Posted by: kerryl29 | July 26, 2021

Thematic Interruption: Black & White Imagery Lessons Based on the White Pocket Experience

Let’s 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 chronicled in the previous two posts. It’s no accident that many of the images accompanying these two entries have been rendered in monochrome.

Monument Rocks Black & White, Logan County, Kansas

I’m on record as saying that quality of light has a great deal to with the intent to produce images that were designed–predetermined, if you will–to be presented in black and white. One specific set of examples is comparatively harsh light conditions, circumstances when natural contrast can be leveraged to the photographer’s advantage rather than be a hindrance (i.e. color photography under the same conditions).

Oak Cluster Black & White, Calaveras County, California

I think this contrasty light truism is particularly well-applied to relatively wide landscape renderings where elements of the scene often express this contrast so well: dark foliage against light colored grasses, puffy white clouds in a darker sky, light-colored sand juxtaposed against darker water, etc.

Mushroom Rock Black & White, Mushroom Rock Trail, Maui, Hawaii

But sometimes intimates in harsh light can work as well.

Dunes Abstract Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Black and white enhances patterns and textures by removing the distraction of color from the frame.

Breaking Wave Black & White, Hoapili Trail, Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve, Maui, Hawaii

Intimates with a center of interest of pattern and/or texture can benefit from a monochromatic treatment even when the light isn’t harsh.

Sand Tufa Abstract Black & White, Navy Beach, Mono Lake, Mono County, California
Thatch Palm Closeup Black & White, MacBryde Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, Hawaii

We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of monochrome motivation.

Atigun River Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Aspen Trunks Black & White, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado
Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

So there’s more than one motivation to go the route of black and white. There’s leaning in to natural contrast. There’s emphasizing patterns. There’s making texture the center of interest. There’s playing up the role of shapes in a composition. There’s running with a graphic theme. There’s combining multiples of these things. (And that’s just for starters.)

Cook Pines Black & White, Prince Edward Park, Kauai, Hawaii

So, that’s all very interesting, you’re (hopefully) saying. What has this got to do with White Pocket?

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The White Pocket experience was a strong reminder of just how broadly cast the motivations for monochrome imagery can be. When Jason and I started poking around at White Pocket, mid-afternoon on the day of our arrival there, the conditions were of the classic black & white contrast variety. It was natural to think black & white, right out of the box.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

But as the light improved and color photography became the obvious assumption, particularly as we migrated into the more colorful part of this rock-filled destination, I was struck by how strong the pull of black and white remained. The motivating elements beyond the contrast of the light were so emphatic at White Pocket they couldn’t be ignored., even when the light became increasingly soft and thereby more conducive to color photography.

White Pocket Intimate Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Even with scenes and conditions when color renderings worked wonderfully well, it was truly remarkable how often monochrome was a perfectly viable–even desirable–alternative. I don’t believe I have ever rendered as many compositions in both color and black & white as I have from White Pocket.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

That is the black and white lesson of White Pocket: there are no “rules” about when to render images in black and white; only broad guidelines, and extremely loose ones at that. And yet…one of those “guidelines” is, if color isn’t clearly adding to the image there’s a good chance it’s distracting, and perhaps it should be removed altogether.

White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona


  1. Just to confirm…even when you are thinking black and white for a final rendering, you are still shooting in color for later conversion. That is, you are not changing to a monochrome “picture style” in camera. Or do you?

    • That’s correct–all images are captured in color. (It’s effectively impossible, with the camera(s) I use, to capture in monochrome unless shooting JPEGs (with the appropriate picture control activated), which I don’t do. The RAW image always includes the color information and I make the conversion in the digital darkroom, where I have far, far more complete and better control of the process than I ever could in the camera itself.

      One thing that I *can* now do with the Z7ii–something I’ve not been able to do in the past with a DSLR–is use a monochrome picture control to preview an image in black & white IN THE VIEWFINDER. (It was possible to do this in Live View in the past, on the LCD monitor.) I haven’t yet used this feature in the field, but I’ve recently reconfigured the camera to make it much easier to apply this capability going forward. (I can demonstrate this in person in a few weeks, if you’re interested.)

      • Yes that would be helpful. (sorry…it took me a week to get back to respond) I’ll see what I can discover about a similar feature in the R6.

  2. […] a nod to my previous post, note that none of the images from this location have been rendered in monochrome. That’s […]

  3. Brilliant images! As a fellow photographer, I must say that your blog is an inspiration. Hope to reach your level at some point in time. Any tips for a new blogger like me?

    • Thanks very much.

      My only suggestion is to blog about whatever it is you’re passionate about. Doing so will make it seem less like an obligation and, as a result, you’re more likely to stick with it.

      Not incidentally, I did check out your blog. It looks like you’re off to a great start. Keep at it and best of luck.

      • Thanks kerryl29. Good luck with your blog 😁

  4. […] a dilemma similar to the one I encountered at White Pocket, I found myself thinking about rendering a scene in black and white to better reveal the lines, […]

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