Seeing The World In Black & White

black-and-white photography

Contrast. The human eye sees in color. When colors are converted to black-and-white, we see shades of gray. Light colors become highlights. Dark colors become heavy tones. The difference between these two ends of the spectrum is called tonal contrast. Contrast is an important consideration in any photograph, but even more so for monochrome images. This image benefits from broad tonal contrast, from deep shadows to bright highlights, and a wide range of gray tones in between.

Is black-and-white the purest form of photography? Some photographers believe so. The art of black-and-white photography removes all distractions, so the strength of the composition shines through.

“Shadow is a color as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.” Paul Cézanne was a painter, but the artistic mediums of paint and photography are quite similar when compared. Both aesthetically rely on the symbiotic relationship of light and dark.

Ordinary subjects can be made extraordinary when you learn to look for texture, contrast, shape, form, patterns and light. Break down your photograph into these basic compositional elements, and build an image from them to produce striking images. How and where you place lines and light across the image will direct the viewer’s eye.

Patterns. Patterns often go unnoticed when shooting in color. Removing colorful distractions helps patterns pop in black-and-white images. Veins of leaves on a houseplant, shadows created from Venetian blinds, birds lined up on a telephone wire or repetitive windows of a skyscraper are all strong patterns. Removing unnecessary clutter from your composition will simplify your frames and result in visually striking images.

Black-and-white photography didn’t come naturally to me at first, but I trained my eye by continuing to shoot in black-and-white. The more I practiced, the easier it became. While working in black-and-white, I stepped away from the comfort zone that came with vibrant color. I now find black-and-white photography to be more intense, keeping the viewer engaged. Landscapes reveal layers and stories in black-and-white. Portraits reveal emotion and age.

Yes, some of this is achieved through postprocessing. We might practice new techniques once we get our images out of our cameras and onto our desktops, but much of our practice should fall on how we see and what we look for as we view life through the lens.

black-and-white photography
Lighting. Lighting is crucial to black-and-white photography, as it affects all the other elements of your image. When thinking about lighting your subject, consider how it will influence texture, patterns, shape, form and contrast. Try side lighting for dramatic effects in black-and-white portraiture. Backlit subjects and silhouettes can also evoke emotion in black-and-white. Lighting will help accentuate all the compositional elements.

Black-and-white imagery can be a sensory overload, a visual pleasure with a whole different approach than color photography. Is black-and-white photography an interpretation of reality? Do we have more freedom with it? Does it make us better photographers when we’re able to grasp more than just emotion, but also texture, contrast, shape, composition and light? That’s for you to decide.

Everyday life can be accentuated in black-and-white. Try your hand at black-and-white photography and see how it changes your view as you walk through your day. Search out strong light, textures and negative space. These basic compositional elements will make your black-and-white images that much better. Take notice of patterns, shafts of light and playful shadows. This is the beauty of photography. This is the beauty of choosing what to see and seeing life in black-and-white.

Meredith Winn is a writer, photographer and Associate Editor of Taproot Magazine. She’s a contributor to Shutter Sisters, featured in our Point of Focus column. Visit

Train Your Eye

View your subject as shape, shadow, lines and contrast. Are all subjects suitable for black-and-white photography? Train your eye to see in black-and-white. Search out subjects that are best seen in monochrome.

black-and-white photography

Portraits. The texture of wrinkled skin or aged hands. Contrasting light and dark shadows from a portrait lit from the side. Shape and form is revealed in profile or silhouette.

Landscape. Patterns are everywhere in nature. Find the rhythm and repetition of trees in a grove or the veins of a leaf. Midday sun brings contrast to your image. Fog evokes mystery and the emotion of texture and tone.

Architecture. Form and contrast are compatible with the lines of architecture. The repetition of structures, windows or floor tiles leads to mesmerizing images.

Still Life. Lighting and texture can be manipulated to create negative space and mood on just about any subject. The combination of these elements will create artistic and painterly images.

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