I took this photo by having my wife hold up the lid to a large black plastic bin behind my Taylor.  I would have used the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector if I had it on hand, but this was a spur of the moment shot.  The lid was a perfect dark background.

I had to lie down on the ground and shoot up at my son, because he kept tilting his head down to take the drink so I would only get his forehead in the shot until I laid down.

Jim’s Metadata:

Shutter speed: 1/800 shutter speed to freeze the water and my son, Aperture: f/5, ISO 800.  Shot in manual mode at 70mm.

Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8.

Lighting: Natural light – shot in the shade.

Toddler taking a drink from a garden hose.

This photo is sponsored by Hose, the official water fountain of summer. – Jim Harmer

Dustin Here: Looking for a new place to go shooting – I jumped on Google Earth to find anything that looked it might be interesting to photograph. I searched around a few places I was a little familiar with just in case the Google Earth was going to be deceiving and that’s what I found what looked like mini waterfall… dam… something. It was on the Boise River and not too far from where I lived so I thought I would scout it out and see what I could make of it. It turned out to be a bit of hike to get to where I wanted to be for the shot. Overall – I’m pleased with how well the shot turned out with all the different elements in the photo.

Dustin’s Process: I did an HDR for this shot and processed it just like I did last week  with our HDR photo duel. Once I had the image edited in color to how I wanted it, I used a simple Gradient Map in the Adjustment layers. The key to using a Gradient Map to turn your photo black and white is that you need to add in a few different shades of gray. This gives you a greater contrast and depth to your photo. There are a lot of ways that you can turn your images black and white, but for a neutral (slightly contrasty) black and white, I have found this to be effective. But you have the option to be as dramatic as you like with your black and white images.

If you’re interested in seeing this image in color, and the original images that went into the HDR, check out my personal website here:

Dustin’s Metadata:

Shutter speed: 1/25, Aperture: f/14, ISO 100

Camera: Canon 6D, 24mm, Lens: Canon 24-105mm lens

Lighting: Natural Sunset Light

The Boise River Greenbelt

Boise River – by Dustin Olsen


Let the Voting Begin!

Please note that you do NOT have to share this to your Facebook page or Twitter feed in order to vote.  It just gives you that as an option after you’ve clicked your vote.


  1. Cheryl Pierce

    While I like both pictures, I love the simplicity and greater contrast between light and dark in Jim’s shot. Besides, you can never go wrong photographing an adorable child. I love how Jim’s signature looks like a tattoo on Taylor’s arm :-)

  2. Jeriann Erickson

    I feel as though we are not comparing apples to apples here. It would be more helpful to use similar subject matter. Such as portrait vs. portrait or landscape vs. landscape.

  3. Jim Harmer

    @Jeriann Erickson – The voting part of the duel is really just for fun.

    The purpose of the duel is to show you how you DIFFERENT ideas and approaches to the same type of photo or the same technique.

    Today’s post was using the same technique–black and white. Many of the other duels we’ve done are the same type of photo. In fact, one week we even shot the exact same model!

  4. Rusty

    I often prefer portraits in black and white. Seems to draw my focus to emotion at capture more than color does for some reason.

  5. Cindy

    I love how Jim used a simple plastic bin as a backdrop — this proves you don’t have to spend a ton of $$$ just think outside the box (or bin) a little.

  6. Curtis

    I really like both photos, but it was hard to pick one because they are so different. But I forced myself to choose one and went with Dustin’s because I was amazed how the composition of the photograph kept pulling me in and it was hard to look away. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Scott Mitchell

    Both are awesome photos! Love the site here. I did an experiment with my Sony A77. I took a photo with the black and white setting on the camera and also took a color one that I converted to black and white in Photoshop so I could compare any quality differences. The one with the camera set to B&W was better quality in my opinion. Not sure why it was better, as I’m an amateur in photography and Photoshop :)

  8. Sherryl Linnert

    I like both of them. Jim’s son is adorable and the shot is candid which I love. I would like to see it a little sharper though. Dustin’s is beautiful in color, but loses some of it’s emotion when changed to B&W. I am always partial to landscapes and I think the composition is super, so I choose Dustin’s.

  9. Connor

    While I enjoyed each photo thoroughly, I vote for Justin’s photo this time.

    Why? On Dustin’s side, I really enjoyed his DOF and how he was able to grab everything in the shot. On Jim’s side, well, though I wished to vote for him, his photo was cropped tighter then I’d liked it to, which blocked the the message his photo was sending; he cut off some of his child’s hair, which deducted a couple of points. Remembering to not cut off fingers, whole limbs, or generally leaving a bit of head room can improve most photographers composition with portrait photography.

    Great applause to both photographers!

  10. Chris Crane

    I voted for “Dusty O” this time. While I really enjoyed both images, Dustin’s reminds me of B&W film which I love! DOF is fantastic; it’s a little “crispy” for my liking but well done. Jim’s pic is great also but the solid black background just didn’t do it for me. I know you have to be quick and on your toes when shooting the kids so I’ll give you an “A+” in your “creative uses of a trash can lid” class for today.

  11. Bill Sotak

    I so enjoy the Improve Photography site. I picked Dustin’s photo as I truly enjoy the crisp detail and the beautiful contrast with the white, gray & black. Jim’s photo, while very good, left me looking for a bit more contrast & detail. It struck me as too smooth. Thanks again for a wonderful learning site.

  12. Ann Sinclair

    I loved both pictures because they were both excellent and I love black and white. I’m voting for Jim’s picture because it was so off the cuff and so typical of what kids do in the summer. He didn’t have to go any further than his own backyard. Perfect and fun!!!
    Dustin’s was wonderful, also. I think in the future it would be better if you picked a subject. These were entirely different so it made it difficult to compare.u

  13. Melissa McClure

    I preferred the one of Taylor because it was a bit more crisp and it seemed to have more action. I enjoyed the river as well..seemed like it would make a great painting.

  14. A spaniard in France

    i like both frames, but in my opinion HDR and nature landscapes look better in colors. Dustin’s picture could be a good one to use it as a multiplied layer over the coloured one.
    Best regards from France

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