Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements which the painter
uses to express his sentiments. In a picture every separate part will be visible and… everything
which has no utility in the picture is for that reason harmful.
1 – Introduction
This is the second essay in this series focused on my approach to photography. The first essay, titled My Philosophy, was published in the previous issue of this magazine. This second essay covers my reasons for using black and white instead of color. It covers other things as well, including my thoughts on color and on monochromatic images.
2 – Using black and white instead of color
Black and white allows you to create stunning images when doing so would not be possible with color and impress everyone who works only in color in the process. In other words, black and white succeeds where color fails. This is the case at mid-day when the light is vertical, for example, or when the colors are not interesting, or again when the subject is overly complex and requires simplification to make successful images. At that time black and white offers a satisfying solution because black and white simplifies the visual contents of the subject by removing color.
Sometimes the light is so fantastic that there is no way you cannot take a good photograph. However, sometimes things are more challenging, not only the light may not be at its best but the composition can present challenges, or the exposure may be difficult, or other things can stand in the way. In that situation the difference between a powerful photograph and a so-so image is the vision that the photographer has of the scene. It is this vision that allows the artist to transform a so-so image into an outstanding photograph. It is the ability to see beyond what is in front of him and overcome the challenges that present themselves that allow him to transcend the subject and see images that no one else sees.
It is then that black and white comes into the picture because it is possible to do things with black and white that cannot be done with color. For example exaggerating the contrast of the sky. In black and white doing so increases drama while maintaining coherent and believable tones. In color however the colors become often become overly harsh, or overly saturated, and in any case un-aesthetic and unbelievable. There are many other instances where black and white is the solution to an otherwise unsatisfying image, and we will see some of these instance in the examples featured in this essay.
Black and white brings form to life by removing the distraction brought by color
3 – My experience working in black and white
I started photography with black and white. At the time I was of the opinion that black and white lends itself better to the creation of artistic images, images that do not reveal everything at first sight, images that lend themselves to interpretation and ask the viewer to participate in the creation of their meaning.
Choosing black and white was also motivated by the fact that it was possible to process black and white film and create black and white prints at home. Certainly it was also possible to print color photographs, but the process was more difficult. Printing in color required working in complete darkness while black and white could be processed under an orange light. It wasn’t as comfortable as working under natural lighting, but it was better than working in total darkness. Plus one got used to it and over time the orange light became part of the darkroom experience.
In addition to requiring total darkness to expose the image and load the paper in the developing drum, color also required a very high level of temperature control. With color the temperature of the chemicals had to be within a half degree of the recommended temperature, while black and white was much more forgiving and gave me a margin of several degrees. Finally, the cost of printing color images was much higher than the cost of printing black and white photographs. All in all this made black and white a much more preferable choice.
However I found black and white challenging. I had a difficult time getting the contrast that I wanted. Even though the process was flexible, changing tonality meant making another print, and another if the second one was not satisfying, and a third one if the second one was not pleasing, and so on, ad infinitum it seemed. By nature of the process there was no way to rework a previous print. All one could do was make another print, each time trying to correct the shortcomings of the previous one.
Recently, while researching my body of work, I looked at the last black and white prints I made in the darkroom. I had not seen them in many years and so I was able to take a fresh look at them. What I saw surprised me. Nearly all these prints were too contrasty but I had never noticed it before. I know that I was not pleased with them when I made them, but I did not know why. It would have been an easy fix if I had known, but nobody told me and I did not ask anyone who had enough knowledge to help me see that. Today, looking back at these prints, I see that a simple change of paper grade would do the trick. Using a softer paper would take out the unnecessary harshness of tonal relationships that I now see as being the problem. Maybe I learned to see that from doing digital processing, maybe it is just experience, but in any case I now see what I found inexplicably bothering before.
Black and white gives this image an otherworldly feel and dramatizes it. he original capture was taken with a fisheye lens (the Canon 8-15 mm). In addition to converting it to black and white, the image was warped and reformatted in order to remove the circular corners and the vignetting. It was also spotted to remove the sun spots created by shooting into the sun. Together, the fisheye lens, the black and white conversion, the presence of the sun-star, and the dramatic black sky helped create the otherworldly feel I was after.
4 – My experience working in color
I later moved to color because I am a colorist and I love the possibilities offered by different color palettes. One cannot be an artist and ignore color otherwise painters would have painted in black and white only!
Today I like to let the image “decide” if it wants to be in color or in monochrome. This is because some images work best in black and white and some work best in color. Part of mastering artistic composition is knowing which is which. An image can be either, but it can rarely be both. I say rarely because there are exceptions, however few there may be.
