Beauty in Black and White

February 15, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Mirror Image Mount Chocorua New HampshireMIRROR IMAGEMount Chocorua ablaze in autumn color is reflected in the still waters of Chocorua Lake.

Tamworth, New Hampshire
When I moved to New Hampshire it was autumn: not a bad time to show up. The foliage show is a magnificent spectacle - a little bit of heaven right here on earth - and there I was right in the middle of it. 

Still working long hours in corporate America, I didn't have a lot of time to take my camera into the mountains during those early years, but you can bet I scheduled vacation days each autumn to photograph the show. It's not enough to describe the color as amazingly varied and vivid or to say that the heavily forested landscape painted in fiery hues is magical. It's all that, yes, but to me it's so much more. I grew up in the Midwest where the autumnal landscape is more subdued. Then I lived in Southern California for a while. New Hampshire was nothing like what I was accustomed to. I had a profound, intense reaction to the White Mountains the very first time I saw them dressed in their October finery. Love at first sight.

Donald Hall, who was the fourteenth U.S. Poet Laureate, lived with his wife in a small New Hampshire town for many years. In his wonderful book Seasons at Eagle Pond he describes the spectacle:

"Each morning is more outrageous than the one before, days outdoing their predecessors as sons outdo their fathers. We walk out over the chill dew to audit glorious wreckage from the night's cold passage - new branches suddenly turned, others gone deeper into ranges of fire, trees vying to surpass each other and their yesterselves."

"Deep Autumn is a beautiful Godzilla, wildest of wild beasts. Abrupt shreds and edges of New Hampshire turn fauve, while most of the northern hemisphere remains vague, impressionist, and pretty. Here we become Van Gogh for the yellow of sunflowers, Gauguin for the skin of oak leaves rich and sensuous, Hans Hofmann for the loaded, overloaded, dripping explosions or onslaughts of RED."

"If it were a cuisine, New Hampshire Fall would combine curry powder, maple syrup, garlic, tutti-frutti, basil, scallions, chocolate black as the human heart, chili relleno, fresh pineapple, and Colman's mustard - chopped and hashed together, mayhap, in the Cuisinart of the middle distance." 

The sights are so incredible they just about smack you in the head. 

Color, therefore, was integral to the stories I wanted to tell with my photographs. Foliage shows remain one of my favorite things to capture. Regardless of the time of year, color often speaks to me.

That said, I've gravitated a little more toward making black and white images over the years. It creates so many new opportunities. It encourages the photographer to think differently and see differently. 

Black and white can be a great tool if you're working with harsh light, high contrast, and interesting shadows. Don't shy away from making pictures in the middle of the day. Those types of conditions translate exceptionally well to black and white. Conversely, if the sky is flat you may be surprised at the way the scene will read once you remove color and play with contrast. You've got a lot of latitude when processing: tonal range, rich blacks, deep contrast, high key, low key.

Black and white is a good way to accentuate texture or to emphasize lines, shapes and the relationships between objects. There's freedom to be more interpretive and creative.

I often know before I make the image that it's going to be a black and white: both the choice of subject matter and composition are selected accordingly. Other times I don't make the decision until I'm processing. It depends on the desired effect and what I feel is the best way to go about achieving it. Sometimes color isn't important; it might even be a distraction.

Following are a few examples. 

I titled this first image "Meringue on Top" since it was the wonderful building clouds above the Tetons that attracted me to the scene. 

MERINGUE ON TOPMERINGUE ON TOPGrand Teton National Park, Wyoming Below is the same image in color out of the camera. As much as I like green season - my favorite time of year - there's too much of it here. That's not what the photograph is about and I find the color distracting. There's also a white balance issue but I knew that would be irrelevant since I'd be converting the file.

Removing color sends the eye directly to the sky. The snow-capped mountains read more prominently. The conifers are better differentiated from the deciduous trees and underbrush. The line of conifers mid-frame pops a little bit more. 

Below, even though there's not a great deal of color in the scene, to my eye it doesn't add anything. This photograph is all about the lighting: the sun peeking through the storm clouds long enough to light the Grand while Mount Owen, Middle Teton and South Teton remain dark. The mountains feel more imposing without color. I wasn't sure when I made the photograph that I'd process it in black and white, but suspected that was the direction it would lead me.

WEST SIDE STORYWEST SIDE STORYFollowing a chilly spring, early summer kicks off with substantial snowpack remaining

Western Slope - Teton Range
Alta, Wyoming

Finally, here's an example of a photograph that works better in color. This is the iconic T.A. Moulton barn in Grand Teton National Park. I knew the gorgeous long shadows would translate well to black and white, so considered it in processing. You can see, though, that the impact of the browns is lost and some of the trees essentially disappear. The color of the cottonwoods, nearly identical to that of the barn, creates a horizontal line mirroring the Tetons. That secondary line is important. 

Long ShadowsLONG SHADOWSThe low angle of the sun during the winter months creates wonderful long shadows. Here, they extend from the cottonwoods all the way to the barn, their blue hue mimicking that of the clear, early morning sky.

T.A. Moulton Barn
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

If you're new to black and white, make sure you're shooting in RAW format; retaining all the colors in the image will enable you to manipulate each one in post processing and you'll have more control over tonal values.

Switch the LCD to monochrome display if it's easier for you to think in black and white that way.

Black and white isn't a method to salvage poorly-crafted photos. It can, though, be a wonderful tool that will enable you to express yourself in a completely different way - even if, like me, you're drawn to color.


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