Seeing In Black And White: The Visual Charms Of A Monochrome Image

Human visual perception is a wondrous thing—it allows us to see a wide spectrum of colors, with all the subtleties and shades, lights and darks, pastels and richness of the earth and the heavens. To see in black and white is an abstraction of that world, one that perceives luminance, or brightness, without the benefit of hue. Yet hue, or color, and its shades, often determine what tones, or grayscale values, will be seen in black and white. If one were always to see the world only in black and white it would be considered a deficiency of vision. But to see that way occasionally, and to be able to render what we see in a monochrome fashion, opens the door to different perceptions and feelings about the world, and yields a unique form of expression in the bargain.

When you photograph in black and white you are relying on a grayscale “spectrum” that ranges from white to black with all the shades in between (#1). This grayscale step spectrum is arbitrarily divided into segments, much like the Zone System of yore. Digital provides increasingly subtler differentiation of the scale, all of which can be manipulated via exposure and processing.

All Photos © George Schaub

That, in essence, is what black and white photography is all about. It is a way of seeing that counts on tonality, texture and contrast, and that strips color from the definition of what we see. It relies on highlight and shadow, and the secrets they hold or reveal, in a way that often eludes the visual charms of color. It is an abstraction that relies on the ability of the mind to read more into an image than it may hold, or at the least to bring the viewer into a world in which design, content and form play an essential role.

Image processing, a Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw, allows us to change the way in which color translates to various “tones” or shades of gray. Brightness and contrast are also malleable (#2 and #3).




When we record an autumn leaf in color we are dazzled by the brilliant red, orange or yellow; when we do the same in black and white we are more drawn to its shape, veins and graphic design. We have no choice—there is no color upon which we can dwell. The image of the leaf in color may be all about color—the same leaf in black and white may be about its design, or about the archetypal “leaf” itself. Both color and black and white deal in qualities of light; the monochrome image deals in a very distinct set of those qualities.

When we photograph a sunset scene on the water we might be dazzled by the reds and yellows, and the way the color light streaks across the water. In black and white we are eliminating the “charm” of color and dealing with the luminosity alone, although in processing we can translate those colors to enhance the tone further (#4).


This does not mean that every black and white image bears the burden of meaning, or that it needs ponderous thought. But eliminating color is a conscious decision that creates a different aura around an image, one that adds its own unique visual qualities.

Every digital photograph we take is RGB, or color. In fact, being color, a digital file allows us to change the tonal values in many more ways than if we had photographed with black and white film. The color to tonal translation can change with a mere movement of a slider in processing for an almost infinite variety of tone. Here, note the way the red and magenta umbrellas are altered from light to dark tone, simply done in processing without difficult selection techniques (#5, #6 and #7).




When we discuss the visual attributes of a black and white image we often do so in terms of its tonal range. To describe an image as black and white is a bit of a misuse of terms. It is instead an image that relies on shades of gray, and different brightness values, for describing texture and form. These shades of gray range from deep black to bright white and include all the values in between. When we work in black and white we are considering the brightness values within the scene, the lights and darks that define the subject, as well as the color of the subjects as they translate to grayscale. Differences in brightness values and, as important, different color values, are rendered as different shades of gray within the image.

Black and white relies on tonal borders to define volume and shape. Those borders and visual differentiation certainly exist in color photography (#8), but may be more apparent when we create an image in black and white.


For example, picture the rough texture of tree bark lit by late-afternoon light as recorded in black and white (#9). The cross lighting emphasizes the bark’s texture, with its surface sheen, deep rills and cross-hatched filaments. The smooth surface throws off a bright glow, and may read as bright white. The rills are deep and dark, and may record as black. The filaments move in and out of the bright light and shadow, and record everywhere from a deep gray with texture to a light gray that is slightly less bright than the surface sheen. This range of tones defines the subject as seen as a photographic image; the tonal borders (the edges between tonal values) define the form and shape of the subject.


By working with color “conversion” to grayscale we can lighten or deepen colors selectively. This can be used to deepen blue sky, brighten red and green values and lighten and darken areas of the scene. Shadows and highlights, and the various shades of gray, define each form and figure in this desert landscape (#10).


Unfocused, the image would read as a collection of blacks, whites and various shades of gray. When defined by sharpness, these masses of tonality create the black and white image and recreate the subject in a monochrome rendition. A color image may, for example, describe a tree in shades of burnt umber, magenta and silver; the black and white image works with near-white, light and dark grays, and black.

Black and white can be a very rich visual landscape (#11). In some instances the aim is to gather and express every tone in the grayscale spectrum, a full range from black to white and the various shades of gray. These attributes are usually enhanced through processing that can open shadows, add texture to highlights and move the viewer’s eye into and through the frame of the photo.


Tone is associated with relative brightness, or the relationship of those gray values that define an image. Color enters the equation in terms of how it is “seen” in black and white. In film days that relationship was somewhat fixed due to the panchromatic sensitivity baked into the film’s emulsion. This could be changed somewhat by color filters, but the effect was “global” and affected the entire image. Today we can convert color to tone in very discrete ways, and even alter the relationship of color to tonal value that we might have assumed from film days.

Black and white is often about detail and differentiation of complex subjects and scenes. Indeed, it often focuses the eye upon those details more than would color, and allows the photographer to play with the visual importance of various parts of the scene (#12). The ability to manipulate light and dark without the structure and often restrictions of color make for a very engaging photographic experience.



For example, with panchromatic film, a deep red sandstone might have recorded as black—now we can process it to appear black, gray or even bright white. A bright blue sky may have recorded on film with a red filter over the lens as near black—now we can choose and change the tone of a blue sky with ease. With digital black and white processing you can shift the relationship of tones and colors and interpret them as you will in the final image.

Black and white lends itself to abstraction, from obscuring detail and enhancing select areas to eliminating certain sections of the grayscale spectrum altogether, such as this very high contrast rendition of a museum interior (#13).


efernandez45202's picture

George: Great Article. I used the Zone System by the great Ansel Adams for several years,and I spent hours in the wet dark room and developing and exposing the film to be able to manipulate the tonal ranges of the images. I used the spot meter to previsualize the manipulation of the zones in black and white. I used to "see in black and white" myself without color. Only one thing you did not mentioned is the ability to change the tonal range or location of a zone by dodging and burning, making paper or cardboard masks in local areas of the image. Today, with Adobe, it is so easy. Do you imagine what Ansel Adams would do?? Who knows? From the 4 elements of vision: Color, Texture Shape and Form, the elimination of the Color, like you said, the images become more abstract. I printed your article for my files. Thanks, Emilio