I have much more to say about color but I will wait to talk about it until the essay titled About Color which will be published soon, in this series.
There are instances where removing color hurts the image and makes it less interesting. This photograph of Spiderock in a snowstorm is a case in point. There is little color in this image and the few colors present are soft and subdued. However, they are necessary. While the image works beautifully in color, it loses its visual appeal in black and white. This is an instance where color is necessary and where converting the image to black and white reduces its appeal rather than increase it.
5 – About sepia and other monochromatic color palettes
Much of what I said about black and white can be said about working with sepia or with other monochromatic options. As long a you use a single color, with the variation being shades of that color, you are working in a monochromatic color palette. This color can be grey or it can be sepia, which is a shade of desaturated red, but it can also be green, or blue, or yellow, or any other color. Yellow offers interesting options because yellow saturates at low opacity levels which means you can have luminous yet saturated color. Plus it is one of my favorite colors, especially orange which is a warm yellow, or a yellow with a touch of red, depending on how you put it.
In any case a monochromatic color scheme always includes black and white in addition to the color itself. Therefore, when we say ‘black and white’ what we are really saying is ‘grey with black and white.’ The same applies to any color used in a monochromatic color scheme, for example yellow with black and white, red with black and white, and so on.
It is also worth noticing that the majority of monochromatic images use desaturated colors. Sepia is a desaturated shade of red as I said before. Similarly, when blue is used it is usually a desaturated shade of blue, not a saturated shade of blue. While this approach is used for most color, it does not mean that medium or high saturation colors cannot be used. They can because saturation levels do not change the monochromatic quality of the image. As long as you are using a single color you are working in a monochromatic color palette. All that increasing the saturation do is create high saturation monochromatic image, nothing else.
6 – The concepts I use when working in black and white
The concepts used when working in black and white include the following:
– Composition: the composition is based primarily on shades of blacks, whites and greys
– Main focus: the focus and primary interest of the image are the shades of black, white and greys
– With black and white bad color is no longer a problem
– With black and white uninteresting colors are not a problem
– No colors = no color problem
– Removing colors means that less is more
– Seeing in black and white is easier with black and white viewing filters or glasses
– Not everything works in black and white
– Using black and white means seeing in black and white
– Some daylight photos have little interest in color but can become fascinating in black and white
– Don’t neglect black and white!
7 – About processing
As you can see from the examples a lot of processing took place to convert the original color captures into the black and white images shown here. While this essay is not about processing, I do understand that some of you will have questions about my processing workflow. I may write about it later on, but if you want an immediate answer look into my workshop, specifically the Fine Art Photography Summit which is the yearly event where I teach processing, both image conversion and optimization. This year the Summit is in Death Valley and Jeff Schewe is our guest instructor. Also look at my series of Mastery Workshops on DVD, especially the Adjustment Layers Mastery Workshop on DVD. Both are available on my site at www.beautiful-landscape.com
A relatively mundane image in color is transformed into an aesthetically involving image in black and white.
Black and white can help transform a scene when color does not work. Making the image monochromatic removes the problems caused by color, simplifies the subject and emphasizes graphic qualities. It also allows an exaggeration of the contrast, both local and global, beyond what can be done with color.
8 – Skills Enhancement Exercises
It doesn’t hurt to practice so here are two simple exercises to help you refine your black and white photography skills.
A – Create a series of photographs that are black and white. These must be images whose primary source of interest are the black and white tones of the photograph. Try to see the images in black and white when you compose them. Use a black and white viewing filter or the black and white viewing mode on your LCD screen.
You can use the images in this essay as examples and inspiration.
B – Find additional examples of images whose composition is based on the concept of black and white, either in your work or in the work of other artists or photographers.
9 – Conclusion
I am often asked what is more difficult: color or black and white photography. The answer is that there is not one that is more difficult than the other. They are simply differently difficult. The challenges faced by the photographer working in black and white are different than the challenges faced by the photographer working in color.
Black and white photography is often considered art while color photography is often considered “reality.” My take on this is that fine art photography is not reality, no matter if it is black and white, color, or something else altogether. My view is that fine art photography is the expression of the artist’s emotions and not a straightforward representation of the world as it is.
I will continue this discussion in my next essay in which will talk about my approach to color. Until then this series is a suivre.
Black and white gives more leeway when you need to enhance the sky because you don’t have to worry about the color changes brought by extreme increases in contrast.
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