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Backcountry Photography

Get It Down in Black and White Color My World

By Tamia Nelson

February 5, 2013

Hard as this may be for the Facebook generation to believe, ours was once a monochrome world, at least when seen at second hand. Color was confined to paintings and pastel sketches. Early photographers could only capture their subjects in black and white. And even much later, when displays of color film could be found in every drugstore and supermarket, some serious photographers were slow to make the change. For one thing, black‑and‑white film was cheaper, as was the processing. And if you liked to do your own developing, it was a lot easier to set up a home darkroom for black and white. Of course, the big names among the pros didn't care about the cost. Results were what counted most with them. They used black‑and‑white film for its intrinsic qualities. Freed from the distraction of color, they could concentrate on composition and the interplay of light and shadow. Many commercial photographers also found a wider market for black‑and‑white shots, at least at first. Newspapers were slow to adopt color, as were magazines, including such heavyweights as Life and Look. Even though National Geographic was a pioneer in the field, enlivening articles with occasional Autochrome photos as far back as 1914, their first all‑color issue didn't hit the newsstands until 1962.

But we now live in a digital age, and our photographs — sorry, images — are displayed on monitors that boast millions of colors. So black and white is dead, right? Wrong. While the costs of film and processing no longer enter into the equation, black and white still has a lot going for it. Not convinced? OK. Then let me make …

The Case for Black and White

Do you think you have to use color to evoke the active presence of a distant or unfamiliar landscape? If so, I'd suggest you spend a few minutes looking at the work of Ansel Adams. Don't get me wrong. He didn't reject color photography outright. But he found he had much greater control over the look of the final print with black and white, and since he spent at least as much time in the darkroom as he did in the field, this was important. (And you thought that image processing began with Photoshop, did you?) Adams even compared working with color to playing an out‑of‑tune piano. He knew whereof he spoke; he was also an accomplished pianist.

All well and good, you say. But you and I aren't in Ansel Adams' league, are we? (At least I'm not. I don't know about you.) To which I reply: So what? I'm never going to win races like Eddy Merckx, but that doesn't mean I won't always be trying to get up the hills faster whenever I'm on my bike. Canoeing is different, oddly enough. It doesn't seem to awaken my competitive instincts in the same way that cycling does. I think this is good. In any case, I bring the same determination to photography that I do to conquering hills. I may never come close to equaling Ansel Adams' mastery of his art, but it won't be for want of trying. And I've found several situations where black and white trumps color. Let's look at a couple of these, beginning with …

Overcast Days and Flat Light.  There's not much color in the land when the sky is a uniform gray and objects cast no shadows. Drab days like this can be perfect for shooting monochrome pictures. Here's an example:

Snow Storm

You could call this "natural" black and white. It's a color image, but there isn't a pixel of color to be found anywhere — or if there is, it's too damned subtle for me. Yet that's just how things looked outside my office window during a snowstorm one day last month. Even if there had been some scraps of color to be seen, though, a black‑and‑white image would probably have done the subject more justice, accurately reflecting the bleak prospect that I saw before me. (And yes, I know that the image is out of focus. Or at least that's the first impression. I was trying to capture the swirling snowflakes, not the trees in the background.)

Black‑and‑white photography also excels when a scene is dominated by …

Strong Lines and Stark Geometry.  If there's no sun to paint a picture with alternating pools of light and shadow, geometry rules. I shot the photo below at dusk, with new snow dusting the trees. The frosted trees stand in stark contrast to their leaden surroundings.

Woods at Dusk

Now let's consider geometry of another sort:

Rock of Ages

Here black‑and‑white photography emphasizes the textures and forms along the rock‑ribbed shoreline of The River.

So far, so good. But the foregoing examples leave many questions unanswered, and perhaps the most important of these concern how and when to use black and white to best advantage. Let's begin with the most important consideration of all,  …

Strong Composition.  The first commandment of black‑and‑white photography is simple: Pay attention to composition. You don't have color to distract (or entice) the viewer, after all. So remember the rule of thirds and the golden mean. Learn how to exploit negative space and use perspective to direct the viewer's eye, too. The next photo shows The River on the day after a snowstorm, and it illustrates the practical application of these principles.

The River in Winter

Back in the Age of Film, one of black‑and‑white photography's strong points was the sense of control it gave photographers, who found the chemistry and complications of color processing at odds with their carefully nurtured independence. Today, however, there are times when it pays to surrender some control and let your camera make the decisions. Or at least take a strong hint when one is given. Suppose, for example, that you discover a color image is marred by …

Noise.  It's not unusual for low‑light shots to be disfigured by thousands of tiny blotches of color. In fact, it's a common problem when shooting at high ISOs. But don't throw up your hands in despair. Just listen to your camera. It's telling you to convert your image to black and white. And that's exactly what I did in the photo of the sword and belt in the constellation Orion, below:

Orion's Belt

The result, while not publication quality — I can promise that you won't see it in Sky and Telescope any time soon! — is certainly a lot easier on the eyes than the original, which was pockmarked with red pixel‑pustules. Nor is noise the only way that feral color can spoil a photo. Occasionally, a shot simply screams …

Me Bad!  Here you can let your inner critic be your guide. When a photo's colors just seem wrong, no matter how much tweaking you do in the digital darkroom, why not see how things look in black and white? You won't know till you try. A case in point: The pool below the falls where I shot this photo was about equally divided between deep shade and bright sun. Where the sun shone brightest, the colors were washed out. Where the shadows were darkest, there was little to be seen but amber murk. And none of the digital tricks I tried could remedy the image's queasy colors. But the shot looks pretty good in black and white, even with the blown highlights.

