Daguerreotype? Improve your B&W Photography

Have you ever heard of Daguerreotype? This was breaking news in Europe in 1839, when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and the French government announced a way of fixing images to a mirror-like surface.

A daguerrotypist would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, make it light sensitive by treating it with fumes and then expose it to light through a camera. Further exposure to mercury vapour and additional chemical treatment to remove the sensitivity to light, you had your daguerreotype. This process, better known today as photography.

Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 and the Daguerreotype camera built by La Maison Susse Frères in 1839, with a lens by Charles Chevalier. Wikipedia

The earliest reliably dated photograph of people. This view of the Boulevard du Temple was captured in 1838 by Daguerre. Due to the longer exposure time, the only people that appear are the two on the bottom left, a man having his shoes polished. Source: Wikipedia.

The great pioneers of photography:

Ansel Adams (1902-1984).

Group reading paper, Manzanar Relocation Center, 1943

Ansel Adams Artworks

Brassaï (1899-1984). Extinguishing a streetlight on Rue Émile Richard, 1932. NYTimes

I love black and white photography, with its beautiful classic feel, it allows me to capture the person soul, the atmosphere, not just the environment.

You can use light to walk the viewer through the experience, like the photograph above by Brassaï, your eye is immediately drawn to the lightest part of the photograph. Only then do you begin to explore the rest of the photo. Silhouettes guide your eye around the elements hidden in the shadows.

The lack of colour in a photograph allows us to take our photography techniques to the next level. We learn to see shadows, shape and texture in greater detail. We experiment with the effects of contrast and tone. Everyday items like timber, foliage and bricks show excellent texture, while surfaces like metal and glass demonstrate a wide range of tones.

5 things to consider when photographing in black and white:


For an average contrast there should be a smooth change in tone from the darkest black, through all the shades of grey up to the brightest white. If you're looking to photograph using the full tonal range, avoid high contrast lighting. Scenes with a wide variety of colour hues can help provide excellent results.

For best results, keep an eye on your histogram. If you're seeing "dips" from the shadows to the highlights, you're dropping tones. If you're looking for a "high contrast" image push the shadows (left) and highlights (right) of the histogram inwards.

Cristiane Teston / Jean Van Der Meulen


For a monochrome photographer, contrast and tone are very similar. A black and white photograph is still just a monochrome image. The colours of your scene are converted into different shades of darkness.

Where this can be problematic is photographing different colours that when converted to monochrome display as a similar shade. For example a red subject against a blue background (a persons clothing against the blue sky). These will appear as similar shades of grey.

To correct for this you can alter your lighting, create shadows and highlights. For digital photographers, you will have greater control of the tones in post processing. Capture the image in colour and convert to black and white later.