“Learn to see in black-and-white.” Hang around with photographers long enough, and it’s a phrase you’re sure to hear repeated. It’s supposed to be a truism about how to make good black-and-white images. First, they say, you have to learn to see in black-and-white. But how, exactly, does a person with color vision living in a full-color world “see in black-and-white”?
What they’re really trying to say is, you have to learn to previsualize what works well in a black-and-white photograph. It’s this ability to form an image in your mind’s eye of what a finished photograph will look like before you ever release the shutter that allows you to hone in on subjects and compositions that will translate well into black-and-white. Once you’ve trained yourself to identify certain compositional elements that typically work well, it will become second nature to “see in black-and-white.”
What Makes A Good Black-And-White Photograph?
The first step of learning to see in black-and-white is to identify compositional elements that don’t depend on color. Study iconic black-and-white photographs, and you’re likely to see many of these characteristics at work.
When color is removed from an image, any importance hue may have had leaves along with it. It’s replaced by things like luminosity, contrast, form and texture. Images that are graphically simple help each of these particular elements to stand out, so that’s the best place to start: find simple compositions.
Graphic simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean lots of open space and a single subject. Sometimes strong textures or patterns, while technically comprising several image-forming elements, carry the visual impact of a “simple” image. To find patterns, a good technique is to go in close and focus on details and textures—the bark on a tree, the rocks in a stream and so on. Sometimes the subtle change of camera position reveals a pattern that otherwise went unseen, so don’t be afraid to work a composition well before you ever click the shutter.
Strong graphic shapes can be found naturally, or they can be created by the interplay of light and shadow. For instance, a physical element like an isolated tree in an empty landscape makes for an inherently strong and graphically simple composition. But that same strong shape can be created by nothing more than a highlight. Areas of strong contrast, like a pool of light in a dark scene or a strong shadow in a high-key image, become visual forms unto themselves. Knowing that light tones advance and dark tones recede will further help you visualize what will draw a viewer’s eye in the finished black-and-white photograph.
Knowing that light tones advance and dark tones recede will further help you visualize what will draw a viewer’s eye in the finished black-and white photograph.
Just to be clear, the idea of looking for contrast isn’t about seeking out an overall high contrast scene, but rather to find a compositional element that contrasts significantly with another portion of a scene. This isolated contrast in tones creates a center of interest to draw the eye. Certainly, there are plenty of low-contrast black-and-white images that work well, but the strong contrast between shadows and highlights, even if only in a small portion of a scene, will help make for a compelling black-and-white photograph.
The best black-and-white photographs often have a timeless quality to them. To that end, try to target subjects that lend themselves to being considered timeless. If the age of the image isn’t readily distinguished, it has a good shot of being a “timeless” black-and-white photograph.
The Way We See, And What To Look For
One technique that can be helpful to physically see the world similarly to black-and-white is to wear rose-colored glasses. Or, more commonly, to wear sunglasses with a strong tint of brown or amber. The brown or amber lenses help us shift to a more monochromatic view, which helps simplify a scene in much the same way that a black-and-white image does, even without the total elimination of color. In fact, they say that yellow and amber glasses (often used for safety) improve visual acuity in terms of sharpness and contrast, further emphasizing important elements in black-and-white scenes and allowing you to concentrate on differences between tonal values, texture and details—everything, essentially, other than color.
The sunglasses approach is a takeoff on a common film-era technique used to see a contrast range that more closely resembled what film could record. A quick squint of the eyes accomplishes the same sort of thing by providing a brief mental snapshot of how much detail the sensor will throw out of a scene. The squint test works simply: Looking at a given subject, briefly squint your eyes and notice how you eliminate some of the detail, particularly in shadows and highlights, leaving only the basic form of the scene. Because squinting also temporarily emphasizes strong forms and bolder contrasts over color information, it’s a great way to physically begin to see the world more like a black-and-white photo.
There’s one technique for literally seeing the world in black-and-white that was unavailable to previous generations of black-and-white photographers. It’s the use of a monochrome JPEG preview in conjunction with a DSLR’s Live View mode. JPEG shooters who adjust their cameras’ picture settings to black-and-white will generate a black-and-white JPEG straight out of the camera.
This isn’t necessarily the best idea because capturing a full-color image and converting it to black-and-white in the computer offers much more control. But for a RAW shooter, setting the camera’s picture style to black-and-white will only render the JPEG preview (what’s shown on the LCD after capture) in black-and-white, while maintaining all the color data in the original RAW file. Better still, set the picture style to monochrome and switch on the camera’s Live View mode, et voilá—you’ll literally see the world in black-and-white, courtesy of the camera’s LCD. There’s probably no better way to previsualize an image in black-and-white than to let your camera preview the image in black-and-white for you. It’s a powerful and easy approach.
Another great way to find scenes that will work in black-and-white is to keep an eye out for the most dramatic types of light. Look for edges of light where strong shadows meet highlights—the transition from full sun to open shade, for instance. This not only is a great way to find contrast, but it’s also an ideal approach to create a pattern or to set off a bright subject against a dark background. Raking light is also ideal, as it does a great job of bringing out texture and detail. Backlight, too, is a good scenario for creating graphically strong images, as it tends to create contrast and simulate depth. Plus, when you’re looking directly into a backlit light source, your eyes tend to throw out color in favor of simple luminosity, so you’re sort of seeing in black-and-white that way, as well.
Ultimately, it could be argued that the most likely way to find success in black-and-white is to look for the same compositional elements that are important to every photograph, regardless of color—the basic rules of composition. Things like S-curves, leading lines and the Rule of Thirds are the perfect place to start. Place your isolated subject, with help from the Rule of Thirds, or focus on a pattern that might create strong leading lines, or allow a texture to provide a minimalist composition that’s inherently compelling. They’re all great ways to get down to the fundamentals of what makes a simple and compelling photograph, and that’s especially effective when working in black-and-white.
William Sawalich is a commercial photographer, an educator and a contributing editor for Digital Photo, Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer magazines. Since 1998, he has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. See more of his work on his website at sawalich.com.
Updated August 4, 2016
Published December 12, 2013