David Saffir: Thinking and Seeing In Black and White (Part 1 of 3)
Mar 2013 14

From a photographer’s point of view, “seeing in black and white” means being able to look at a color image or scene, and visualize its appearance in black and white.

This isn’t, generally, a matter of innate sensibility or talent – it’s a matter of understanding what to look for, and practicing until one becomes proficient. And why do this? The best reason, in my view, is that black and white images offer the photographer different, and frequently better, avenues for expression and communication.

Black and white images offer simplicity, without necessarily “dumbing down” the image. Images rendered in black and white are reduced to their graphic elements, eliminating the influence and distraction of color. The emphasis shifts to shapes and patterns, texture vs. smoothness, the extremes of light and shadow, and mid-tones. And with color gone, content is king!

Dunes, Death Valley, California © David Saffir 2011

When we create a photograph in black and white, we use a range of tones from blackest black (shadows with no detail) to the whitest white (pure white, specular highlights/reflections), and all the tones or shades of gray along the way. Ansel Adams expressed this brilliantly in the zone system, which divides these into zones, as we see below:


My first experiences in photography involved black and white –film and darkroom developing and printing. Shooting black and white film in a world of color taught me to correlate what I saw, with what the film could deliver. I also found it was very useful to study the work of others – and I still do.

Learning to see in black and white be tricky. Colors that look strongly differentiated in a color scene or image can look quite similar when converted to black and white. Look at these three color circles before, and after, conversion to black and white in Photoshop:

They could almost blend together in black and white, couldn’t they? (Note that I used the “default” black and white conversion settings in Photoshop.) In the left hand image Preview is disabled, in the right hand image Preview is turned on.

One reason they look so similar in black and white is that their brightness, or luminance is roughly the same (in HSB values, the brightness level of each is about 60%). In this case, take away the color, and they look alike!

Next, I increased the brightness level of the green circle about 15%, and converted to black and white. A noticeable, interesting difference.

This landscape image is full of interesting color, but looks pretty flat and lifeless in black and white –because many of the elements in the image have similar tone values. Note how the color image provides nice differentiation between the sunflower petals and green leaves, but in the black and white image they appear to merge together:

So at the start we have at least two options: choose subjects that offer different or contrasting tonal values, or adjust elements of the image to achieve differentiation in black and white. The image shown at the beginning of this article is an example of the latter. More info on these in Part 2, and we’ll address the subject of form and texture in Part 3.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.