How to See in Black and White [and how HDR can be a Powerful Tool for the Monochrome Photographer]

How to See in Black and White [and how HDR can be a Powerful Tool for the Monochrome Photographer]


The very first photographs were shot in black and white. Decades later, even after the advent of color, many photographers—especially those concerned with creating works of art—continued to shoot in black and white. The format remains popular even today: nearly every consumer-level digital camera has a black and white mode available (for outputting JPEGs directly from the camera in monochrome), and all digital darkroom editing suites have at least one (and usually multiple) means of changing a color photograph to black and white. Indeed, there are expensive plugins available for Photoshop that are entirely devoted to the process of converting a color shot into black and white, and there dozens of groups on Flickr and Picassa and 500px that are exclusive to black and white photography.

Why do black and white photographs continue to exercise this hold over the fancy of so many photographers (dabbling, amateur, and pro) when we have cameras and techniques at our disposal that can capture every color under the sun? We can produce photographs of spectacular color range, with arresting reds and blues and greens and yellows, and yet the simple power of an effective black and white shot can (arguably, of course) leave even the most brilliantly realized color shot in the artistic dust.


A large part of the reason, as I see it, lay in that very simplicity of the monochrome image. Removing the color from a shot changes the focus—it shifts the viewer’s attention from the colors to things that can be more abstract, less immediately noticeable, and it presents the world to us in a way that few of us are used to seeing it. It can, by the very removal of that familiar element, generate an intense amount of interest and a powerful feeling of drama that might otherwise be overwhelmed by the presence of the color. The prosaic can be made into something tremendously interesting, by changing it, in a sense, into something even more prosaic, something even simpler.


As a result of the powerful appeal of black and white imagery, photographers will inevitably continue to try their hand at making monochrome photographs. But it isn’t necessarily as easy as you might expect, and not every color photograph will suddenly make a powerful, dramatic and artistic statement when converted into black and white. To create a spectacular black and white image you need to start at the very beginning, when you are first looking out on an interesting scene, before you ever press down on the shutter button.

A Shift in Sight

Most of us see the world in color. I do, and I’m very happy to have that ability. But to make the most effective black and white photograph possible, you need to develop the ability to abstract away those colors, well before you ever take the shot. The great black and white photographers of the past used to talk about “Seeing the world in black and white.” They weren’t referring to politics or some simple dichotomy of good and bad, but rather literally seeing it in monochrome, seeing it as it would appear once they processed the shot and had the black and white print in their hands.

A part of being able to see the world in black and white is pure, raw experience: the more black and white photographs you take, the better you will be able to understand what scenes and shots will work better in monochrome than in color. This can mean (and has meant, in the digital era) taking tons of color photos and then haphazardly trying the black and white conversion on some subset of them, hoping to get lucky and hit on one or two that really pop in black and white.

But you can short circuit this learning process—or at least help yourself on the way—by making yourself aware of what elements make the most impact in a black and white shot. Some of this is obvious, or at least may seem obvious, but the value comes from actually thinking about it, and considering these elements consciously as you shoot (until you reach such a point that you no longer even need to think about them, because they come so naturally to you). The elements include:

  • Shapes, Patterns, and Texture
  • Lighting and Contrast
  • Tone
  • Color

Wait—color? Let me explain the first few, and we’ll circle back to that last one.

Shapes, Patterns, and Texture

When you look past the colors in a scene, some of the first elements you’ll become aware of are shapes and repeating patterns, and texture. In the absence of color, these elements come to dominate the image, and can be a guide in your composition.

Look for interesting forms and juxtapositions of angles. Seek out triangles, in particular, and curves. Try to find shapes that match the Fibonacci Spiral, or at least conform loosely to the Rule of Thirds in the way they divide up your frame.


Hunt for patterns—repetitive formations of structure. And then look closely for that break in the pattern. A brick wall is a great pattern, but it’s also boring, unless you have that scrawled bit of amazing graffiti on it (or whatever it may be that caught your eye and stood out from the repetition around it).


Texture can really pop out of the image in black and white photography. Of course, color shots can have great texture as well, but there is just something about black and white that lends itself to really giving a visceral feeling of the roughness of that bark, or the uneven bumps of that concrete, etc. For example, consider the two shots below, the color version versus the black and white. In my opinion, at least (and your mileage, as always, may vary), the black and white version makes the textures almost come out off the screen, much more so than the color:



And then, of course, look to combine all three—find repeating patterns of interesting shapes that have eye-catching textures.

