Why and How: Seeing in Black and White for Photography in 8 Tips – Part 2

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Black and white photo of a manta ray in Maldives.
This black and white photo of a manta ray is part of an underwater photo project dedicated to black and white.

Reminder on the Definition of a Photograph

In a previous article, I defined a photograph as being two components:

  • Its aspect. This is the visible component. This is also what I call the container.
  • Its meaning. It’s the invisible, intangible component. This is also what I call content.

These two components are necessary and sufficient to define a photograph.

If the meaning is missing, you just have a picture. That is to say, a representation of the real.

Reminder on the Purpose of Light in Photography

In a previous article, I explained to you that light is the binder used to agglomerate all the inert materials in a photograph.

Light is the link of all the visual elements of your photograph. It is with it that you will highlight your composition and your framing.

I explained that:

  • Light defines shapes.
  • Light defines lines.
  • Light creates textures.
  • Light determines colors.

Without light, your compositions and your framing would have no photographic flavor.

In black and white, the colors do not exist. When using light, you must therefore be very careful with shapes, lines and textures.

Tip # 1: Learn to Watch the Tones of Your Scene

In a previous article, I explained to you that the tonality of a photograph is its visual aspect in terms of the distribution of tones and the gradation levels between them.

The different tones at your disposal are a palette that allow you to create interesting and creative photographs.

The tones apply to parts of a photograph. The tonality is the general rendering of the photograph.

There are three main types of tonality:

  • The dark tone: the photograph is rather dark with low lights or dark colors. Low key photos in black and white are dark toned photos.
  • The clear tone: the photograph is rather clear with highlights or bright colors. High key photos are light tone photos.
  • Neutral tone: the photograph is neither dark nor bright. It is also called balanced tone.

There is no universal tone. It all depends on what you want to convey.

To take black and white photos, I recommend that you carefully analyze the tones of your scenes. Do not specifically focus on the tone. Pay attention to each of its components.

Cameras offer an excellent tool for analyzing the tones of your images: the histogram. As I pointed out in another article, there is no ideal histogram. It all depends on the scene you are shooting. However, your histogram should never be pasted to the left as you lose details in the dark areas. It should also not be pasted to the right as you lose detail in the light areas. The histogram should always be perfectly defined between the left and the right of the rectangle.

Tip # 2: Learn to Look in Color

This advice may seem paradoxical, but to create good black and white photos, you have to learn to look in color.

In a previous article on color in photography, I explained that a color has 3 attributes:

  • Color: red, blue, green. It is the name of the color.
  • Tone: light, dark.
  • Saturation: purity of color. The higher the saturation, the more energy the color has. The lower the saturation, the less energetic the color.

If you want to see a color scene in black and white, I recommend that you pay no attention to the hue and the saturation. They have no impact on the rendering of a black and white photo

  • Take the following test in your favorite photo editor.
  • Take a color photo. Turn it into black and white. Keep the result.
  • Saturate the colors of your photo. Turn it back to black and white. Keep the result.

Compare the two black and white photos. You will not see any difference.

Never forget that the saturation in a photo gives energy but it has no impact on the color for a transformation in black and white. Be very careful especially with complementary colors. It is just an illusion. The complementary colors give strength to a color photo but have no interest in black and white.

In black and white, only the tones are important. You have to learn to look at colors that have light tones and dark tones.

When analyzing a color photo, study the shadows, highlights and midtones. Do not look at the energy of the colors.

Tip # 3: Learn to Look at Textures, Shapes, Patterns and Lines

In a black and white photo, the colors are absent. They are useless. It is for this reason that you should pay close attention to the following :

  • Strong lines.
  • Textures.
  • Shapes.
  • The light colors.
  • Sharp areas.
  • Clear areas.
  • High contrast areas.

In a previous article on the definition of a photograph, I discussed how a viewer analyzes a photo. His eyes always go to the elements I have just listed.

Photographic language aims to organize photographic elements to express your thoughts.

It is this particular technique that I teach with my ACANP method during my photo workshops

Tip # 4: Learn to Look at Light and Shadows

Light defines the different elements that can be used in a scene. It is for this reason that it must be understood. It is your medium.

Personally , I really appreciate the light from the side. I find that it is the one that best highlights the textures.

If the scene you are photographing has strong lights, it will be of the high key type.

If the scene you are photographing has very strong shadow areas, it will be of the lowkey type.

Tip # 5: Choose Scenes with Large Tonal Differences

The tonal differences in a scene are judged in color. Choose the widest possible pitch differences. This technique will allow you to define the entire contrast in black and white.

The more you learn to look at the tones in your scenes, the better your black and white photos will be

Tip # 6: Choose Scenes with Details Visible in Dark Areas

I notice that often black and white photos have very dense blacks without any detail. In photography, it is said that the blacks have no details.

When exposing a scene that will become a black and white photo, try to make the details visible in the dark areas. It is very difficult to estimate on the ground.

By highlighting the details in the dark areas, you will have details in the black areas of your photos. They do not particularly attract the eye of the viewer, but the addition of details can attract the eye and can cause questioning. You will also avoid the terrible mass imbalance that happens when details are not put in the dark areas.

Tip # 7: Choose Scenes with Extreme Contrasts

Black and white photography is a creative technique in which the management of contrasts is crucial.

The contrast of a photograph is the difference between the lightest and the darkest area.

The ideal for black and white is that this contrast is as large as possible. Indeed, the human eye loves contrasts to better decipher the content of a photograph.

When you are in the field, arrange to find a point of view that will give you the most contrast possible

Tip # 8: Find a High Light Area

In a black and white photo, the eyes of a spectator always go first to the highlights. It is for this reason that you must integrate at least one high light area in your composition.

It must be located on a strong point or in a place where you want the spectator to look. It is a technique that I use very often in my compositions.


These 8 tips should allow you to exercise your gaze on the field to see in black and white. Remember that this creative technique is very difficult to master. You will need time. Do not hesitate to practice permanently whether in terrestrial or underwater photography. I advise you to write down on a sheet of paper all the advices and always read it over before a photo session dedicated to creating black and white photos.

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Article published on Friday, March 13, 2020 . Written by
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