Think, Feel, Do

Jack Curran’s three-step process for shooting strong black-and-white images

Jack Curran's process for creating strong black-and-white landscape images is divided into a step-by-step plan. Many photographers tend to "mess around" with black-and-white after taking photos when they can experiment in the computer. Curran shows how a more thoughtful process that begins before the camera is brought to the eye can yield more successful results. Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, shown large in black-and-white and as a color inset.

Shooting black-and-white photography can be a confusing style to navigate. From fully automated cameras that can measure exposure from 51 source points, to phone apps that offer up a huge number of filters and functions, not to mention postproduction programs like Lightroom, Photoshop and Google's Nik Collection, it's easy to get lost in the mix and forget what got you excited about shooting in the first place. I've broken down my architecture for shooting black-and-white photography into what I hope is an easily digestible process. Inherently, what I propose is nothing new or earth-shattering, but it's a stepped system I follow to capture each moment with my mind in black-and-white.

What You See Is What You Get

1) THINK-ing In Black-And-White
When I talk about thinking in black-and-white, I'm speaking about the ability to have a conscious mind, being present in the moment. I think about black-and-white photography as the art of translation (what you see is what you get), and it's in this thinking where I establish my visual language, setting in motion the shot I want to capture.

When you first learn to think and see in black-and-white, comprehending the process of translating a full color scene into black-and-white is critical. There are several key visual elements to look for in your scene or subject: light and shadows, followed by contrast and texture, and, finally, tonality.

For instance, with the landscape scene of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, the light and shadows of the clouds were creating an interesting layering with the sky. Conversely, the land in the foreground was in relatively flat, low-contrast light, while the colors were all falling into the same red to brown hue.

These two photographs from Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado show how much more evocative a black-and-white image can be. Note the way the black sky—created through red filtration, which can be done in-camera or sometimes in the computer—adds to the drama of the image. Scenes with this kind of tonality and bland color palette are ideally suited to black-and-white.

When I was looking at the landscape, fortunately, I saw a nice variety of texture and variation of tones from light to dark. When viewing the overall scene, the one visual component the image benefits from most is its contrast.

A low-contrast scene will hold more detail than in a high-contrast scene where the highlights and shadows are pushing the extremes. By increasing the contrast, the overall tonality of the scene emerges. As seen in the photograph made of the dunes and clouds in Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, a moderately high-contrast scene that has soft, but distinct variation between shadow and light is inherently perfect to be translated into a very dynamic and powerful image.

Bald Cypress. Smooth tonality and striking graphics make this image perfect for monochrome treatment.


What Your Eyes See

2) FEEL-ing In Black-And-White
Once you have an understanding of how to translate the thinking (what your eyes see), it's time to go to Step Two. To create and ultimately construct meaningful black-and-white photography, you have to establish a strong personal connection to your subject. This step is paramount. It shows your creativity and personality and, most important, it's where you bridge the gap between what you see and how you feel it. This creative process is characterized by your originality of thought and imagination.

When thinking about creativity in the context of photography, I immediately think about photographs that move beyond mere documentary images and ones that transcend into something truly meaningful and personal. I find that imagination is the most important factor. So, how do I visually activate my imagination? How do I connect with my subject? Passion—that visceral gut feeling that drives us to do the things we love!

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California.

When combining imagination with passion, a connective tissue is formed that helps us learn the difference between taking ordinary documentary images and creating significant photographs that evoke emotions. So focus on subjects you're passionate about!

Sand Storm, Death Valley National Park, California.
Just Shoot It!

3) DO-ing In Black-And-White
Now that we're thinking and seeing a subject with a new set of eyes, and have discovered the happy medium where imagination meets passion, it's time for the third step. Get out there and do something with it! Yes, it's that simple. To actually discover the realm of possibilities with black-and-white photography, we have to go outside our comfort zones and explore the opportunities. Shoot with what stirs your curiosity. Shoot with the passions that drive your heart. JUST SHOOT IT!

Try the following exercise to THINK, FEEL and DO in black-and-white. Shoot one subject you're passionate about every week for three months. Shoot 100 frames each session, use one camera, one lens, shoot on manual, use one ISO setting, explore every variable you can think of: light, shadows, texture, shape, form, low contrast, high contrast and tonality, and translate your images to black-and-white.

Morning Light, Death Valley National Park, California.

At the end of each month, look for patterns, consistencies and styles that speak to your personal and expressive interpretations of the subject. By the end of the exercise, you'll be able to see your subject in a whole new light.

Over the last year, I've focused on the Southwest and desert areas of the United States. Through this focus and single-minded approach, I've been fortunate to build a strong and more personal portfolio of photographs. So get out there, have fun, and remember to THINK, FEEL and DO in black-and-white.

You can see more of Jack Curran's striking black-and-white work at


    Excellent captures, I really enjoyed them328. Finding that right luminosity in a scene that will translate well to black and white can be a frustrating chase! As far as searching out tone in a given scene, I’ve read (but haven’t tried yet-can’t find any!!),that wearing sunglasses with yellow lenses can help you see good color tone ranges in a scene to help determine if it would be a good black and white. Have you heard of doing this and what are your feelings regarding this “tool”?

    Hi Dina,
    Thanks for the comments. Yes, and actually I wear amber sunglasses. they tend to create a bit more monotone vision. Highlights and shadows tend to be more easily translated to BW with these sunglasses. If you really want to get a better preview device you could try a The Tiffen B&W Viewing Filter, or buy the old Kodak Wratten# 90 gelatin filter and build your own frame.

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