9 Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

9 Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

There is a certain subtle elegance about monochrome (often referred to as black and white) images. Removing color changes the focus of the image to the subject matter, the tones, textures, shadows and highlights. Consequently, it requires a different mindset, or a different eye to shoot monochrome than it does for colour.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome - black and white tree

Color seduces us, it gives the image energy and enthusiasm, there are lots of places for the eye to visit and travel around an image. To do monochrome well, you must think about your composition in a more structured manner, you must see the image in a different way.

monochrome - learning to see - tree in color

In the color version, the blue sky and green grass dominate, but the fabulous cloud detail is highlighted in the monochrome or black and white version, with the stark strong lines of the central trees dominating.

Monochrome is where you reduce the image to one tonal colour – it could be black and white, sepia, a specific color channel, silver, gold or any one of several shades used to generate the final image. Most frequently we see the classic black and white, often used with street photography.

Elements of Monochrome / Black and White imagery

1 – Subject Matter

Is the subject the primary element in the image? Does it capture and hold the attention? Is it a clean, simple and strong composition?

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

2 – Tonal Range

Do the tones within the image range from true black to white, with a good range of grey tones in between. Ansel Adams Zone System is a useful guide for understanding the range of tones available. Also consider how your camera will attempt to compensate for them, which might require you to adjust your exposure compensation.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

The tones in this image are very similar, mostly mid tones. There is some white but not enough dark/black tones to balance it out better.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

This image has lots of darker tones. It was deliberately processed to add drama to the clouds and pick up the light beams coming through the tops of the clouds.

3 – Contrast

Directly related to the tonal range, contrast explores that concept further by comparing the range of difference between tones for visual impact. Contrast is the difference in scale between the tones and can be used for significant creative impact.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Clear true black in the seats and handles, balanced out with the much brighter silver gives this a clear and defined contrast of tones.

Having a good tonal range makes the image more interesting, but choosing to position certain elements against each other specifically to highlight the contrast between them is a powerful tool. Contrast can also be affected in the post-processing stage as well.

4 – Texture

When you remove color from an image, what is left is the structure of the composition – the lines and shapes and details that make up the elements. Going even further into the subtle details can reveal the textural elements of the subject – lines and grooves in bark or weathered wood, cracks in a concrete wall, fine details in hair or fur. These often overlooked textural elements can be highlighted in a monochrome image, showing them off in a new perspective.

These often overlooked textural elements can be highlighted in a monochrome image, showing them off in a new perspective.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

A long exposure provides the soft smoke effect of the water, giving a soft texture to contrast the gritty shell covered rocks against.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Many lines and shapes in the tree branches offer textural details, partnered with the lines of cloud in the sky. This image was also processed with some film grain to add even more subtle texture.

5 – Light

One of my favourite things about shooting monochrome is that often the light you are working in has less effect on the final image. Obviously, the best light you can get is ideal, but sometimes you just have to deal with the light in a particular situation; e.g. very flat light under rain clouds in a landscape.

Black and white images can be edited and processed to make the best of whatever light is available. In fact, I have often found, especially for landscapes, that the less ideal the lighting, the better the image looks when finally processed to black and white.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Taken in light rain on a very overcast day, but I knew when I processed it, the sky would look amazing with all the masts from the yachts outlined against the dramatic clouds

6 – Shapes and Patterns

Using tonal range and contrast in more creative ways can highlight the shapes or patterns in the world around you. When you learn to see in monochrome, looking for these becomes much easier. It is surprising when you take the time to stop and look and see in a different way, how much of the world is presented in patterns.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome - patterns

A very abstract image of the support strut on a large metal sculpture. The contrast of the lines radiating out from the central point with the curve of the razor wire caught my eye, and it was specifically framed for this point of view.

Taking an abstract approach can offer even more scope for creative composition. Going in close to a subject and focussing on the structural elements can provide interesting results. Changing your angle of approach, being up really high, getting down low or taking an unexpected point of view can completely change the way an element in an image is viewed.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

The edge of a metal seat in a busy city street, shot up close to highlight the repeating circular details and the contrasting lines of the bars.

7 – Shadows

Shooting in bright daylight is often not ideal for photography, the shadows are harsh with sharply defined edges and the heavy black tones can dominate the image visually. Shooting and processing in monochrome is a way not only to counteract this but actually harness this very contrasty light for a positive outcome.

Being able to see the potential in the tonal contrast and shadows offers you far more opportunities to make images if you’re prepared to think and see in monochrome.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Here I deliberately composed to use the shadows as an element in this image and edited to pick up the subtle details of the spider web spanning across the horse shoes as well. Added texture is highlighted in the saw marks on the planks of wood.

8 – Details

Color images are often about the big bold bright colors catching your attention, however many times there is often little beyond the colors to hold it. Monochrome allows you to explore your world from a different frame of reference.

When it is about the tones, contrast, textures and shapes then you can also take your time to look and see the finer details within the image. It might be a spider web taking up residence in an old building, wrinkles in a loved one’s hands or face, the bright glimpse of teeth in a smile, or a reflection in a window.  Many small elements layered together may make a nuanced image, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

Water ripples, snow capped mountains wrapped in clouds and a line of stunted willows reaching a mass of branches up to the sky, so many different elements and details.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome

This t-shirt has lots of detail on it, but the contrast of the black material against the bald head was what caught my eye, and the wonderful folds of skin at the back of the neck sealed the deal.

9 – Colour Tones in Final Processing

Monochrome doesn’t just mean black and white, and even within that concept there are many different colour shades that can be applied to the final image for creative effect.  Sepia (yellow) tones are often used to give a vintage or aged effect. Many other colours can be used effectively in processing a monochrome image to enhance it, and present the image in the way you want it viewed.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome - sepia image

An old rusted up piece of farm equipment has that mood enhanced with a slightly aged sepia tone.

Different tones can be used to warm or cool the image, which can radically change the mood or the feel of the image. If you want to get creative here, it can be interesting to process the same image with several different tones and compare them. Sometimes the final choice might surprise you.

Tips for Learning How to See in Monochrome - purple tone

7-minute exposure in Docklands, Melbourne, Australia. The sky was a cold blue grey and I wanted a different more dramatic feel, and settled on this purple tone for the mood I wanted to convey.


There are much more ways to see the world than the color you are used to. Learning to see in shades of grey, black and white will teach you essential composition skills that should improve your photography. Also, it offers new opportunities to shoot in more varied lighting conditions, expanding your skill set and capabilities.

Lastly, there is much fun and a creative possibility to be had in the processing of monochrome images. Don’t be afraid to experiment and push the boundaries of what you might expect.

Note: I always shoot in colour and process the images to monochrome on the computer.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Stacey Hill invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. While having many adventures out and about in the South Island of New Zealand, Stacey took to blogging about her experiences learning photography. Recently she discovered the fun and creative possibilities to be had with Photoshop. She can be found having an opinion all over the place here.