Using Tonal Contrast for Better BW Photography

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This photo is almost entirely blue tones, but because of their contrasts, it translates into a beautiful BW image.

When we are out in the world seeing in color, how can we know if a scene will translate well into black and white? 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 BW photographers. However if their tones are different, we will still be able to distinguish between the two even with their colour removed.

A foreboding scene at Ballintoy Harbour, Norethern Ireland

A foreboding scene at Ballintoy Harbour, Norethern Ireland

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 black and white photos.

About Author Athena

Athena Carey is a multi award winning fine art travel photographer specializing in long exposure and black and white photography. She is widely recognized for her ability to capture the emotional essence of place and time within her images. Aside from travel, another of Athena's great joys is teaching others the technical aspects of photography, how to find their own artistic vision; and then to harness the two together to express themselves through their photography. To this end, she teaches photo courses online and locally, and offers workshops globally.

Athena's work is published in various books, magazines and websites and has been printed and hung around the world in private homes and businesses. Traveling extensively in search of new experiences, she has lived on four continents, and currently resides in Switzerland. Her keen appreciation for the natural beauty of our planet drives her excitement about each new destination.