How to See in Black and White

How to See in Black and White

How to see in black and white

In my previous article I showed you how to convert colour photos to black and white in Lightroom. However, no matter which technique you use, good monochrome photography starts in your mind. If you can learn to see in black and white, you can create beautiful monochrome images. Here are some tips to get you started.

Understand the appeal of Black and White

Colour photography is very literal. It depicts the world as it really is. Black and white, on the other hand, gives us a new way of seeing. Removing colour takes us a step away from reality and towards creating an artistic interpretation. Shape, form, tone and texture are revealed to the eye, rather than overpowered by colour.

But the appeal of black and white photography goes deeper than that. The monochrome image, at its best, is beautiful. It’s art. It captures the beauty and soul of the subject. It moves people. It’s powerful and it endures.

Learn to see tonal contrast

Tonal contrast happens when there is a clear difference in brightness between your subject and the background. Here are two examples.

How to see in black and white

The photo on the left shows a white sticker pasted on a door. There is tonal contrast between the light and dark tones. In this image you find a light tone (the sticker) surrounded by dark tones (the door), a type of tonal contrast that works very effectively in Black and White.

The photo on the right shows a dark statue against a near white background. This is the opposite type of tonal contrast, where a dark toned subject is shown against a light background.

Tonal contrast is the basis of many successful black and white photos. Images that make good use of tonal contrast convert to monochrome with little effort. Let’s take a look at a couple of practical examples.

How to see in black and white

In this portrait I positioned the model against a dark background to take advantage of the difference in brightness between the light falling on her and the light falling on the trees behind her (which were in shade). If you want to create powerful black and white portraits, this style will serve you well.

How to see in black and white

Here I took advantage of the difference in brightness between the twigs in the home-made broom and the dark stones. You can see the same principle in action as in the portrait, a light toned subject against a dark toned background. I knew this would make a strong black and white image because it contains two things that look good in monochrome: texture and tonal contrast.

You can learn more about tonal contrast in my article Improving Composition with Tonal Contrast.

Simplicity and negative space

All the photos I’ve shown you so far have two more things in common. One is that the composition is very simple. I’ve deliberately moved in close to the subject and framed it in such a way to eliminate distracting elements. An added benefit is that the tonal contrast becomes much stronger when the composition is simplified.

Here’s another example.

How to see in black and white

I moved in close to crop everything but the vendor’s hand and the Chairman Mao pocket watch in this photo taken in an antique market in Shanghai. The simple composition emphasises the texture of the watch and hand as well as the difference in brightness between them and the background.

Negative space is the area surrounding your subject. It is negative space if it doesn’t contain much detail. In black and white, it would be an area of white, black or grey that creates a kind of frame for your subject, giving it room to breathe within the composition.

How to see in black and white

This portrait is a good example of using negative space. The model’s face (a light tone) is surrounded by an area of dark space that contains just enough detail for you to see what it is (his shirt and the wall behind him). In this portrait you can see the principles of tonal contrast, negative space and simplicity of composition working in harmony together.

My article Composition and Negative Space goes into this topic in more detail.

Monochrome previews

How to see in black and white

So far we’ve looked at some of the elements that contribute to strong Black and White images, but that may not be a great help when you’re faced with a colourful subject and the colours are so strong that you can’t visualize how it will turn out in Black and white. Don’t worry if this happens to you – it takes time and practise to learn to see in monochrome.

One thing you can do to help you visualize the subject in Black and White is switch to your camera’s monochrome mode. The key is to select the Raw format, so that the image is recorded in full 12 or 14 bit colour (essential for good Black and White conversions).

But when you play back your images on the camera’s LCD screen, they will be presented in Black and White. If you have a camera with an electronic viewfinder it may even display the scene in black and white as you look through it. This helps you see how the colours in the scene translate to the grey tones that make up a monochrome image. If the image is a little flat, which will happen if you’re not shooting in bright sunlight, increase the contrast to add some pop.

My article Mastering Monochrome Mode goes into this in more detail.

Over to you

Hopefully these tips will help you see in black and white and create better monochrome images. Do you have any tips for seeing in black and white? Please add them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Mark

    I will have to try this. I was not aware that recording in RAW while setting amera to mono still recorded in Colour… Makes sense I suppose…. Sweet. Thank you.

