Posted by: kerryl29 | March 9, 2021

A Lesson Relearned: The Black & White Counterpoint

My apologies; the last week has been a bit chaotic, so my plans for a new blog entry went awry.  Instead, I’m updating a piece that I originally wrote 6 1/2 years ago during my guest blogging stint on the now dormant 1001 Scribbles blog.  Hopefully you’ll find it of interest; I’ll be back with a new post next week.

I’ve written about black and white photography on several occasions in the past in this space, and I’m going to ask you to indulge me one more time as I revisit this topic—but with a very specific story to tell.

Lake Falls Black & White, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

A few years ago, when I was updating my website, I was slowly reviewing and reprocessing a huge number of old images.  Some of these images were more than a decade old at the time and it was an interesting experience to revisit dated photo shoots, albeit vicariously.

Heart of the Dunes Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

In any event, going through this mass of material reminded me of something that I learned a long time ago, but had kind of slipped into the background of my consciousness:  some of the worst times for color photography are among the best for black and white shooting.

Light and Shadow black & white, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Color photography is usually pretty unappealing in harsh, contrasty light.  Black and white imagery, on the other hand, loves contrast. Many black & white images look their best with as broad a range of tones as possible.  While blocked up shadows often—not always, but often—are something to avoid in color, letting shadows go virtually if not all the way to black can frequently make a monochrome shot sing.  There are times when I wouldn’t dream of shooting in color that will see black and white images thrive.

Pretzel and Lighthouse Arches black & white, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Similarly, for scenes where there is very little color present, which can often result in truly blah color images, black and white shots, with their much more forgiving sense of contrast, can often shine by bringing out a scene’s tones and details in a manner that’s hindered by a color rendering.  This can really be exploited during the time of year between the colorful periods of mid-autumn and mid-spring (where I live, a period that lasts a solid five months).

Spruce Plot in Winter (Black & White), Morton Arboretum, Illinois

There are also specific types of scenes that, under certain weather conditions, invariably seem to work better in black & white than color.  Among these—and something that I was reminded of ad nauseum during the period of website work that I mentioned—is the case of beach scenes on cloudy and/or foggy days.  Such locales, under these conditions, are the very definition of the term “flat light” when working in color, largely because all of the tones seem so homogenized.  If you’re working in color, the seaside screams for a traditional definition of “good light.”

Second Beach Black & White, Olympic National Park, Washington

But in black and white, everything changes.  Nuanced details, in sand, water and sky, emerge, despite the “flat light.”  Tones that seem to be entirely absent in color renderings are revealed as if by magic.  Scenes that scarcely seem worth bothering with become intensely compelling.  A moodiness and tension that color can’t seem to provoke are present in aching terms in black and white.

Myers Beach Evening Black & White, Pistol River State Park, Oregon

I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but I strongly urge you to give working in monochrome terms a whirl.  It can serve to help you see better and think with a deeper dimension in the field (which can serve to aid even your color photography).  It can also provide you with some really memorable images that you would otherwise almost certainly never even consider making.

Driftwood Epic, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington




  1. Last fall I photographed a fluffy bush. The colors in the image weren’t unappealing to me but they were subdued. Something prompted me to convert to black and white (which I seldom do), and the monochrome version seemed okay, too. Later the idea popped into my head to take the middle path, which is to say a reduced-color version. A plurality of viewers who commented about the versions preferred the reduced-color version to both the original and the black and white. Have you experimented with reduced-color versions of any of your photographs?

    • That’s an interesting effect. What’s particularly noteworthy to me is how the changed hue of the OOF sky in the background–it’s gone from blue to purple on my display–completely changes the perceived perspective. In the full color image, the sky is plainly discernible as such, even with the bokeh effect. But in the reduced color version, it takes on the feel of a mid-ground OOF patch of violet flowers. It completely changes the feel of the composition.

      I haven’t done anything quite like that. The closest thing, I suppose, was a kind of photo art approach I took to an image I made many years ago in the Smokies. It was shot from the interior of one of the buildings in Cades Cove, but included a view of the exterior through a window. I monochromed (to create my own past tense verb) the inside but kept the view through the window in color.

      • In the John Oliver Place photograph we could say you were partial to the extremes, with full color and no color averaging out to partial color. In my limited-color picture I do see the shift of the sky’s blue toward violet that you discerned but am at a loss to account for it.

        • Perhaps I should make the John Oliver Place image the subject of a future “The Story Behind the Image” installment…

          Regarding your limited color image and the shift of the sky color, how did you go about processing the file to achieve the limited color effect?

        • I assume I’d slid Camera Raw’s Vibrance and/or Saturation sliders to the left, but when I went back to the raw file and tried that a while ago, I didn’t get the shift toward violet that’s noticeable in my saved Photoshop version. The color change remains a mystery, but one I’m happy with.

  2. […] talk about black & white imagery. (Yes, again.) I want to discuss the subject in the context of my experience at White Pocket, which I’ve […]

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