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The key to learning how to see in black and white is understanding that there are two different ways to approach monochrome photography.
The first is to set out from the start to create a black and white image and do everything you can at the point you take it to make it as strong as possible.
In the days of film, the first way was the only option. Now, with digital photography, things have changed. We have more flexibility to decide how to develop our photos than ever before.
But still, in my experience sustained, successful black and white photography happens when you take the first approach. The skill is in being able to look past the color and visualize how the scene will look in black and white. To do this you need to learn to recognize some of the elements that work well in monochrome.
Once you understand this, you can also look at your color photos to see which ones could look good in black and white. You might be surprised just how many potential black and white photos you have when you know what to look for.
Understand the appeal of Black and White
The appeal of black and white is that it gives us a new way of seeing. It’s an artistic interpretation rather than a literal depiction. Shape, form, tone, texture and pattern are easier to see once color is removed.
But the appeal is deeper than that. Good black and white photography is beautiful. It’s an art form that captures the subject’s beauty, maybe even it’s soul. It moves people. It’s powerful and often timeless.
Use the monochrome camera profile to see in black and white
One way to learn to see in black and white is to set your camera’s color profile to monochrome.
Tip: Every camera manufacturer has a different name for this setting. Canon uses Picture Style; Nikon, Picture Control; Sony, Creative Style; Pentax, Custom Image; Olympus, Picture Mode; Sigma, Color Mode; and Fujifilm, Film Simulation.
If you have a camera with an electronic viewfinder, you’ll see a black and white image in the viewfinder. This helps tremendously with learning to see in black and white. If it doesn’t you can use Live View instead. You can also play back your photos to see how they look in black and white.
If you take this approach it’s important that you use the Raw format. This gives you the best quality image file to work with. But it also means that all the color information is recorded in the file. This lets you create a color version of the photo in Lightroom Classic if you want to.
You should also be aware that the black and white image may look disappointingly flat on the LCD screen (or in the viewfinder), depending on the brightness range of the subject. It’s less likely to happen if you’re shooting in strong sunlight.
But if you’re shooting in shade or another form of flat lighting then the image may lack the bite of a good black and white image. That’s okay – you can add contrast in Lightroom Classic.
The key elements of a successful black and white image
Not every subject works in black and white. It takes a while to learn what type of subject looks good and what doesn’t. So sometimes, if your images look disappointing in monochrome, it may mean nothing more than that your subject matter is more suited to color.
Let’s look at a practical example.
Imagine that you are making some portraits of a model, and that it looks something like this when you look through the viewfinder.
Ignoring the color, what are the elements that might make this a strong black and white portrait?
Strong eye contact and thoughtful expression. These often look more dramatic in black and white, without the distraction of color.
Texture. The model’s skin and hair have interesting texture.
Light. The model is standing under an arch which has the effect of making the light more directional. It comes from his left and creates a shadow on the right side of his face.
Here’s how it looks in black and white.
Let’s look at another portrait. Here’s the color version. You would see something like this in the viewfinder if you were working in color.
Can you visualize how this photo would look if you developed it in a similar way to the previous one? The idea is to imagine how it will look after you have converted it to black and white.
This is the art of visualization. It’s the skill to see the finished result after the photo has been developed, at the time you actually take the photo. Photography becomes a lot easier when you get good at this.
Here’s the result.
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Best subjects for black & white photography
Now we’ve seen a couple of examples, what should you look out for in terms of subject matter and composition when working in black and white?
It makes sense to start with a subject that tends to work well in monochrome. Here are some suggestions.
As we’ve already seen photos of people often work well in black and white. Color tends to pull attention away from the model’s eyes and expression, which are the most important and revealing part of the portrait.
If you want a shortcut to taking dramatic black and white portraits, you can’t go too wrong with a simple prime lens (either a short telephoto or a normal focal length) and setting a wide aperture (f2.8 or wider) to blur the background.
Then it’s just a matter of finding a decent setting and a soft, flattering light. Then you are free to concentrate on communicating with your model and creating interesting portraits.
Go somewhere interesting like a market where there are lots of things to take photos of. Get in close and concentrate on details. You’ll get the best results with a normal or short telephoto lens (shorter focal lengths require you to get closer to the subject which may be awkward in a busy public place). Photos of details work best when you concentrate on shapes and texture.