Lighting and Contrast

When the color information is removed from a photo, the quality and efficacy of the lighting can take a tremendous hit—or it can be incredibly enhanced. I’ve found that soft lighting is less effective in black and white (generally), whereas strong shadows (creating great shapes and patterns) can really come out when seen in monochrome.


In a way, “lighting” for black and white really means “shadows,” since we’re less concerned with that golden hue of magic hour and more interested in the way the light falls on our subject—that is, what unique shadows are created by that light source. Deep shadows have a character all their own, a character that can get somewhat lost in color shots and really make themselves known in black and white.


Contrast follows logically from this. Areas of high contrast—the difference between light and dark—will particularly stand out in black and white shots. If what you are looking at has very low contrast, you will risk having a muddy or uninteresting shot when you convert it to monochrome, because there is nothing to grab the eye, nothing to guide the viewer through the composition. All the grays become the same, and you get a big, flat, gray shot.

Boosting contrast artificially in Photoshop can only help this so much: in reality, you want to change your composition, come back at a different time of day, or change the lighting, etc, in order to realize the contrast necessary to make your black and white image pop.


Tone is difficult to define and describe. It is one of those “know it when you see it” elements of photography. Broadly speaking, it is the feeling evoked by the photograph, by the combination of all the elements I listed above (shape, pattern, texture, light, contrast, etc). Tone can be dark and moody, like something out of a noir film, or can be light and airy, like a painting of a single cloud in an otherwise startlingly blue sky.

It is, holistically, the mood of the photograph.

Black and white photographs lend themselves to setting a powerful tone. In your initial composition, you can concentrate on determining what this tone will be by focusing on the elements I listed above, and then try to mentally abstract away the color.

Experience helps a great deal here, as does carefully looking over the great black and white photographs that other photographers have made before you. Pay particularly attention to how light and shadow can impact the mood of the shot—the tone—and imagine, as you work on your own shots out in the field, how shifting even a few steps left or right might significantly affect the tone.

In short time you’ll be able to look at a scene and get an immediate feel for the tone it will evoke in your viewers when they see it in black and white.


This is an odd one. Color, for black and white photography? Well, if you convert your color shots to black and white in the digital darkroom, as I do, then color actually becomes quite important.

The process of converting a color shot into black and white involves, in most cases, making explicit decisions about the relative intensity the colors in your shot will be when translated into grayscale. You might make your blues nearly black and boost up the relative lightness your yellows and reds and greens in a landscape shot in order to give yourself that eye-catching, deep sky.


If you keep this in mind when you are composing your shot, you can look for regions of strong color differentiation, and use that to, in effect, enhance the contrast of your final black and white shot. The intensity of the blues and reds in a single shot might be nearly equal, when viewed in color (not giving much in the way of contrast), but in the conversion process you can darken one and lighten the other, and create that deep sense of contrast that will pop so much in black and white.

Bonus Section: Using High Dynamic Range to Boost Your Black and White Photography

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is controversial and I won’t try to sway you one way or the other if you have strong feelings regarding how it is commonly used/abused in modern digital photography. However, few can deny that it can be a very powerful tool when composing for black and white imagery.


This may initially seem counterintuitive. After all, a major draw of HDR photographs is that amazing, hyper-real color that seems to jump out of the screen or print at you. But HDR is really about enhancing the dynamic range of the shot—enhancing the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the image, allowing more of each to be seen.

And it is, fundamentally, in the difference between the dark and the light where all the magic of black and white photography happens.

HDR can’t necessarily enhance the shapes in your shot, or help you with composition, but it can bring out more pattern and texture than a non-HDR image. It can also significantly increase the perceived intensity of the lighting in a given shot, and, overall, pull up the contrast (or make more room for the contrast to be effectively increased in Photoshop, etc).

Eckert_BW_10_HDR 2.jpg

If you have always avoided HDR because of those highly overprocessed images that you can find anywhere on Flickr or Picassa, I strongly recommend you try it out for yourself. Keep in mind the strengths of HDR, and the advantages it gives you in scenes that would otherwise be impossible to capture in a single exposure. And remember that you don’t have to overprocess your shot like others do, if you don’t happen to like that effect. Instead, subtly tone map your exposures with an eye toward bringing out that amazing texture or shadow that you saw in person but couldn’t capture with one exposure alone.

