When we are out in the world seeing in color, how can we know if a scene will translate well into black and white (BW)? We don’t see in black and white, but we can look for clues in our colorful world that helps us decide. One of the most powerful clues we can use is tonal contrast.
What is tonal contrast? To understand what it means, we must be sure to understand both words. Tone refers to the degree of lightness or darkness – or where on the scale from complete darkness to complete lightness something falls. We generally refer to tones as shadows (dark), mid-tones (middle), and highlights (bright).
Contrast is the difference between tones – the larger the difference, the higher the contrast. So, images with high contrast have tones that are quite different – bright highlights as well as dark shadows; images with low contrast have a much smaller range of tones. For the purpose of “seeing in black and white,” it’s important to remember that colors also have tone and contrast. There are dark reds and medium reds and very light reds. This is easy to forget because we tend to give these tones different names (burgundy, red, pink).
Visually, we distinguish between objects to a large extent by their color alone. A red flower on a green background is easy for us to see. Without giving this much thought, we may be unaware that it is the difference in their colors that we are noticing most. But if we remove the color, we must be able to use other differences to distinguish the flower from its background. Contrast between tones is one important way to do this.
If the tone of the red flower is the same as the tone of the green background, once color is removed, the flower that stood out so well before will blend into the background. They will translate into black and white as the same grey tone. This is a common frustration for beginning photographers with BW photography. However if their tones are different, we will still be able to distinguish between the two even with their colour removed.
So one very important consideration when you are trying to see the world in black and white, is the tonal contrast between the elements in the scene that you wish to photograph. It seems difficult and confusing at first because we’re not used to acknowledging the tones of color, but with practice, it becomes like second nature and you are better able to find subjects and scenes that translate beautifully into BW photography.