Filming in Black & White

Filming in black-and-white is something I am very keen to try. So I have carried out some research into various approaches adopted by several cinematographers. The main issue identified by these cinematographers is the need for creating separation and depth in a black-and-white shot.

Conrad Hall, best known for his work on films such as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002):

‘Black-and-white only concerns itself with the grey scale from white to black. And separation has to do with depth and using these values against one another creates depth. You have to understand that you want to create depth to get reality…You don’t want things to blend into one another. So you have to create separation and depth’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:156).

Hungarian cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, best known for his work on Easy Rider (1969), Paper Moon (1972), New York, New York (1977) and Ghostbusters (1984):

‘Black-and-white is difficult because you have the grey tonalities from black to white and you have to create an image which includes depth and separation. In color a brown head will separate from a beige wall naturally but in black-and-white they may run together. You must create a lot of simple compositional elements in black-and-white… The lighting creates everything: the tone, images, texture and mood. It is so important that those elements are harmoniously put together in order to serve the visual impact’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:192).

Gordon Willis, best known for his work on Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather series, many of Woody Allen’s early films including Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1977), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976):

‘When you’re shooting in black-and-white, all you’re dealing with is values so…you do have to separate an actor from a wall. Whereas if you’re in color and you have an actor and a colored wall, then you get automatic separation’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:306).

What’s clear from this is the need to create a sense of depth that helps to separate the actor from the background. This can be achieved by creating ‘simple compositional elements’ within the frame that will work in black and white.

John Alton expands upon the idea to create depth and separation when shooting in black-and-white in his book Painting With Light(2013).

Logbook 3, pages 215-216

Logbook 3, pages 217-218

Alton’s definition of the perfect black and white picture as a combination of a foreground in which each surface has a different brightness and a background of a different tone is helpful.


Alton, J. (2013) Writing With Light. Berkeley: University of California.

Schaefer & Salvato (2013) Masters of Light: Conversations with Cinematographers. Berkeley: University of California.