How to use Monochrome Preview to Compose Better Color Photos

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You may have heard it said that when you change the way you see – the things you see begin to change. Legendary American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange once said that “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” In this article we are going to use our camera to learn how to see.

Become color blind

When it comes to photography, color can attract your eye so readily that it can often disguise poor composition. Black and white photography depends totally on composition, so in order to compose images more effectively you may need to become color blind. This article is going to explore how to view your images without color, learning to see the light and shapes in your subjects. Fortunately, these days most digital cameras have a black and white or monochrome shooting mode. In this mode the live preview (and replay) on your camera’s LCD will appear black and white, but your RAW file will still retain all color information. Using this method is meant to be used as an exercise to help you learn to see your compositions more clearly.

LCD preview of this colorful image is composed using rule of third grid in Black and White

LCD preview of this colorful image is composed using rule of third grid in black and white

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Camera settings:

  • Set your file type to RAW (This is a must!)
  • Set White Balance
  • Set your Picture Control (Nikon) or Picture Styles (Canon) to Monochrome
  • Set your exposure with whichever method you normally use
  • Turn on your Live View
  • Turn on rule of third grid lines on your preview
  • Use the black and white preview in Live View on your LCD to compose your image, paying special attention to the entire image for tones, shapes, lines and textures. Remember also to use all of the usual rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds, etc.
In Black and White it becomes easier to see how this bridge draws the views eye into the mage

In black and white it becomes easier to see how this bridge draws the views eye into the image.

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Tripod use is not a requirement for this system, but is helpful for two reasons: first of all, it frees up your hands to experiment with your camera controls and secondly, (and most importantly) it slows you down to allow you to analyze every aspect of your image.

Removing color from your preview makes it easier to see the shapes, lines, textures and tones and allows you to concentrate on your composition.

Don’t expect to get everything perfect in camera. Post-production is your friend! Even the great Ansel Adams produced most of his magic in the darkroom. But of course you want to get it as close as you can in camera. Be especially sure you get the white balance set as accurately as possible, because when shooting in RAW, white balance and exposure are the only camera settings that are retained by your RAW file. However, the white balance can be corrected in your RAW processing.

It is recommended that since you will be viewing a monochrome image on your LCD that you check your histogram to ensure that your image is properly exposed.

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Here we can see how the rocks in the foreground lead the viewer’s eye to the waterfalls.

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As mentioned at the beginning of the article, your image will be previewed on your LCD in black and white, but your RAW file will record color. If you should choose to shoot in RAW + JPG mode your RAW file will be recorded in color but your JPG will record only black and white.

Don’t panic when you see a monochrome preview upon importing your RAW files into Lightroom (or whatever you use for post-processing). As soon as you click on the image you will get a color preview.

There are many methods of creating black and white images and most photographers will agree that it is best to start with a color file. Therefore, another use for this preview method comes into play if you are shooting an image that you know you will later be converting to black and white. You’ll get a good preview of how your image may appear later upon converting your RAW file to black and white, and will know right away whether your image will be effective in black and white.

One disadvantage with this method that is worth mentioning is that using the Live View mode will drain your batteries faster.

As you can see in this preview, that this image could also make a great black and white with lots of textures and a very interesting subject

This image could also make a great black and white with lots of textures and a very interesting subject

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This method is great for landscape, architectural, and abstract photography where it is so important to see tones, shapes and lines for composition. Yes, there are some obvious times when color may play an important part of your images such as in the fall where the colors may become your subject, but every method has its exceptions.

Try this experiment. First, shoot your scene as you would do normally with color preview. Then shoot it again with a black and white preview. You might be surprised with the difference in your results.

Give it a try, please share your results in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • That’s a great idea Bruce! Thank you for sharing. I will try it at my next shoot. I already see another benefit – while shooting, I will instantly get an idea which shots I might want to convert to monochrome in post.

  • dantefrizzoli

    Thank you. I’m a beginner and really enjoyed your article.

  • Amy Baker

    Some great ideas here.

  • I just started shooting with this method a few weeks ago, but since I “see” the scenes as monochromes from the very beginning, I rarely like the color versions when I import the images into Lightroom, and almost invariably process them as monochromes.

  • me

    wow never knew the raw would be in colour 🙂

  • I’m bad at shooting B&W so I have one of the camera’s custom settings setup like this just so I can quickly switch and see what the black and white image will look like when I convert it at home. Although in my experience I notice my images have much higher contrast when I took the picture as black and white; I must unconsciously seek out high contrast in my Black and Whites.

  • Sai Krishna Aarya

    When I keep the quality as RAW or RAW AND JPEG,i cannot put the monochrome mode. I have SONY alpha 58

  • Jonathan San Juan

    same for me. The b&w just feel more dramatic.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Hi Sai, I have test this method on both Canon and Nikon, but I am not sure about Sony, maybe this not an option with Sony.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    I agree that sometimes Black and white can create a more dramatic image. But you must remember as your shooting with this method that this will be a color image and you are using the monochrome preview to help you compose the image better. Also remember to check your white balance and exposure.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    A custom setting is great idea Kerensky97,

  • Sai Krishna Aarya

    Ok sir!
    Thank you so much for your reply.

  • Pierre Montélimard

    It works fine with my alpha 450….

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Pierre, Please share your set up, Thanks

  • Pierre Montélimard

    Of course ! It’s as simple as DSLR set to RAW format (or RAW+Jpeg) and creative mode set to B&W, then use liveview.

  • Omar Spence

    I will try that

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Bruce,

    I really enjoyed reading your article because it presented an idea I had never considered! This is a simple, but potentially, effective tool I have never explored.

    Two minutes ago, I just set my “Picture Control” to monochrome, my ISO to 1000 and turned on live view. I made two photographs of my living room. The whole process was easy and very illuminating. It felt like a game changer. I have never selected “
    monochrome” before because I believed that I needed to begin with a good color
    image and then convert to black and white. This exercise gave me a whole new way of thinking about making photographs. It should help me up my game. I like including strong leading lines in my photos because it insures good composition. This is another way I can more easily see good composition with the distraction of color removed. Don’t misunderstand, I love color photography, but I still have all the color to work with in my RAW image.

    Here are links to a couple of black and white images that I am proud. The first photo is “God’s Rays”.
    http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com/sunsetdusk.html

    The second one is “Crescent Moon over Lake”.
    http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com/nighttime.html

    Now maybe there will be many more.

    Thanks so much for sharing a new strategy,
    Cheryl Garrity

  • Sandy

    I tried this over the weekend. Love black and white. Will be doing this more

  • Great advice. I never thought of using black and white as a preview option but it makes so much sense. Can’t wait to try it!

  • TheStarr51

    Does anyone shoot with a Pentax camera?

  • TheStarr51

    Does anyone shoot with a Pentax?

  • Ariya Farzad

    Hi. Where Are third grid lines in my nikon d7100?

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    With your camera in Live View, hit the info button until the grid line appears

  • ariya farzad

    yes i can see this but not third grid!

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    thats it, ust dont pay attention to the center lines and you have the thirds grid

  • Berti E M Lemmes

    The thing is, once you went B&W, you have a tendency NOT to go back to colour, except in very special cases!

  • Mikey Brown

    Could you tell me the settings for monochrome preview with a Pentax K-3?

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