Exercise – Colours into tones in black and white

You’ll hear photographers occasionally talking about to learning to ‘see in black and white’. What this means is that rather than seeing the colours in a scene, they need to see tones. The removal of colour makes a photograph one step removed from reality. It also allows the viewer to concentrate on form and composition more easily, without the distraction of colours and their relationships with one another. However, what it doesn’t mean is that by removing colour a photograph becomes art, simply because it is not reality.

In his book The Art of Photography, Bruce Barnbaum writes:

I feel that colour photographs and black and white photographs are essentially two different media. I approach them differently. I see them differently and my goals are different in each.

He goes on to talk about how he can only shoot a particular scene in one way or the other, and that scenes very rarely work in both. He will only shoot colour if the colour included is a central element.

There must be something compelling about the colours, about the relationships among the colours, about the intensities of the colours and about their placement within the scene that makes them essential to the photograph.

This is maybe a little more extreme than my own views, but I do tend to shoot black and white as often as colour and many of my favourite photographers specialise in monochrome (particularly Pentti Sammallahti). Some of this is down to my use of analogue cameras and that I can process my own black and white film (it’s easier than you might think – you should try it).

I hope that the course will continue to allow the use of black and white as I progress through it, but for now, this exercise forms part of the colour section and teaches us the effect that converting a colour, digital image to black and white can have on the colours we’ve studied so far.

We set up a scene featuring a collection of items that are red, yellow, green and blue. I used a collection of cycling caps, drinks bottles, gloves and glasses. The scene was lit from the window behind and with a flash and softbox above to reduce shadows. Ideally, the I should have used a stronger (or purer) blue. The resulting image was then converted to black and white using our processing software’s colour filter effects (the exercise could also be carried our using black and white film and real, colour filters).

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The filters have the effect of lightening the objects that are the same colour as the filter and darkening the others. The colours that are darkened the most, are those that sit opposite the filter’s colour on the colour wheel – their complimentary colour.

  • No filter – all tones remain similar to the original version and colours appear desaturated with no changes to brightness.
  • Yellow filter – very similar to no filter.
  • Red filter – The front 1/4 of the cap and the St. Raphael writing are much lighter. The green areas of the bottle and the Leicester Forest cap are darkened almost to black.
  • Blue filter – yellow green and red all darkened but blue is lighter. The blue in the original is fairly light and desaturated and so the effect is less that it may have been with a saturated blue.
  • Green filter – Greens are slightly lighter than original, but St. Raphael text and front quarter are much darker.
  • The neutral grey card in the bottom right of the frame does not change brightness or hues in each version.

This exercises shows the relationship between complimentary colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel, further demonstrating the usefulness of this tool. It also shows that when converting to black and white (or using film and filters) certain areas of a scene can be emphasised (and others reduced) simply by using filters.


Barnbaum, B (2010) The art of photography – An Approach to Personal Expression. California; Rocky Nook


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