We live in a world filled with color. We are surrounded by color and see it everywhere. To borrow a few words from Louis Armstrong’s classic 1967 tune, “What a Wonderful World,” we see color in everything around us, whether it’s “trees of green, red roses too, skies of blue and clouds of white,” or in “the colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky.”
Life would be awfully dull and boring if we lived in a world where there was no color, and where everything could only be seen in black and white. Yet, there is something to be said about seeing things in black and white, particularly when it comes to photography.
Black and white photographs have a timeless, lasting quality to them. They can be powerful, thought-provoking, and inspiring. These are some of the reasons why I find them so appealing and interesting to look at.
Black and white photography is all about capturing highlights and shadows, brightness and darkness. Rather than focusing on colors, which can sometimes be distracting, your eyes are drawn to areas of the image containing forms, shapes, textures, and tones. Removing color from your photo can also help draw attention to the parts of the image you would like viewers to concentrate on most.
The term black and white is really a misnomer. While there may be areas in an image that are completely black or totally white, most parts are made up of various shades of grey. We should probably be calling them greyscale photographs, but most people are happier saying black and white. That’s tradition for you, and I’m okay with it.
While many of today’s digital cameras can be set to capture an image in B&W, most photographers shoot in color, then convert their photos to B&W in post-processing.
In order to make good B&W photos, you need to train your eyes to see in black and white. Being able to visualize what something will look like in B&W is key. It’s not always an easy thing to do, especially when everything standing before your camera lens is in color. I try to look for scenes containing strong, well-defined lines, shadows, and shapes. You can create nice contrast if there are some portions of the photo that are almost black and some that are almost white. Patterns and textures are other things to search for when taking B&W photos.
I have always liked black and white photography. It’s how I started taking pictures. I owned my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, when I was ten years of age. By the time I was fourteen, I had taken a photography course in junior high school. In class, I learned to use a Pentax SP500, 35mm SLR camera. I also learned to develop and process B&W film and made gelatin silver prints in the small, darkened projection room located high above the school’s gymnasium. I found it captivating to watch an image come to life, as it appeared on a blank piece of paper immersed in a tray of developer.
Before the end of the school year, I had set up a makeshift darkroom in my bedroom at home. It contained all the required equipment, including a Vivitar enlarger, film developing tanks, and trays. I kept myself busy by taking photos, processing film, and making prints. My home-based photo lab was short-lived, though, as the cost of chemicals, paper, and other darkroom supplies, became too high to maintain on a fourteen-year-old’s budget. Despite this, my interest in photography did not wane. I continued to take photos but sent the film to a professional lab for processing. Those were the days!
I’m glad we live in a world of color but it’s nice to be able to see it in shades of grey, at least once in a while.
Article Notes & Comments: The photo appearing at the top of this article is of a purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and was taken in my backyard. The last three photos were taken in 1986 with a Pentax SP500 camera, the same model as the one I learned to use in school in 1972. I purchased it in 1986 and still have it.
A friend and fellow angler/photographer, Robert Garnier, publishes a great fly-fishing blog, Trout on Dries. Robert’s posts are usually about his excursions on the trout streams located in southwest Alberta and other places, and are highlighted almost exclusively with B&W images. A link to his site is located in the sidebar. Enjoy!