Photographing in Black and White for a Day


I love to set myself little exercises to stretch my photographic muscles. I thought I might share one that has been most beneficial to me, photographing a familiar place or subject you would normally do in color, in only in black and white for a day, with the aim of getting a new perspective that could prove helpful when you go back to color.


This possibly doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, and won’t be if you shoot mainly in black and white already, but for those of us used to color, it can be a real challenge not to cheat by shooting in color and converting later, or quickly switch settings back to color every now and then. I confess to failing the challenge pretty much every time, but the exercise has proven fruitful regardless.

Why black and white?

Because once you take the color out of the picture your awareness of other compositional elements such as tone and contrast increase. It also makes you photograph differently and look at your subject in a different way.

I first did this exercise some years ago during my regular walk along local beaches. It’s a stunning place with white sands and crystal blue water. You don’t have to be a fantastic photographer to capture a pretty image when surrounded by the beautiful colors of the water and the skies in this place.

Taking black and white photo's in a location you would normally shoot in color can help you to see things differently

It’s really a challenge sticking to black and white when in a location like this, full of gorgeous colors.

Once you challenge yourself to let go of the beauty of the colors in your usual color subjects your approach can change dramatically. It becomes more about tones, patterns, contrast and mood. You can end up photographing your regular subject entirely differently when you start to play more with shapes, patterns and designs you might otherwise not have noticed when color is involved.

By doing this simple exercise both my beach subjects and compositions changed. Some images I would normally take that looked lovely in color looked washed out and a bit nothing, and vice versa, something that just didn’t look so wonderful no matter how many times I color photographed them, suddenly worked. Things like graininess became a bonus rather than something to avoid.

Change your perspective by shooting your color subjects in black and white!

I had photographed this rocky part of the local beach a few times as a landscape image, always included the area’s amazing colors. A day of black and white changed my perspective. This image and the first one in this article where later commissioned for a guitar duo’s album artwork. A surprising result from a simple exercise.

Why a familiar place or subject?

Because you will be less tempted to switch to color when you can always go back and shoot color next time. If you are constantly tempted to switch back, you will keep seeing and thinking in terms of color and the point of the exercise is to see your familiar subject differently and hopefully start seeing it in a way that will then help you out with your color photography.

Whether you are a landscape, portrait or any other type of photographer it can be fun and beneficial to take a slightly more restricted approach. Much like a free form poet suddenly attempting a haiku, the limitations of the haiku format insist on a completely different attack requiring a stretching of creativity.

You might not be keen to try it again but it can be a learning experience and you might just get a decent photograph out of the experience.
For this article I tried the exercise again at another familiar place I have photographed many times. An artists studio where I often work on collaborations.

Maybe try a day of black and white photography at a friend or family members place you visit regularly.

It doesn’t matter where you try this exercise, just as long as it is a familiar place or subject so you can always go back and do color versions later after seeing it through a black and white perspective.

An added benefit of shooting at this location being that the artist, Randall Sinnamon, is also an art teacher so I asked him for some tips on working in black and white.

“Contrast is the balance between the extremes of black and white, with tone being the gradation of black and white, you use them both to create form. It’s the placement of these elements that creates your composition. If you get these things right then the picture works. It’s often good to have some larger shapes of light or dark in a composition.”

tone and contrast , important to both painting and photography

Photographing in black and white for a day can help you see tones and shapes better, which you can then apply to compositions in your color photography.

“I often look at my paintings in the moonlight, the low light allows you to see the balance of shapes. You can also to this by squinting, or turning your image upside down. Considering I often work with charcoal and ink I tend to do a lot of black and white. It’s nice to just do a drawing and not worry about the color. Sometimes color can be an unnecessary complication. There is a lot of beauty in black and white, with so much color photography we still see a lot of black and white work, obviously there is something appealing about it. It simplifies things.”

Black and white can simplify things, and improve the mood of an image.

Portrait of artist Randall Sinnamon. As he said, “Black and white simplifies things”. The colors in this image were distracting, they bounced around too much, where as in black and white it calmed things down and we are more able to focus on the mood, the joy of his smiling face in the sun.

You might notice when trying this exercise that an image that can look like a busy mess in color can become elegant in black and white. Photographing outdoors in the middle of the day can work well too, we color photographers so often prefer the softer light of morning or evening, midday light can add harsh shadows or too much contrast, but black and white photography loves contrast. It also loves patterns and repetition.

Black and white photography works well with striking patterns and repetition .

I’ve photographed this tie collection in the artists studio before in color, but this time without the distration of color, it became about the patterns and repetition and worked much better.