  • You’re welcome. It will help you a lot.

  • Joris H.

    My example of B&W. I shot this statue of the same soldier twice from different angles, one with the dark stone background, one from the side against the sun to create a white washout effect. Placing them together in one picture creates a more dramatic effect (like the evil and the liberating ‘angel’ side of a soldier).

  • Thanks for sharing, I like the contrast between the two photos.

  • Charul Shrivastava

    is this any good?

  • Frederick Scott-fields

    I hope this is good enough. A photo I did with family on Easter

  • Guest

    My example of a B&W.

  • nikonnut

    This is my BW contribution (Mount Illimani, outside of La Paz, Bolivia)

  • Nalanti Goosen

    I love Black and white photography but have found people criticize it a lot many of my image are monochrome sometimes I will remove all color except for one hue such as red or yellow.

  • Cohen Marjorie

    I did something like that. I think of it as using color for a reason. If you executed it well, I wouldn’t worry. You must know there are just some people who don’t get nuance.

    I don’t see the color, but what I do see, I like. *smile*

    PS. I’m going to take the plunge. My first, so please be kind? YIKES!

  • Cohen Marjorie

    Hey! Where’d it go? Am I not supposed to seen it? This is an auspicious start – Not!

  • Cohen Marjorie

    I like this very much. It’s indeed intriguing.

  • Cohen Marjorie

    OK. I’m going to give it one more try. Once again, this is a first. Sorry, I can’t find it. I have to,go to my site, find it there, and try to bring it Thanks for your patience ….


  • Cohen Marjorie

    Well, it’s here. I can’t see it. I hope you guys can.

    It’s down a bit. I hope it’s all right. I’d really love to hear what you think. I can take it.

  • Cohen Marjorie


  • Nalanti Goosen

    I like it I think color would have made it confusing and too much going on on the photo. Making it monochrome removed some of the busyness.

  • Emerson Novais Lopes

    My take:

  • Johan Bauwens

    if i choose monochrome on my canon, my raws are b/w too ! how to solve this ?

  • Daniel Teepen

    One of mine.

  • Jes Lee Wells

    Years ago I had a piece of glass with some black tape around the edges to represent the format of the finished photo. Like a cut-out card, but this was glass. Not clear glass but a brown colored glass that when used to view the scene before taking a photo I was able to visualize the tonal contrast, visualize a monochrome scene. (If I remember correctly) it gave the scene, when holding the glass up to my eyes, a sepia look, but all most all, if not all of the literal color was filtered out. It was great for learning the “zone system” and great for teaching and practicing visualizing the possibilities of a finished B&W photo. I have lost that glass and can not seem to come across anyone who knows what I am talking about. Can you help?

  • KC

    I’m going to be showing my age here, but yes. I know what you’re talking about in a roundabout way. It sounds like a combination of a director’s viewfinder and cinema framing guide of sorts. A framing guide is basical two “L’s” that emulate the capture format.

    There were a few different kinds, but essentially, they were handheld viewfinders with filters. They were commonly used in the early days of movie making. If you see an old movie, and there’s a director with what looks like a lens hanging on a lanyard, that’s it. They still make them.

    To put it in obtuse terms, before “pan” black and white film wasn’t always evenly panchromatic. Some biased towards higher red sensitivity, others green or blue. Imagine the hell this played with scenes and makeup. Here’s a fun example: an outdoor scene. You want the sky to be dramatic, so you pop on a red or orange filter – but now lips go almost white. That’s nothing something you want to see in the rushes later.

    It was that fun time when they realized stage makeup and film makeup are very different (to a degree, they still are).

    I had one of these devices years ago. I picked it up at an auction for a very film studio that was closing down. You can emulate this a bit with a smartphone camera set to monochrome.

  • KC

    I still enjoy working in Black and White. A mirrorless camera makes it a bit easier/fun, since the viewfinder also switches over. It’s a good technique to learn. It teaches you the difference between overall contrast, local contrast, and color contrast.

    When I was teaching lighting I had a simple rule: if it doesn’t look good in black and white, it’s probably not going to look good in color. That’s over simple, but effective.

    Just a bit of “mental lint”: Raw is black and white. The colors are assigned by the data and the converter.

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