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Yet Another Lame Photography Advice: Learning To See in Black And White

I don’t know about you, but I have always been fascinated by the beauty and timelessness of a good black and white photograph, but for some reason I often found it challenging to pre-visualize the final image. While I found that more often than not an image which works in B&W usually will also work in colour, but not necessarily the other way round. It is the shapes and tones which make or break a composition and seeing an image in colour ever so often distracts from the final result.

This raised the question on how one could learn to see images in Black & White.

Naturally, as will all things art there’s no real shortcut. It is learned by studying examples of good B&W photography and simply working on this. But there’s a way to make the process of visualization at least a bit easier and maybe speed up the process a bit.

Doing my last road-trip I remembered a technique which I believe to have heard of in one of the interviews by Brooks Jensen (I wish I could point you to the right one, as it was very interesting), that is, shooting in RAW (well, that’s a given) and simply setting the image-preview to monochrome.

It’s that easy!

This might not be possible on every camera but on the 5D MkII for example, it is just a matter of a menu setting.

An image from a recent project composed using B&W preview


As long as the image is taken in RAW the only thing that actually changes is the preview on the back of the camera. If composing in the Live-View mode of the camera it possible to get already a very good idea about the final image even before the shutter is pressed. I found that using this technique I tend to compose an image slightly different and I’m satisfied with the result almost every time.

And there’s nothing to worry, it is still possible to use the photograph in colour, everything is still there. Once the image is imported into Lightroom (or any other RAW editor) it will be shown as a colour image anyway, since only the embedded JPG preview in the RAW-file is a B&W version of the photograph.

This technique was and is a quite interesting learning experience for me and I will surely continue to work like this, should I be interested to create a black and white image.

Note:
I have tested this on the Canon 5D MkII and to avoid any unfortunate catastrophes please check you’re camera’s manual before using this technique in real live.