I made this photo in a public garden. The sticks were part of a bug hotel and I liked the textures and pattern.
The hard, angular shapes of buildings lend themselves to the graphic compositions suited for black and white photography. You can also look for architectural details like doorways, street number signs or anything with an interesting shape, pattern or texture. This is a great subject if you live somewhere with lots of old buildings as they tend to be made of textured, weathered materials that look beautiful in black and white.
I took this photo in a small town called Chascomus in Argentina. The street numbers in the old part of town were inscribed on these wonderful ornate plaques.
The light in the middle of the day is probably too hard to work well in color, but it can work very well in black and white. Look for strong, graphic shapes and if there’s a blue sky use a polarizing filter to make it darker.
The landscape is a potentially tricky subject because you are so reliant on weather and light as well as your own photographic skills. But if you know some good locations for landscape photography it is worth spending some time shooting in black and white to see if it makes a difference to your approach.
Anything with texture tends to look good in black and white, so landscapes that include a lot of it tend to be promising subjects.
Long exposure photography, which is where you use neutral density filters to extend the shutter speed to two minutes or longer, is a relatively new genre of landscape photography that works well in black and white.
I used a shutter speed of 340 seconds to create this landscape photo.
What to look for
We’ve already touched on this with the earlier portrait examples, but there are five things to be aware of when you are shooting in black and white that will help you compose better monochrome photos.
They are not the only elements of composition that make an interesting photo, but they are certainly enough to get you started.
1. Tonal contrast
Tonal contrast is the difference between the lightest and darkest areas of the subject. In black and white there is only one thing that determines how the subject looks in monochrome, and that is how much light it reflects. The more light a surface reflects, the brighter shade of gray it will be. The less light it reflects, the darker. The extremes at both ends of the grayscale spectrum are black and white.
Let’s take a simple example of a white flower against a dark background. The difference in brightness between the flower’s petals (white) and the dark background makes this an effective black and white composition.
However, if you photographed a red flower against a green background, there would be nearly no tonal contrast as both red and green reflect the same amount of light. There is plenty of color contrast, but no tonal contrast.
Here’s an example.
Tonal contrast is the basis of black and white photography.
You become good at composition when you learn to see the subject in abstract terms. Part of this process is learning to recognize shapes. In general, there are two types. The first are geometric shapes, such as circles, rectangles and squares. Many man-made objects break down into these shapes.
I photographed this interesting building in the Peak District in the UK. The building itself is made up of many smaller squares and rectangles made from the windows, bricks and roof tiles. The organic shapes of the trees in the background make an interesting contrast against the man-made geometric shapes of the building.
The other is irregular shapes. A person silhouetted against the sun creates an irregular but easily recognized shape. Irregular, recognizable shapes can be very evocative.
Black and white is excellent for emphasizing texture. Without color we become a lot more aware of the textures of the surfaces included in the photo.
Some surfaces have lots of texture, like the rocks in the earlier portraits. Others have very little texture, like polished metal. If you can find some way of contrasting highly textured surfaces with smooth ones in your photo then you could have the basis of a very effective black and white image.
The texture of the grass and the wooden boats in this landscape are an important part of the photo.
Most of the photos I’ve shown you so far have two more things in common. One is that the composition is very simple. I’ve deliberately moved in close to the subject and framed it in such a way to eliminate distracting elements. An added benefit is that the tonal contrast becomes much stronger when the composition is simplified.
Here’s another example. I moved in close to crop out as much as I could from this photo of a broom made from twigs. The simple composition emphasizes the textures. The tonal contrast between the lighter broomstick and the dark stones in the background helps with the composition.
5. Negative space
Negative space is the area surrounding your subject. It is negative space if it doesn’t contain much detail. In black and white, it would be an area of white, black or grey that creates a kind of frame for your subject, giving it room to breathe within the composition.
This landscape photo is a good example of using negative space. The rocks (mid to dark tones) are surrounded by an area of lighter space that contains just enough detail for you to see what it is (the sea). In this photo you can see the principles of tonal contrast, negative space and simplicity of composition working in harmony together.
Hopefully this advice helps you with the process of learning to see in black and white. Even if you have no intention of doing much work in monochrome (which would be a shame, as it’s such an expressive medium) the skills learnt will help you compose stronger images in color too.