Wash Cycle

It's also worth giving black‑and‑white conversion a try when you're digitizing old color photos or slides. If the originals have faded, or if the color balance is now profoundly out of whack, black‑and‑white images may do more justice to their subjects than attempting to reproduce the original coloration, as was the case in this instance:

Evening on the 'Flow

Of course, there's more to black‑and‑white photography than rescuing your old slides. For example, it's a natural for …

Stormy Skies.  Billowing clouds often display far more than 50 shades of gray. And black‑and‑white photography can capture the drama and intensity of lowering skies as nothing else can.

Lowering Clouds

Yet it can also unveil the secrets of …

Subtle Subjects.  Color can often be a distraction, overwhelming delicate textures and fine detail. In such cases, a black‑and‑white photo allows others to see what you saw, just as you saw it.

Making Tracks

A raccoon and one or more worms left their marks in the wet sand along a mountain stream. That's obvious now. But would you have noticed the worm tracks if the photo above had been in color?

Lastly, here's another reason to look at the world in black and white:

Just for the Fun of It!  Digital technology makes it easy to toggle between color and black and white. You're not out of pocket for film or processing, after all. So why not let yourself go and see what happens? You'll often be startled — and pleased — by the results, as I was when I recast a rather pedestrian color snap of our battle‑scarred Tripper as a stark monochrome portrait:

Old Yeller


How about it? Have I sold you on the virtues of black‑and‑white photography? If so, here are some …

Technical Matters Worth Considering

Kit comes first. What do you need? That's easy: Use what you've got. Most digital point‑and‑shoot cameras do a great job with black and white. As do all professional digital SLRs. And just about everything in between. You'll want image‑editing software, too, but this can be had for a song. In fact, my most expensive application cost only USD40. You can spend more, of course. Much more. But you don't have to. And why do you need image‑editing software? That's another easy question to answer. Your computer is your digital darkroom, and — this may come as a surprise — the best way to get good black‑and‑white images is to …

Shoot in Color.  I knew you'd be taken aback. But my counterintuitive advice actually makes good sense. While many digital cameras allow you to shoot in monochrome from the get‑go, I see much better results when I shoot in color and then convert to black and white in my digital darkroom. I get the best of both worlds this way. If I have second thoughts after I leave the field, I can't add color to a monochrome image. But it's easy for me to go from color to black and white. A caveat: Even if your camera can do the conversion onboard, so to speak, I suggest that you use your computer. You'll have more control over the process, and you'll be sure that the black‑and‑white image is a duplicate, rather than a replacement. (That's a subject we'll return to in a minute.)

It also pays to …

Shoot in RAW.  And use the lowest ISO you can. No, I'm not advocating going bare. RAW is a format — or more accurately, a class of formats — that captures the maximum information from each shot. That information is the image, and the more information in the package, so to speak, the more your image‑processing software will have to work with. Is RAW essential? No. But if you're thinking of producing large prints, or if you want to take on the pros in photo competitions, RAW is the way to go. For less demanding tasks, however, the lossy compression format JPEG is fine.

Moreover, shooting in RAW has some drawbacks. There are a lot of RAW formats in play — each camera maker seems to have his own idea about what works best — and your camera's version may not be compatible with your favorite image‑processing software. (The software that came with your camera should work well, however.) RAW images also demand a lot of elbowroom. They're not compressed, so you'll find yourself filling up memory cards in a hurry. You'll need to spend more time in your digital darkroom, too, tweaking and tailoring your RAW images to get them ready to face the world — but then again, you'll have to do that to convert your color images to monochrome, anyway. A hint: Never work on the original image. Always make a copy and work on that. You never know when you'll need a fallback. Do I have to remind you back up all your images religiously, as well? I hope not. I had a hard drive crash just a few months ago, but it was a nuisance, instead of a disaster. Why? I had two independent backups. You should do no less. After all, you don't want to lose any of your work, do you? Black‑and‑white photography may be an endangered art, but — like the art of building bark canoes — it's well worth preserving.

Boat With the Bark On

Should black‑and‑white photographs be relegated to dusty corners of the attic, or be condemned to keep company with spats and detachable collars in little‑visited museums? Not if you value high‑quality images. Sometimes old ways are best, even in the digital age. And I've done my best to set out the case for monochrome photography, getting it all down in black and white. The rest, as always, is up to you.


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