Tips + Techniques

Striking a Balance with Black-and-White Wedding Photos

May 10, 2017

By Laura Sullivan

© Sullivan & Sullivan Photography


For many photographers, it’s easy to let highlights and shadows blend into each other and end up with a muddier image than intended. To prevent this from happening, I like to have a mental image of where I want to end up before I start editing black and white. I keep photos like Vivian Maier’s in my mind’s eye as I dive in. Her shadows are rich, her highlights are perfectly placed, there’s enough clarity to draw the viewer in (but not so much that it becomes a distraction), and the whole balance of light and shadow is just perfection.

All photos © Sullivan & Sullivan Photography


Shadows speak as loudly as light, so in every frame, I try to give both light and shadow their equal due. I don’t care for the bright, pastel look, but no matter your style, making your color photos flow with your black and whites has everything to do with respecting shadow. If you edit your color photos with bright, washed-out, pastel tones but aim for a dark and gritty black-and-white edit, your story flow will stutter because the feeling you get looking at the photos will be so different. Keeping your approaches similar throughout your edit when it comes to the relationship between shadows and light will help tell your story.

Below is a shot of this bride’s bouquet and above is a shot of her, taken a few minutes apart, but I like to think they speak to the same story despite one being separate, and one being black and white while the other’s in color. They complement each other rather than conflict.


I want to really consider how it feels to go through the images rather than making sure every one has a perfect color and black-and-white option. Your client is hiring you to tell their story through your eyes, and if you over-deliver (like most of us do when we first start out) or don’t cull properly, it’s hard to create a through-line.

I remember back in the day, my friends would get their wedding photos back and there would be a near-duplicate of each image in color and black and white. It bugged me at the time and I couldn’t put my finger on why, but now I realize it’s because it indicated a lack of control over how the photographers were envisioning the day and delivering the story, and it interrupted how the eye scanned over images.


Often, I won’t decide to make a picture black and white until I’m in the editing room, but there are times when I shoot with it specifically in mind. Usually, one of three things is happening.

1 The tones in our clients’ outfits or other details of a scene don’t correlate well. This is also an opportunity to coach clients better on how to dress for the kinds of images we like to make. I recommend they wear neutrals, grayscale, navies and olive tones because they can move from scene to scene with minimal interruption. If a scene has a strong color cast but we don’t have a choice but to shoot there, often many of those photos will end up as a black and white. As we found in Panama City last month, many of the narrow streets have brightly painted buildings, so if we found an alley between red or orange walls, we would have skipped shooting there and looked for places with more natural tones to use, but rather than scrapping a shot because of color cast, I’ll just flip it to black and white, like this one (above) of Eric and Katy dancing in the street.

2 Color adds nothing except distraction. If the story is not improved by color, don’t invite color to the party. There are many times when tonality helps you tell a tale—and others when it only distracts. Strip things down as much as possible and you’ll fall more naturally into selectively choosing black and white.

Later in Eric and Katy’s shoot, we shot in an abandoned building (above). I felt like the tones of the wall behind them and the door in front of them add to the story rather than detract, so I kept this one in color.

The lighting is mixed. We can do as much as possible throughout much of a wedding day to reduce the mixed lighting (see: me running around, frantically apologizing to makeup artists as I turn off the lights in a room as soon as I arrive), but the nature of weddings means we don’t get to design perfect setups for every shot, which I think is a rather fun challenge. Often, the moments that are so sweet, like the bride resting her head on her dad’s shoulder before heading down the aisle, just happen to be in strangely lit, dark corners. I never want to sacrifice capturing a moment in favor of waiting for a better lighting setup, so often I’ll strip those moments from color so the top note is emotion, not a fluorescent light.

This is a shot of a groom (above) signing his marriage license immediately after his wedding, taken in a back corner of the church that had a window 10 feet overhead, fluorescent lights behind the camera and warmer lights behind the subjects. Rather than run myself ragged trying to “fix” all of this, I thought the story of the signature on the marriage license wasn’t necessarily served by color. In making this photo black and white, this photo could be of his grandfather’s wedding or his grandson’s. It’s slightly removed from time because there’s no color quality to indicate when it’s happening.

A Peek in the Editing Room

When I find a photo I know I’d like to be black and white, there’s a series of steps I always take.

First off, the basic photo elements need to be there: Exposure is fine, composition makes me feel something, expressions are solid. There’s no rescuing a poorly conceived photo, no matter what editing tricks you have. Could someone please go back in time to tell me this when we were first starting out? Aiming to get symmetrical shots, removing distracting details by framing well and so on is a top priority for me while shooting. I’m not one of those photographers who “shoots for the edit,” which makes the initial cull for me much easier.

EDIT 1: I could clone out Eric’s orange shoe to remove distraction from the bottom of the frame, but I really think the emotions of the scene will be more eye-catching if this becomes black and white. My go-to preset is TRI-X+2 in VSCO Pack 6 because I love how it provides a good baseline for the balance between shadows and highlights, so I’ll start there.

EDIT 2: I love how their little moment together becomes even more central without the distraction of tonality, but I’d like their faces to pop a little more in the photo. I’m going to bump up the exposure by about a half stop and increase the clarity very slightly.

EDIT 3: I’m pretty happy with this simple edit as is, but occasionally I get nit-picky about details like Katy’s hair being lost in the shadows a little too much. In this case, I’d take a brush and bump up the exposure and clarity on her hair a little more to draw it out.

Laura Sullivan is one half of 30 Rising Stars husband/wife duo Sullivan & Sullivan. She and her husband, Tim, also run international food and photography events through their side project Moveable Feast Retreats and cuddle their rescue animals at home in West Seattle. She’s never said no to a donut.

CreativeLive Video Tutorial: Create Better Black and White Photographs