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How to use Monochrome Preview to Compose Better Color Photos

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.

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Bruce Wunderlich
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