Shades of Gray

November 17, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Nature's BlanketNature's BlanketThick fog hangs over the valley beneath the Tetons as the sun rises

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Though I work primarily in color, I prefer black and white for various situations and scenes. Sometimes I know I'm going to go with black and white before I release the shutter. More often, it's a decision made during post-processing.  

In terms of the types of subjects I photograph, color is often necessary for the image to be successful. However, there are occasions when it doesn't add anything or is a distraction. There are also images for which it truly is a flip of the coin. The photograph will work either way; it's just a matter of what I wish to emphasize or what I'm trying to communicate.

Fortunately, as long as you're shooting digitally there's a lot of flexibility in terms of color versus black and white. Back in the day the type of film KeyholeKeyholeLower Antelope Slot Canyon

Page, Arizona
you chose committed you to one or the other until that roll had been exposed. Now you can decide after the fact. 

The world looks different in black and white. By their very nature, black and white photographs are stylistic and lend themselves to dramatic treatment.

Many of the elements that are important to black and white photography are also factors when working with color: for example, shapes, lines, textures and light. But contrast is in a league by itself. Contrast is the most important tool in the B&W kit and is used much differently. High contrast and black and white were made for each other. You can do things with contrast that would otherwise be unsuccessful if you were contending with colors and tints.

Because contrast is so pivotal to black and white photography, it also opens up many possibilities in terms of "suitable conditions" when you're out in the field. Consider harsh midday light. It's tough to work with so much contrast - or is it? Consider how the scene might look in black and white. High contrast can produce excellent B&W images that really pop.

Conversely, otherwise bland conditions like a flat sky might work perfectly once the color is removed.

If you're new to this type of photography, there are a few things to remember when working with the image in either Lightroom or Photoshop. First, there's more to the procedure than simply selecting the button to make the conversion. The image still needs to be processed!

Second, there's a big difference between desaturation and black and white. Choose the latter. Desaturation strips the image of all color. Those color values are required to preserve maximum ability to customize the file.

Third, as mentioned earlier, contrast is king. Tinker with the slider. You have much more leeway than you would if you were working in color; contrast can be pushed aggressively to create rich tonal values.

Finally, because the color information is retained, individual color luminance values can be adjusted. Even if you've never shot black and white film you're probably aware of the color filters photographers utilize when working with such film; these filters add differentiation and improve contrast. Different colored filters produce different effects. You'll achieve similar results with the luminance sliders. You have many choices regarding how individual colors will translate into grayscale. This enables the emphasis (and mood) of the scene to be shifted.

Though some photographers prefer to work only in black and white (or vice versa), more commonly it's a case-by-case judgement. It depends on what you're trying to convey. 

There is no right or wrong - but it's interesting how dramatically different an image can be when converted to black and white. The essence of it can change completely. 

If you haven't already, give shades of gray a try.

“Black and white is abstract; color is not.
Looking at a black and white photograph,
you are already looking at a strange world.”
Joel Sternfeld

All is Calm, All is BrightAll is Calm, All is BrightAmidst vibrant colors everywhere on the grounds, this little vignette - illuminated with only white light - was quietly beautiful in a completely different way.

Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum
Lisle, Illinois




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