Seeing in Black and White
The ability to see the photo as it will turn out, before you have even taken it, is a rare one. Not every photographer can take one look at a scene through their eyes or even through the viewfinder, and know exactly how the image can potentially turn out. This sort of visualization comes after years and years of practice, as well as a natural creative sense.
In the world of black and white photography however, this ability is all the more important, and incidentally, even more rare. When you are shooting in monochrome, the picture may turn out colorless, but the same won’t apply to the scene as you are looking at it through the camera’s viewfinder or with your eyes in full color.
Some modern cameras, especially DSLRs, have an option that allows you to look at the scene in front of you on a screen, instead of through the viewfinder. When you set the camera to shoot in monochrome, the live view may be shown in monochrome as well. This does present a tremendous advantage in the visualization process. However, it does not instill, let alone develop, the ability to see past the colors in the scene through the naked eye, and visualize the scene in black and white.
Once again, it is important to reference the start of the art, when there was no other choice for the photographer to visualize the photo before releasing the shutter. Before digital photography was introduced, film was the medium that everyone used to work on. And since there is no way to preview a photo with a film camera, the photographer had to rely on their own visual ability and intuition. This also meant that they had to understand the optimal settings for every lighting and scenic condition.
What limited their ability to learn on the go also made them truly knowledgeable about the art. This is why the photographers of old and indeed the ones that have stuck to film were able to make their photos look as beautiful as they did.
The photographer of today does not have to learn about the intricacies of photography in such a way. They can simply click, preview and repeat, to eventually end up with something truly praiseworthy. However, if you truly wish to master monochrome, you will have to develop an eye that looks beyond all the distractions such as colors and vividness, and peer into the depths of the scene.
In order to do this, you can start by looking at a particular scene for several seconds or even up to a minute at a time, if it is a landscape or architecture. Look at all the subjects that stand out in the picture and learn where in the picture they will be located. After that, try to imagine all the color draining out from the picture. If you achieve this at the first try, you are already well on your way towards the next step.
Next, look at the colorless image with your mind’s eye, and observe all the shapes, textures and tonal variations in the image. Your understanding of the tonal variations will ultimately decide how well you are visualizing the picture. If you can gauge where the black will blend into the white, you will know from what angle to frame the photo. If you can see how all the various shapes and textures emerge to the forefront in the black and white image, you will then be able to translate that into a superior monochrome photo.