Why Black & White is a Good Place to Start in Photography

Black-and-white photography is the place to start if you’re serious about becoming a better photographer.

Go back to the dark ages before digital. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and the equivalent of Adobe Lightroom was a small piece of card on the end of a wire.

The first thing beginner photographers would learn is to shoot, develop, and print a roll of black-and-white film. We can go back to those roots today to solidify our skills.

black and white portrait of children

“Break Time, Cambodia” captured by PictureSocial member Nick Moulds

These are the benefits to learning to shoot without color with your digital camera.

Start Simple

If you wanted to learn music as a child, you probably started with a recorder. You didn’t get handed a double-headed guitar and a book of Zeppelin riffs. Learning photography is very similar. Start with the simplest form of the medium, and as you master those elements, add things. A standard lens and black-and-white images are as simple as it gets.

coastal landscape in black and white

“Northumberland Coast” captured by PictureSocial member Paul Simpson

You Learn to Pre-Visualize

By disregarding color, you have to work a lot harder to create great pictures. A beautiful, sandy beach in tropical sunshine? An easy shot in color becomes just expanses of grey. In monochrome, you have to find subjects that fit the medium and think about what you shoot before you click the shutter. This pre-visualization is perhaps the most valuable skill a photographer can develop.

b&w vs color landscape

“The Tree of Life” captured by PictureSocial member Paul Holmes

Composition and Form Become Much More Important

Without color, composition and form are your essential tools for making a good photo. Learning to see shapes and form in abstract helps you compose better pictures later on. Learning is all about creating good habits, and black and white helps you do that. Photographers who started by shooting in this way tend to be very strong on composition, because that is your main tool for creating strong photos. You can’t use strong color to catch the eye.

black and white scene with bicycle

“Untitled” captured by PictureSocial member Carol Havrda

Evaluating Exposure Is Much Easier

Blank shadows or blown-out highlights are much easier to spot in grey scale. In color, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a color cast and bad exposure, and you can tie yourself in knots trying to work out what to correct and in what proportion. Making mono images with detail from the highlights to the shadows is a good way to sharpen your exposure skills, and that makes it easier to deal with color later on.

potter at work

“Pottery” captured by PictureSocial member Aamir Shahzad

Conclusion: Adding Skills to a Solid Base Is the Best Way to Make Steady Progress

Once you have started to master the simple things, you then have a solid base to build on. You can try to master different lenses, add color, or start using flash knowing that you have learned the basics.

Studying anything is like building a house. You have to start with solid foundations, and making great black-and-white images is the best foundation any photographer can have.

About the Author:
Tobias Key is a professional photographer from Chichester, West Sussex UK. For more great hints and tips on how to improve your photography, visit his blog at http://www.tobiaskey.com.

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  1. Michał says:

    B&W is the absolute worst way to start in photography. Humans, in general, don’t see in B&B, we see in color. “Seeing” things in B&W, deciding what works and what does not is a skill that not everybody has – just like any other skill. Suggesting to anyone that they should start in photography this way is like saying that a toddler should run a marathon before they learn how to walk.

    Just another sad example of somebody confusing own opinion with facts.

  2. Ian Ford says:

    Agree with the need to think in tones for composition and form. Found that setting my X-T1 to B&W film simulation with Exposure compensation allows me to see exactly that which is helping me concentrate more on those issues

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