Enhancing Black and White Photos with Shades of Grey, Low-Key, and High Key

Landscape in black and white of Grand Canyon in Arizona in USA. Photo in black and white by Amar Guillen.
Landscape in black and white of Grand Canyon in Arizona in USA.

The Photographic Language of Black and White

You may believe that the photographic language is universal. It can be applicable to color or black and white.

Although this is true, it is not quite right. Black and white has its own specificities.

Light, which is one of the three fundamental elements of photography, defines forms and lines. It calls out the textures and determines the colors. Light is your medium.

In black and white photography, there is no color. You must focus on shapes, textures, and volumes. These are the essential elements that you must consider.

Black and white is also a timeless technique. To properly construct and frame your black and white photos, you must know how to use the following photographic elements:

  • Negative space.
  • Contrast.
  • Repetition.
  • Symmetry.
  • Abstraction.
  • Silhouette.
  • Separation of tones.

If you want more details, I invite you to discover the following article I wrote on this subject.


Technique #1 to Discover Photos in Black and White: Shades of Gray

In a black and white photo, you only have 256 possible shades of grey. They go from the purest white to the darkest possible black. In between these two extremes, you have the midtones.

An example of a black and white photograph in shades of gray.
An example of a black and white photograph in shades of gray.

If you take a black and white photo where midtones are dominant, you have what is called a black and white grayscale photo. The term is a bit confusing, but it is the one all photographers use.

In this photographic style, pure black photos and pure whites are rare.

The main difficulty with shades of grey is to obtain harmonious tonal values. Indeed, the viewer will look for subtle relationships in the photo. He will not look for a dramatic effect. He will look for simplicity. He will look for subtlety, softness, and finesse.

When photographing a scene intended for a black and white grayscale photo, be sure not to overexpose or underexpose it. You need to have an overall light that is even.

Your entire photo should be soft and without emphasis. The tone of this style of photo is medium.

If you must remember only one word for this style, it should be the word subtle.

In the development phase, you should focus on lowering the most exposed areas and increasing the exposure of the darkest areas. The goal is to have a photo made up only of medium tones. That is, with light values between 60 and 180.


Technique #2 to Discover Photos in Black and White: Low-Key

Low-key photography is a creative technique that consists of photographing rather dark scenes.

In a low-key photo, the light tones meet the dark tones without any real gradation.

A low-key photo is characterized by deep blacks, dark tones, and many shadows.

An example of low-key black and white photo.
An example of low-key black and white photo.

The low-key technique allows you to:

  • Create photos that have style and impact.
  • Create a dramatic and intimate atmosphere.
  • Emphasize the graphic forms.

Low-key photography requires a rigorous management of the light. Indeed, the viewer's eyes will focus on the bright areas of your photos. They will impart a mysterious aspect to your images.

Black and white is perfectly suited to low-key, as human beings tend to place mystery scenes in rather dark environments. Since our childhood, our imaginations have been captivated by mystery scenes in dark and stuffy places.

What could be more ideal than black and white to accentuate the low-key rendering. In the field, you should look for rather dark scenes. The light should be focused on the main photographic element, in other words, the subject.

Therefore, I like to shoot in the undergrowth. The backgrounds are darker.

To take beautiful low-key photos, I recommend that you choose the spotlight metering on your camera. You calculate the light on the subject. If you choose a global calculation mode for the whole scene (matrix mode to evaluative mode), I recommend you underexpose by -2 or -3 EV.

This also happens to me when I bracket my scenes on 3 or 5 photos. Then when I develop the final photo on the computer, I mask the lighter areas with darker areas from the bracketed images.

When you develop a photo in low-key, your goal is to isolate your subject. You need to plunge all unnecessary details into the shadows. The ideal in developing tools is to use the brush tool.


Technique #3 to Discover Photos in Black and White: High-Key

The high-key is a creative photo technique. It consists of lightening the midtones and shadows by overexposing them.

It is a choice of exposure and light. Just like the low-key technique, the high-key technique allows you to create intriguing, mysterious photos.

Black and white is therefore perfectly suited to high-key.

An example of high-key black and white photo.
An example of high-key black and white photo.

In the field you should choose rather bright subjects. They must be abundantly illuminated. Unfortunately, few subjects have this property in the field.

In high-key, the shapes must be simple and evocative.

Be very careful when naming high-key. Just because a scene is overexposed does not mean it is high-key. For example, having a very dark subject and the rest of the scene overexposed is not a high-key photo. The subject should reflect the light. Many photographers make this confusion.

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I advise you to use the high-key at the time of the shooting. You just must overexpose the scene. Do not hesitate to bracket your shots by taking for example 3 pictures. The first one with a correct exposure, the second one overexposed by +1 EV. The third one underexposed by 1 EV (-1 EV).

When developing, you can easily combine the three photos with software to get the desired effect. Even if you take great care to make the high-key in the field, post-production will help you to strengthen your images.

Remember that in a black and white high-key photo, the contrasts are soft and suggested. The shades of grey must be delicate.



I hope that this article about three techniques to realize that your black and white photos have opened new creative doors for you.

Think carefully about viewing black and white on the ground, thinking about lines, shapes, tone separation. Then you will adjust your camera to get a low-key, grayscale or high-key effect.

Post-production will enhance your effects. Black and white allows you to make interesting photos that will last because it is timeless.

Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.


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