Of course sometimes it just makes sense to photograph in color. But this exercise can help with working out what does and doesn’t work in either camera setting.

Photographing in Black and white helps you with your compositions by not distracting you with color.

I cheated. Again. I’d like to pretend it was for the purpose of this article, but really I couldn’t say no to that orange color. Yet when photographing this fungus outside the studio, the orange was distracting, and when I looked at the black and white version, I realized composition wise, things could have been better.

So set your camera to black and white, and head out, or even photograph your own home or backyard. No cheating. OK, maybe a little cheating if the color is just too hard to resist. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on a brilliant shot. But do try to stick to it, keeping your eye out for situations with patterns, tones, shapes, contrasts without thinking about color can really make a difference to how you later compose your images. Remember this is just an exercise, you don’t have to get the perfect shot here, relax and enjoy the change. It’s as good as a holiday so they say.

If you do try the exercise, please share you favorite results in the comments below. Or perhaps you have some other simple exercise idea you’ve tried that you would like to share with our readers.
Happy photographing.

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Lea Hawkins is an Australian photographer working mainly in the areas of portraiture, fine art, and for the local press. Her work has been published, exhibited, selected and collected - locally, nationally and internationally, in many forms. All shot with very minimal gear and the photographic philosophy that it's not so much the equipment, but what you do with it. You can see more of her work at

  • Spoonie

    So just chose a monoome picture style and shoot raw? You get a BW image to review on your camera plus the RBG channels recorded to you can process in BW properly in light room AND you have a colour image in case the composition suits colour better and you don’t have to go back and shoot again. NEVER use the jpeg BW setting in your camera, you lose the RBG data that way and you’ll never be able to replicate using RBG filters with BW film.

    Capture BW, save raw. Best of both worlds.

  • Saad Haad Rifai

    My B & W,,,,,,

  • Ku Imran Ku Hamid

    i shoot for B&W several…this is one of that…just wanted to shared it here…

  • Lisa Moyer

    Thanks Lea! I want to do more B&W intentionally.

  • Lisa Moyer

    Love the 2nd one!

  • Lea Hawkins

    Great advice Spoonie. I agree, for the most part will always shoot raw color files to convert later, the point of the article though was to spend just one day shooting only in B&W to look at a familiar subject differently, and hone composition,tone skills etc, to see in B&W.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Your welcome Lisa, and yes “intentionally” , it makes a difference, as opposed to color and converting later. Thanks for posting.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Wonderful shot, glad you shared it with us.

  • Lea Hawkins

    This is great Saad Haad, thank you for sharing.

  • Spoonie

    Yes. I got your point. I Think you missed mine.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Apologies if I am still missing the point Spoonie. Just trying to say that knowing you can shoot in RAW/monochrome setting and convert later using your great advice, would defeat the exercise, even with looking at camera previews in monochrome. I firmly believe it makes you shoot differently when color is just not an option to convert to later.

  • Alan Elwell

    Err, it’s a “shot”. A shot, I say! (Sorry ’bout that).

  • Alan Elwell

    Said shot of Lion Island.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Haha It’s a shot! And it is stunning.

  • Alan Elwell

    Thank you!

  • Alan Elwell

    A detail of our local church. An island that looks like a lion (apparently), a church that resembles an alien spacecraft…welcome to Woy Woy in wonderful B&W.

  • Tim Lowe

    I’m primarily a film photographer and is shoot mostly b/w. Shooting b/w digital is problematic at best. Unless you plunk down serious money for a Leica M Monochrome, you are going to shoot digital color. Sure, you can convert your slick color RAW files with a good tool. (I’m really fond of Silver Efex.) But (and I get grief for being a snotty film photographer here) that is a far cry from shooting, developing and printing b/w film with all the technical and artistic considerations involved in film, shooting, developing and printing choices.

    Having a b/w mind is good for any photographer. But, honestly, you can’t develop that (pun intended) by shooting digital color images. It’s just a completely different animal.

  • Howard

    I just started shooting B/W. Here is a pic in my back yard. I did add some edge roundness with LR. I would appreciate any advise or comments. Don’t worry, I have thick skin!!Ha Thank you.

  • Kim

    I lucked out with an incredibly hammy dog, so there’s plenty to translate into black and white. (BTW, I did “cheat” on these, but I wanted to keep a color version of this so I could compare my final results.)

  • That’s true. I’ve set my camera to B&W then didn’t get around to editing those till weeks later. With all my RAWs in color it was hard sorting through them to find the ones I thought were amazing in B&W.