Black and white photography, the oldest form of photography, is here to stay. Its unique qualities help ensure it will never completely die, no matter how amazingly accurate or vivid technology allows the colors in our shots to become. There is a very real power inherent in the best black and white images, a power that would often be lessened if that same shot were seen instead in color. By learning to see the world in terms of shape, pattern, texture, light, contrast, and tone, you can start making powerful black and white shots of your own.

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Joseph Eckert is an avid, self-taught photographer currently living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with his wife, cute corgi, and two obnoxious but loveable cats. Read more reviews and musings on photography at Joseph Eckert Photography,

Some Older Comments

  • Sharon April 10, 2012 11:57 am

    How can I print color without any tint of color. A true black and white shows on the monitor but doesn't print that way. I have tried monochromatic in channel mixer and grayscale. Still have a bluish/green tint when I print and commercial printing also. What do I need to do to get black blacks and white whites?

  • Brian Lucas November 14, 2011 09:43 pm

    Many moons ago when I used a Contaflex and Rolleiflex, developed and printed my own B&W and very rarely used colour, I was taught by an old professional that to "see B&W" ... look through a green filter. Landscapes are especially hard to judge the contrasts between all the greens but if you view it through a mid green stage lighting gel everything (contrast wise) stands out. I have since always carried a 6x6 inch sheet with me and it has never failed. I might get some strange looks as I view scenes and objects through it but it's the result that counts. "Get the best in the camera first then enhance it in the darkroom" was always his motto. Works for me still all these years later.

  • Jason October 20, 2011 05:13 pm

    The only problem with HDR and black and white is that the shadows and highlights get erased a bit. In some cases it works out really well - in some ways its better with a single exposure. In many ways exposure is really more important in B&W than color - so HDR is a way to see through the shadows - and in SOME cases doesn't really work well.

    Just my .02

    Jason Feldman

    P.S. photomatix pro actually has an HDR b&w preset !

  • Ryan October 5, 2011 12:55 am

    Absolutely fantastic article. Shortly after reading this, I headed to Milwaukee for Game 1 of the NLDS. While there, the filtered sunlight in the stadium created some fantastic shadows, which coupled with the home whites of the Brewers created a fantastic photo opportunity.
    "The Gods of Baseball"
    NLDS game 1.
    Late in the game, as the sun made its way west, the gods of baseball made their presence known as they shined down upon Yovani Gallardo. The roof of Miller Park was closed on this day the first of October 2011, and only one Diamondback batter made his way home. The Game 1 ace was locked in and pitched a lights out 8 innings with 9 strike outs. It is officially "Brewtober" in you feel it?

  • Joey Rico October 4, 2011 02:01 pm

    i usually use HRD on my photos to convert it to B/W using silver effects pro high tructure!!!

  • Neil October 4, 2011 10:58 am


    Not in LR. You need PS CS5 to get it there. Otherwise try here.


  • Coreen October 4, 2011 10:17 am

    I would really like to try this HDR thing, does anyone know if PS 7 has it and if so where?
    I also have lightroom 3 but not able to find there either...please help

  • Gevalher October 4, 2011 02:44 am

    Thanks for sharing this! I wil try some b/w pics for myself...

  • Vikror October 4, 2011 12:54 am

    I love B&W it can look really arty!! I especially loves stuff like: - brilliant!!!

  • Leanne Leach October 3, 2011 11:23 pm

    I used to shoot in BW, back in the old days... Now, while I am reasonably competent in adobe bridge and photoshop - I find my BW conversions really lack something... light, or contrast or something..... I use the colour sliders, always process in camera raw, but still feel something isnt quite right. can anyone share tips??

  • K?A. Gilligan October 3, 2011 11:19 pm

    Very well done article. Excellent choice of images to illustrate your points. Useful information. The shot of the helicopter is terrific.

    Here is a black and white boxing shot I took recently. I like the way B&W, or its relative sepia can capture the drama of boxing and martial arts.


  • Neil October 3, 2011 03:03 am

    Want to get serious about B/W photos? Check out the article here:

  • Steve October 2, 2011 02:49 pm

    So would you convert to b&w before or after the hdr process?

