Why we choose Black and White

Black and white should be made only to improve the final image.

A recent quote from a professional (mostly color) landscape photographer on YouTube giving advice on mistakes to avoid in BW landscape photography. Most of his advice centered around this concept, that BW conversions are only worthwhile when they increase the “value” of the original image. Meaning the BW version should always look better than the color one, otherwise don’t use BW.

The idea that a conversion to BW is only warranted if it is objectively greater than the color version seems foreign to me as a mostly BW photographer of some thirty years now. In that entire time I don’t recall every thinking before making a new image, “is this going to be better than the color version?”. This seems like a pretty cynical view of photography overall, one that assumes an inherent value for every photograph that gets weighed against every other photograph. And one where BW and color are at odds with one another in terms of artistic expression.

Photography is not a quantitative art, it’s a qualitative one. We compose and process images for some subjective feeling or narrative we want to share. We choose BW because it suits our way of seeing, or our way of showing with images. Not because it maximizes or improves the scene over color somehow. A good BW image and good color image can come from the same subjects, the same scenes. I choose BW over color because I want the viewer to see something different from what color shows or obscures, not something ‘better’.

Black and white should never be a last resort to poor conditions for color photography. Nor should it be applied only because there is some expectation that a BW conversion will increase the inherent ‘value’ of a color image, as if both are on display simultaneously in the viewers mind with them making a singular judgement call, “this would have been better in color, or this in BW”.

Good BW and good color images are not mutually exclusive outcomes, for a given scene, they are fundamentally different ways of seeing the world and they convey completely different emotions and narratives, not better or worse ones. It’s a trap to only ever think of BW as conversions from color. Instead set both your mind and your camera to a BW preview mode and think only about what you see in the image as it is, and not in comparison to anything else.

I guess it’s true to say a lot of BW photography comes from scenes that would have made less interesting color images, mine certainly does. But that’s not really why they were made as BWs. We felt something that only BW could best convey. Something about light and shadow, or texture and shape. Something about mood or maybe focus. Whatever the reason, it should never have been that we thought ‘this is an amazing image, I bet a BW conversion would really push it over the top!’.

As you look at the image pairs I’ve included with this post, you will almost certainly pick one over the other as your preference. And that’s fine, we all have our own biases and tastes and contexts we bring to bear. I have my preferences as well. The point to keep in mind from the photographer’s point of view, is I didn’t make one to be an improvement over the other, I made each for different reasons, for their own aesthetic. And I hope when you take BW or color images you’re doing the same.

Photographing Fog

Fog is a frequent companion on the California coast. While this puts local sunset loving photographers at a distinct disadvantage, for those willing to embrace the damp and drizzle, it can be otherworldly. Fog has a way of transforming the most mundane locations into scenes of deep mystery. Dense fog shortens the visible distance and obliterates the horizon making every hill a cliff at the edge of the world, where every path disappears into the unknown. Into the unknowable.

These are five of my favorite images in which the fog plays not merely a supportive or atmospheric role, but where the image was transformed entirely by fog and mist.

If fog is a common feature of your personal landscape, don’t let it keep you from making great images.

Images from Fog Series #1.

An alternative to full size prints.

“The print is the photograph’s rightful inheritance.”

– Charlie Waite

It’s easy to forget that not all that long ago the only way to enjoy your photography (or anyone else’s) was to see it printed. When I started my photography hobby over three decades ago, it was a somewhat costly and laborious process to take a handful of rolls of B&W film and end up with a print or two from my (bathroom) darkroom. Today I can shoot unrestrained by film costs and share my work widely online. The ease of access afforded by digital cameras, digital ‘darkrooms’, and social media is a big reason why I’ve started taking photography seriously again after being away for many years. Digital just makes it so much easier, but I still feel compelled to print my work whenever I can.

What are the benefits in printing our photos?

Printing is transformative, nothing looks quite like a print. The paper, the ink, even the space and lighting you view it in, all have an effect on the look and feel of the image. If your eyes have been trained to see photos on screen most of the time, seeing them printed is suddenly new. And that feeling of seeing something for the first time tends to slow us down as we view it. Printing an image also changes our relationship to it. Seeing a high quality print elevates its status in our subconscious and invites a different kind of evaluation. Slower and more deliberate.

Having your best work printed and on your walls is a great way to enjoy and share what you’re most proud of. But printing our work is also incredibly instructive. The more time you spend with an image, the more you’ll learn about your own craft. What works and what needs to change.

Photo Books

The difficulty comes from the fact that we only have so much space on our walls (or cash in our wallets) for large framed prints. One solution I’ve found to getting more prints for less money and no wall space is to print high quality photo books. About once a year I compile a set of a couple dozen of my favorite images from the past season. Images that I really like but that may not be ones I want full size and framed. What you end up with is a lot more of your work to thumb through in physical form than if you relied on full size prints alone. And honestly, I spend more time looking at my photo books than I do my framed prints.

There are a number of different options for print on demand books, but you’ll be happiest with a photo book that uses high quality paper. These are not the typical family photo albums available from the drug store. You want your book to feel like a collection of frame worthy photography, without the frames! I’ve had great success using Blurb photo books. They have easy to use design tools and a great selection of papers to choose from. I prefer the look of heavy mat paper for my BW images. I’m not stumping for Blurb here, I have no affiliation with them, and you may be able to find something else that works better for you. If you do, I’d love to hear about!

In the end the important thing is to get more of your work in print, even if it’s in a small photo book. I think the experience of looking over our printed work is invaluable for our growth as photographers. Happy printing!