How to See in Black-and-White

How to See in Black-and-White

2500 1786 James Tocchio

Color, in many ways, is the essence of life. Our eyes and brains are built to see it. Brand identities are built on it. And so are our personal fashion sensibilities (there weren’t a lot of goth kids at my high school wearing pink). Folklore based on color can be traced back thousands of years. Nian, for example, the Chinese beast who attacks people and has a particularly insatiable appetite for children, is said to fear the color red.

So when setting out to “see in black-and-white” you can imagine there will be some evolutionary challenges to overcome. But before we tackle these challenges, a disclaimer: the journey and tips I’m about to tell you are my own. Your journey will differ, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy the challenge of seeing things differently and don’t sweat the results too much. Seeing in black-and-white and reacting to it instinctively à la Ansel Adams is something that requires a lifetime of practice, and though I’ve been doing it for years, mastery still eludes me.

I take all of my photos, with the exception of commissions, with the intent that the photograph will be black-and-white. If I’m shooting digitally, I set my camera to record a RAW file and a .jpeg in black-and-white. I’m currently shooting with a Fuji X series camera, which gives me a very nice black-and-white preview right there in the viewfinder. This makes seeing in black-and-white literal, and quite easy. I use the black-and-white .jpeg as a reference file for what I saw, and I tweak the RAW file to my tastes.

When I see a photo that I want to take, I’m first thinking about the content, then the light, and then my exposure. If the content is good, meaning I am drawn to it, I take the picture no matter what and I let everything else fall into place. If I’m unsure about the content, the subject of the photo or the background, I start to take into consideration how I can use the light to my advantage. Can I change my angle and make this work? Is there a way to accentuate form in the frame? If I shoot higher or lower, or change my angle, will it change the photo? Photography, both in color and black-and-white, is visual problem solving and you have to use the tools at your disposal.

Seeing color triggers a reaction in us that’s instinctual. Take this into account when setting out on your black-and-white journey; even though you’re trying to see in black-and-white you need to expect color to affect you. I took a photo once with my Hasselblad using Kodak Portra 400,  a beautiful color film. It was a photo of a guy wearing a purple shirt in front of a purple wall. It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but at the time it was funny. In black and white, it’s not funny – not even a little. Because the quality of that particular photo, if there is any, lies in the juxtaposition of the colors and the rarity of finding a guy in a purple shirt in front of a purple wall on the same day in the same place.

If you’re just getting started with black-and-white consider the following:

  1. Contrast is your new best friend.
  2. Think about lines, shadows, shapes, and texture. Incorporate these elements.
  3. Texture, when lit properly, can be powerful.
  4. Pay attention to colors, particularly your favorites. You will be drawn to these things, but they may not make good photos.

For the film photographers out there, I’d like to offer a fun experiment for you that will help you see in black-and-white, albeit over time. Get a red, green, yellow, and blue filter for your lens and spend some time seeing how these filters affect your images. You can change these at any time during your roll of film, but you might want to take notes by frame so you can see how the results vary.

And one last suggestion for those who truly want to see in black-and-white. There is a filter designed specifically for this purpose. I do not use one, but I can see why it would appeal to someone trying to learn how to interpret the world in a different way.

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[All images published with permission from Cameron Kline]

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Interesting.

  • I shoot pretty much all my street photography in black and white, be that on film or digitally, and you’re right you do see the world in a totally different way to how you do when shooting in colour. Light, although important in any type of photography, takes on such a hugely more significant role when shooting in black and white, as do shapes and shadows. It really helps you to get to the very core of composition when everything is based on a lack of colour. Great article by the way, some great tips for beginners looking to delve into the world of black and white.

  • Very interesting – and great photos. Thanks =

  • Andrea BELCHER May 4, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    I started with B & W film and haven’t returned to it for some time. It may be time to revisit.

  • Stephen McCullough September 15, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Thanks for posting this. A remarkably simple and useful set of tips.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio