Without Color

June 22, 2023  •  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
Once upon a time, the world was mostly represented monochromatically in photos, motion pictures, and on television.

People had been tinkering with color, though, for many years. The first processes for color photography date back to the 1890s, and the three-color method was suggested decades before that (1855). There were experiments with color motion pictures as early as 1907. Color television was unveiled in the 1920s. Of course, none of these technologies would come into widespread use until later - perhaps quite a bit later than you'd guess. The use of color photographic film didn't become omnipresent until the 1970s, and it wasn't until 1972 that all network television programming in the United States was presented in color. One local TV station didn't make the switch from black and white to color transmission until 1986. 

It might have taken some time, but once the technologies became established and ultimately more cost-effective, color dominated. Black and white was then perceived by many as archaic. "Old." Old movies, old photos, and old TV shows - relics from bygone eras.

The attraction to color is understandable. We see and experience the world in color, so images captured in color - whether static or moving - seem more natural and realistic. 

Beyond that, though, we react to color. It's a powerful creative tool. Used correctly, it enables photographers to create compelling images with maximum visual appeal. With color we can add emphasis, establish a mood, and guide the viewer's eye through the scene.

So why, in 2023, would a photographer work in black and white?

Aside from the fact that it's timeless and classic, black and white can be a powerful artistic tool.

In the same way color was a disruptor by changing the way people engaged with the content they were viewing, black and white can serve that purpose today. A photograph without color can be expressive and beautiful: perhaps more impactful than if captured conventionally. Removing color distills the image to its essence. 

While I don't think every situation is well suited for black and white, some subjects, compositions and conditions beg for it. IMPOSINGIMPOSINGSpectacular badlands at Desolation Canyon

Death Valley National Park, California

I'm usually intentional about going without color; I know that's how I'm going to process the image before I trip the shutter. For example, the photograph of the badlands in Death Valley's Desolation Canyon pictured here was always going to be black and white. It was captured in high-contrast light and I wanted to emphasize line and shape. 

Still, there are situations when I make the switch during processing even though black and white was not originally planned. Or perhaps while I'm shooting I'm thinking it could go either way.

The image at the top of this post was not pre-visualized in black and white. I made it during late spring - the time of year when I find Grand Teton National Park to be at its most beautiful - so removing those greens wasn't done lightly. Though the photograph works in color, it's stronger without it. That spectacular blanket of fog is even more pronounced without the vibrant hues of the season competing for attention. 

Black and white photography requires a different approach than when working in color. The subject matter you choose might be different. You must learn to see the landscape without color. Elements such as contrast, texture, shape, shadow, depth, and dynamic range take on more significance. Strong light - something we typically avoid in color photography - can be a very effective tool. The same can be true for flat skies. 

B&W processing is different, too, but that's a subject for another post.

Black and white photography is a skill that takes time to develop, but it's worth exploring. It'll greatly expand your options, not just in terms of what you shoot, but also regarding what you consider suitable conditions in which to work.  

In Local News

All is well with 399, 610, and their respective offspring (399's COY is now affectionately known as "Rowdy"). Blondie has not been seen this spring; her well-being is unknown. 

It's been quite chilly this week, with a few nights dipping well below freezing in Jackson Hole and widespread frost advisories even at much lower elevations. Just a reminder - as if we needed it - that it can snow in all 12 months here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 


At any rate, welcome to summer, which officially arrived yesterday.


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