In Black and White

July 01, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Imagine the mountains of New England in early October at the height of foliage season. It's a cacophony of spectacular color: brilliant hues of red and orange and yellow everywhere you look. I don't know too many people who'd want to photograph a landscape like that in black and white; color is integral to the story.

Other times, though, black and white can be a great way to go. 

Even if you choose to work mostly in color, learning to "see" in black and white will help improve your skills. It's possible to become over-reliant on color, expecting it to carry an image on its own. Eliminating it from the equation forces you to focus on contrast, texture, perspective and other fundamental compositional elements. Back to basics, so to speak.

Black and white images require strong compositions in order to be successful; color images should be built using the same blocks - just with the one added component.

There's another important practical bonus to working in black and white. It can greatly extend the workday. Conditions you might consider unsuitable for color photography, like harsh mid-day light or bland skies, can work just fine if color is removed from the equation.

If you show up on location only to find day after day of featureless, white skies, all is not lost. Switch to black and white. You might be surprised at the kinds of images you can make. Light is still critical, of course - but in a different way.

Don't forget the artistic angle. Black and white might be the better creative tool to convey mood or focus the viewer's attention. It can shift - or enhance - emphasis. The image might work perfectly well processed in color but could be even stronger without it. Semi-CirclesSemi-CirclesAbove and below, sweeping arcs in reverse directions. (Vishnu Temple: North Rim - Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona)

The first example illustrates conditions which were too harsh for color - but this image has nothing to do with color. It's all about shapes. For that, the light was just about perfect.

I made this at mid-day along the Grand Canyon's North Rim. While waiting for the monsoonal activity which had begun to develop behind me to move closer, I used the time (plenty of it - a few hours, actually) to watch beautiful clouds fill the sky in all directions.

This cumulus formation was opposite the incoming storm. It was especially striking in that it completed a spectacular vignette featuring two sweeping arcs - one overhead, the other in the ridgeline of the Vishnu Temple below.

Processing this in black and white enabled me to further emphasize those two shapes - which is what the photo is all about.

I bumped up the contrast and used the burn tool to remove hot spots on the rocks created by the harsh sunlight. 

Next up is an image that uses black and white to enhance the mood and place the focus squarely on the early-evening storm advancing into Jackson Hole.

This was a real show-stopper of a monsoon. (It was also a bit of a surprise; as of that morning no rain had been forecast.) I'd initially been closer to the mountains but this thing was so impressive I knew I needed to put a little bit more distance between myself and the Tetons for scale. 

It was moving quickly so I didn't have much time to reposition myself at the flats. Originally hoping to find a foreground element for the composition, I decided I'd rather place all the emphasis on the sky. 

I had a feeling before I shot it that this image would end up in black and white. Color adds nothing and risks detracting from it.

Leading EdgeLeading EdgeA monsoonal storm advances into Jackson Hole (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming) Finally, a black and white abstract. The sandstone slot canyons of northern Arizona are prime examples of erosion; the play of light on the red rock is often an important part of the composition. In this case, though, I wanted to emphasize the geometric lines. Removing color also removed some of the context - thus enhancing the rock's somewhat mysterious character. 

If I hadn't told you this was a slot canyon, would you know immediately what you were looking at?

EnigmaEnigmaLower Antelope Slot Canyon (Page, Arizona) Color is great, but black and white is no slouch. It can extend your shooting time, provide new creative options, and help sharpen your skills.

Try it!


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