  • Greg Nelson October 2, 2011 07:22 am

    I took some shots at a friend's wedding with my camera in b/w mode. I was pretty pleased with how they came out.

  • Joseph Eckert October 1, 2011 11:25 pm

    Thank you everyone, again, I very much appreciate all the wonderful comments!

    Mandy - to answer your question, everything prior to the "Lighting and Contrast" section is non-HDR (that is, single exposure converted to black and white in post). All the photos after that point are HDR. I'm actually happy that it isn't obvious - I don't want the "HDR-ness" of a given shot to call attention to itself, I just want the shot itself to work, however it was taken.

    Joseph Eckert

  • Spyros Heniadis October 1, 2011 09:13 am

    I really like the idea of using HDR with black and white. I flirted with B&W awhile back but was never satisfied with the results. This gives me what I was missing. Thank you for this.

  • Scottc October 1, 2011 08:17 am

    Never thought of HDR and B&W myself, I'm going to have give that a try. Great article, my B&W needs some work and this helps.

  • Mandy October 1, 2011 07:21 am

    completely agree with the colour and b&w shot the b&w really pops off the page.

    have to say I've never thought of using hdr with black and white, and makes sense now I think of it!

    are all the above shots b&w hdr?

  • linus October 1, 2011 06:06 am

    I have always got interesting results with B&W HDR. It combines both the things the texture and the nice B&W felling of HDR.
    Here is the latest one:
    This one is little old

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer October 1, 2011 05:57 am

    I have long thought HDR works really well for black & white also. Maybe even black & white works best for HDR since one does not have to worry about distorted colors, but only the sharper details from HDR which black & white naturally enhances as well.

    My most recent B&W HDR is a pair of binocular viewers looking out over the downtown St. Petersburg, Florida waterfront:

  • Martin Tolley October 1, 2011 02:41 am

    A couple of years ago I started shooting B&W in camera. I went out for a couple of days and shot nothing else. I learned more about light and shade and contrast and shape in those two days than in the previous fifteen years of shooting. Colour distracts. Colour serves to improve our perception of the world and reduce ambiguities in the visual field - forms that are coloured alike, tend to be perceived as objects. That processing is automatic, it almost stops you from looking intently at the shape and form that is there. Take away the colour at the outset and you have to look, really look at what's in front of the lens.

  • Paul Waldo October 1, 2011 12:58 am

    Excellent article, Joseph. I completely agree that B&W can give you a different way to look at a common scene and also that HDR can make it even more interesting. The image at the link below is a case in point. This was a *huge* mushroom growing in my back yard that had a lot of interesting textures. Because of the really high contrast, I knew that I would need HDR to capture the subtleties, especially the dark area under the cap. While it looked good in color, it really popped once converted to B&W. It is the B&W conversion that gives the upper part of the mushroom an almost metallic look, which would not have been achievable in color.

  • Shannon September 30, 2011 11:03 pm

    Thanks for a really great article. It has really inspired me to give b&w another shot. I've always loved b&w photography but I could never figure out why my shots alway looked just blah. I'm looking forward for the sun to come up so I can get out and do it.

  • Fuzzypiggy September 30, 2011 10:35 pm

    Well done!

    I utterly dislike those horrible over-saturated HDRs that everyone seems to think are so great. HDR, when it's used carefully is a wonderful tool that really brings a shot to life, making it so rich and textured. I love carefully produced mono-HDRs they are so rich.

    Slapping 3 shots together and cranking up the blending and saturation sliders in Photomatix is like cooking cakes with your kids, it's purely about enjoying making a big mess than actually producing anything useful at the end!

  • lakshman September 30, 2011 10:01 pm

    awesome ideas and explanations.. thanks for sharing

  • Milly September 30, 2011 06:37 pm

    Thanks for this informative article Joseph! I had a vague idea about the points you mentioned but was great to have them explained in more detail and see all your example images :-)

  • David September 30, 2011 06:29 pm

    What a great, no fantastic article. This would in my opinion be one of the best articles even written on this site, man I'm so inspired.

  • Frank Pierce September 30, 2011 03:09 pm

    If you really want to learn the art of black and white.......................use film.

  • Rick September 30, 2011 03:09 pm

    Great article. For me, b/w is another way to represent a given place in a given time. I love the timeless feel it gives to some of my images.