    Although converting the first to B&W then using Lightroom to sync the changes across all of them fixed it. Then I was back in my B&W mindset and I could roll back the conversion in the future if I ever felt the need.

  • Utpal Chakravarty

    Processed this image both in colour & monochrome… However, the one in B&W stood out far better highlighting the subject along with it’s surroundings !!

  • Amanda

    This was actually my first time shooting in b&w, just at home with my kids. And this is jpg and I wasn’t even in manual mode yet, I’m an amateur and now I’ve starting shooting manual just the last month.

  • rico mendoza
  • ptz55

    I was doing the very exercise that Leah described. Black and white with no color option. I did my usual flowers and they taught me to look at the edges of the petal for contrast and look for the veins for detail. Even adding negative space to the challenge was fun. I loved your article. Thanks

  • Crystal White

    This photo originally contained lots of rich color. Could not resist this particular set for that reason. However, in editing I found that I preferred it in black and white .Textures throughout and reflection in the glass command attention.

  • Very creative and easy tutorial. I see your all tutorial very easy but effective. Thanks gift for your helpful tutorial.

  • Skye McKey

    I must say that as a former ONLY B&W film photographer, I have learned to ‘see’ in black & white. For me color is the challenge…

  • Skye McKey

    Amen. I resisted digital for years because I love black & white- unfortunately the chemistry doesn’t like me anymore… so, I had to adapt- and a big YES! to Silver Efex. LOVE it. Although my one question would be- is it redundant to have converted the file and tweaked it a tiny bit in Elements before I bring up Silver Efex?

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hi Skye, I used to work for a newspaper over 20 years ago, in the days before they printed in color, I was shooting black and white every day. Like yourself, saw in black and white, and the adjustment to color was a challenge, but seeing in black and white first really helped when I did make the transition. Now I love both equally.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thank you for such a lovely comment Taposy, It makes me very happy that I can help out!

  • Lea Hawkins

    Great stuff Crystal, I can see all those directional lines of the bricks,stairs,window bars could have been a bit lost in color, and we might not have noticed the reflection so much.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Well that’s just wonderful ptz55, I am so pleased you not only tried the exercise but that you enjoyed it and found it so helpful. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  • Lea Hawkins

    That’s just adorable Rico. Certainly works well in black and white, really nice contrast. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Congrats on moving to manual Amanda, you won’t regret it! There are loads of great tutorials on getting started in manual here on DPS if you get stuck. Expressive shots, you’ve really captured a mood in both of them, love the reflection staring back at us in the first shot.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Stunning image Uptal, definitely one for black and white.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Haha Howard, no thick skin needed. I really like the shot, the interesting composition, the sharp silhouette against the soft detailed texture of the clouds. Really nice stuff. I think the only advice I would give you is to keep it up!

  • Lea Hawkins

    Ha, I love a photography pun. It’s been a long time since I have worked in a darkroom, but yes, when I eventually moved to digital, found digital black and white to be lacking, a different animal as you say. Although digital does seem to be catching up.
    I am hoping the article helps color digital photographers to develop a black and white mind.
    Thanks for the post Tim.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Agreed Skye, I still have a darkroom set up, but it’s stored away for that very reason, the chemicals and I just don’t get on.
    I’ve heard many good things about Silver Efex, yet to try it. I don’t use Elements either. Perhaps Tim in the post above can shed some light on that for you.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Hahah yes, looks more like a whale than a lion. Perhaps “Whale Island” was already taken. Another stunner Alan. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sean Reese
  • Lea Hawkins

    Sean, these are beautifully mood evoking, even with the simple camera shot. I’m assuming film as you mention, given the neg dust and gorgeous grain. The last two, path and camera, the way they display in this comment section look like a deliberate composite, and works as such…all paths lead to…. Really beautiful work, makes me miss film. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Rock on! Sorry about the reaaaally long delay in replying, I’ve been offline for a fair bit. This shot captures energy of the gig, and makes me wish I was there! A very belated thank you for sharing.

  • Sean Reese

    Lea, I try to find the oldest rolls of film that I can just to see what comes out after I develop them. I popped the lid on the tank not knowing that I had unexposed film in there and these are what I got. These were all made right after a snow/ice storm and it was foggy but in the middle of the day. I went through a roll of Ektachrome yesterday but haven’t scanned them in yet. This is one from a shoot last week using Ilford Delta 3200 Pro. Right now, I am trying to get my professor to let me shoot film for my final project instead of digital. 😀

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