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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.

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Andrew S. Gibson
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!

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