  • Alexa September 30, 2011 01:48 pm

    This is exactly why I love shooting film. Well said. I am hyped now.

  • George Norkus September 30, 2011 12:45 pm

    Generally I don't care for B&W. As a person who learned the ropes with B&W, I spent a good 10 years before going to color film. When I became the chief photographer for my High School yearbook class, I was forced back into it. (Yech!!!)

    You notice that I origionally said, "...I don't care for B&W", but that doesn't stop me from liking it! The main reasons are two fold. 1. Because I love the character in it. 2. Because it's timeless!

    That said... I love this article and it was very well written. Great work Joseph!

  • Rishin September 30, 2011 12:14 pm

    Hi All

    This is the first time I'm posting here.. can somebody pls suggest if these could have been done in a better way?

  • Neil September 30, 2011 11:02 am


    Always shoot RAW if you can. If not then largest JPG in color.

  • Joseph Eckert September 30, 2011 10:56 am

    Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to read the article.

    Pete - I would personally recommend taking the shot in color and then convert to B&W in post. When you have the camera shoot in B&W you are essentially abdicating a host of creative decisions, leaving it up to the camera's engineers to figure out the processing for you - it may work out, or it may not. When you do it yourself in post, you can make a ton of adjustments, going well beyond just "convert to grayscale", such as varying intensities of how dark gray the different colors are, the intensity of highlights, midtones and shadows, etc.

    Joseph Eckert

  • Jan Maklak September 30, 2011 10:17 am

    Until I purchased 2 photoshop plugins from Nik and Topaz I had trouble with black and white. HDR can certainly help with contrast and structure. Some of the worst HDR in color can make quite a good shot. Black and white without these assists can be a frustrating exercise and learning b&w and getting it from bad to good to great is a long process for some (like me :)
    Thank you for great information

  • ace September 30, 2011 08:32 am

    hey im sorry im just learning about cameras and settings on the camera. I shoot with a nikon D90 and I am a little lost on how to change my HDR settings can anyone help?

  • Pete September 30, 2011 05:34 am

    I never thought of doing B&W HDR photo's. I'll have to try that on for size.

    One question... Which is better? Taking the photo in camera as a B&W, or converting a colour photo?

  • Mike September 30, 2011 04:59 am

    Good job.

    The information is a good refresher for those that haven't shot black and white for a while and a good starting point for those that never have. Your comments on some images working and some not and HDR working for some and not others are right on.

  • Jacek September 30, 2011 03:49 am

  • AChan September 30, 2011 03:22 am

    Thank you for such an educational article. I'm looking forward to taking a walk later and trying to see the world in BW.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck September 30, 2011 02:54 am


    I often convert images to B&W just as a course of action during post processing if I spot something that i think may be interesting. For example, this simple wishing well was much more effective in B&W compared to color!

  • Terje Hamnes September 30, 2011 02:53 am

    I'm most certainly no pro, but I stumbled onto the same realisation - HDR and B&W can often be a simply excellent match

  • Nezih Onur September 30, 2011 02:16 am

    This is a good article for those who want to learn substantial information about B&W photography.

  • DerekL September 30, 2011 01:58 am

    Your comments about HDR are spot on, there's a lot of bad stuff out there and a there's some styles of HDR that just turn people off. But done right, it can produce amazing results.

    I've been doing more and more B&W recently because it does 'focus the eye' on things that are less obvious in color.

  • Sean September 30, 2011 01:40 am

    Awesome post. Very timely as it seems my eye has swung back toward BW recently. I go with HDR (granted, usually a subtle processing of the tone mapped image) on the vast majority of my BW now days.

  • Sean September 30, 2011 01:40 am

    Awesome post. Very timely as it seems my eye has swung back toward BW recently. I go with HDR (granted, usually a subtle processing of the tone mapped image) on the vast majority of my BW now days.

  • Dame September 30, 2011 01:29 am

    Great article! I think just about all the suggestions given for B+W apply to color as well. (contrast of lighting, shadows, lines etc.)

  • javier September 30, 2011 01:24 am

    Nice post!

    I've tried a bit of both hdr and b&w separately, but never tried to to both at the same time, might as well give it a try :-) Thanks for the tips!

  • Héctor Yáñez September 30, 2011 12:53 am

    Great Article! I will love to give it a try!! =) Thanks for sharing it!!!