I'm quite a beginner in photography with no real experience in visual art. I became interested in it about 10 months ago.

I inferred from the literature to avoid color photography for 2 to 3 years, or until I have a strong feeling for composition.

It seems reasonable that first you should know to spot your interest in subject and express it on final print, a task in which colors may confuse a beginner. Besides I'm afraid that with no skill of actual seeing and analyzing I may end up with ugly oversaturated and dull images. Is there a professional opinion on subject, or I'm just inventing limitations of my own?


4 Answers 4


Traditionally a price factor, but not anymore.

The idea that you should shoot only black and white as a beginning "serious" photographer is both highly subjective and highly restrictive, especially in a world where colour comes at no cost. If you are shooting film and doing your own darkroom work, then there is a distinct price advantage to shooting in black and white; a beginning photographer in my day could easily have shot more than five times as many pictures for the same money (it becomes easy to see which negatives not to bother with), so you'd certainly get more practice in, but that's not really an issue in the digital world.

Abstraction in both monochrome and colour.

Black and white photography will abstract away one component of the image — colour — which will allow you to pay slightly more attention to all that remains. However all that remains is still an awful lot to consider when taking a picture. You're not "stuck" with tonal representations in black and white, and nobody has been since the advent of panchromatic films. With film, you can use filters to adjust the tonal relationships between colours; with digital you have even greater control.

You can have the same kind of abstraction in colour photography by shooting "flat" subjects (things that don't have much in the way of highlights and shadows) but have a lot of colour contrast to work with. In both cases, you are throwing out one thing that could have been part of the picture in order to make it easier for you to see other things.

Using digital tools to explore the photograph.

With digital photography, or at least with digital processing sitting in the middle of the photographic process, you can actually go a lot further. You can choose to look at your photographs in black and white, either just as desaturated images, or with special emphasis placed on certain colours in the image. You can choose to look at your photographs as just splotches of colour with most or all of the darkness/lightness information removed. You can "posterize" them, or look just for prominent edges and line. You can reduce them considerably in size (to about the size of a postage stamp) to force you to see the forest rather than the trees. You can blur them enough to see whether or not the picture holds together when you're not so distracted by what it's a picture of. You can flop the picture horizontally to see if it still makes sense (or has the same apparent problems, just in the other direction). You can view it as a negative, or solarize it, to help you see things that are hard to see when viewing the image "straight".

Things to bear in mind as a beginner.

There are good reasons for picking one means of seeing, like black and white, and sticking with it for a while. If you can get from overwhelmed to merely completely whelmed while learning, that's almost always a good thing. But that one means of seeing doesn't have to be black and white, nor does it have to be obvious in your finished pictures. Although black and white final pictures are likely to go over a whole lot better with an audience than hue-only or saturation-only pictures for example.

Using other visual media to study the art of photography.

All of that said, drawing can be an invaluable teaching tool for a photographer. I don't mean that getting good at drawing will improve your photography (although that can be true as well), I mean that taking a few hours to explore on paper how things like shading will affect your perception of simple shapes, and how much "knowing what's there" influences what you see. A couple of weekends (or a few evenings) spent with Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (it's been out forever and can be found at any decent library) make a huge difference in how you see things, even if you never get to the point that you can actually draw anything that's even the slightest bit recognizable. It's mostly about getting past seeing what you know and starting to see what you see. Whether or not you can force your hand to replicate that masterfully on paper with a pencil is almost beside the point; the key is in losing your internal iconic representation of things so that you can see what's actually in front of you. And it will help a lot in post-processing, where the object of the game isn't really to show the viewer what you saw objectively, but to convey your subjective experience when you took the picture. Reality is often disappointing. Don't pay too much attention to the left-brain/right-brain theory stuff; the conceptual approach to drawing and seeing still applies even if the physiological assumptions behind it has been largely debunked.

  • +1 for recommending drawing and great answer besides. Though really learning how to photograph a subject can, I believe, give you some of the same expertise in looking.
    – moorej
    Nov 10, 2014 at 18:46
  • On drawing... Personally, I found Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes to be an excellent book on seeing what is there for nature photography including a bit of material on how the eye moves through the frame (which is just as important in drawing as in photography - just photographers have less control over the scene).
    – user13451
    Nov 10, 2014 at 22:13
  • Great answer, but could you introduce a succinct summary somewhere somehow?
    – James
    Nov 10, 2014 at 23:50
  • 3
    @GoodGravy - Absolutely not. If you want TL;DR answers, find a hobby with no nuance that takes no effort or understanding.
    – user32334
    Nov 11, 2014 at 0:48
  • @user32334 The answer raises several points and discusses them comprehensively. In depth answers like this are easier to understand and digest if accompanied by an abstract or a summary.
    – James
    Nov 11, 2014 at 12:37

I think the opposite question could also be posed: should a beginner start with color photography? B&W requires knowledge and experience of how differently colors will render in gray. Reds, for example, will always appear as dark gray/black. Turning your question around (without actually changing it), with no skill of seeing and analyzing you may end up with ugly oversaturated and dull images.

It's probably best to accept that your first images are not going to be particularly great, no matter what. But that shouldn't discourage you! Photography is a learning process. If you're interested to learn B&W, then you should do just that.

  • +1 for arguing via the opposite. And I agree that one does not simply shoot in B&W!
    – skytreader
    Nov 11, 2014 at 5:39

One big reason that photography students have started with black and white in the past is that developing black and white film and printing black and white photos at home or in a school darkroom is relatively easy (and inexpensive) compared to working in color. Color processing demands so much more chemistry and precision that it's not feasible for most amateurs and even many professionals. Being able to develop and print within hours of shooting, and being able to control the entire process, makes black and white very attractive from an educational standpoint.

Digital changes all that. You can snap a digital photo and see it immediately on the camera, or download to a tablet or computer and see it on a large screen within minutes. You can view the same image in black and white or in color, and you can manipulate the colors with ease. Beginners are no longer restricted to black and white for learning.

  • I would also add that in many photography courses the zone system was taught (and still is). When utilized the zone system allows a photographer to "place" the tones in their image based on how they "previsualize" the final print. This technique applied to both the shooting of the image and its development. Developed for traditional b+w but still useful for color. You'll need a spot meter if you go this route, but your camera may already have one. Additionally, "zoning" digital is a bit more like traditional slide film than b+w. luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/zone_system.shtml
    – moorej
    Nov 11, 2014 at 18:20

Quite apart from the historical cost advantage (when using film of course), there's another big advantage
B&W takes away the colour, forcing you to focus your attention on composition and lighting, rather than relying on a brilliant array of colours to hide flaws in those.

I never regretted starting out with black and white film, even though colour film was available (but more expensive at the time). It led me to pay much more attention to composition and light at all times, as well as the cost (which was still high) forcing me to think more before exposing the frame, rather than just shooting off a dozen frames hoping something good would come out.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.