Posted by: kerryl29 | April 11, 2023

The Story Behind the Image(s): Monochrome in a World of Muted Color

When I visited New England in the fall of 2016, I had the very good fortune to spend a day with Carol Smith, who has forgotten more about photographing Vermont than I’ll ever know. With Carol as a guide, I knew there would be many outstanding photo opportunities that day, and I wasn’t even slightly disappointed, as we visited one great location after another.

But there was one thing Carol couldn’t control: the weather. For the first half of the day, we constantly battled drizzle and occasionally dealt with wind. It wasn’t ideal, but we persevered and definitely made the most of it.

One of the locations we visited that day was Lake Willoughby, a relatively large body of water, enveloped by the Willoughby State Forest, not far from West Burke. The lake runs mostly north-south, and State Route 5A hugs its eastern shore.

The South Beach area–located, appropriately, at the southern tip of the lake, is a popular, and highly scenic, spot from which to photograph Lake Willoughby, and we dodged occasional rain drops and dealt with low-hanging clouds, as we sized up the location.

With a couple of boats moored offshore and a series of buildings clinging to the eastern shoreline, the composition came together for me fairly quickly. The question was whether to render the scene in color–the obvious and conventional choice, particularly during fall color season, or monochrome?

It was a decision I had a difficult time making…so difficult, in fact, that I never really made it at all. The argument in favor of the color version is obvious–there’s color, so use it. The monochrome option is a bit more subtle, but essentially revolves around the notion that a significant boost in contrast is much easier to accept with a black and white rendering than with color, and–despite the implicit lack of color–makes the frame, especially, but not limited to, the sky, pop.

The mood of the two images is quite different, I think. I present both here, for your consideration. Thoughts on a preference? Keep in mind that it’s subjective.

Lake Willougbhy, Orleans County, Vermont
Lake Willougbhy Black & White, Orleans County, Vermont


  1. Both images are lovely!!

    • Thanks very much!

  2. I prefer the color version. In my opinion, the buildings get lost in the monochrome scene because they aren’t significantly different in tone from the hillside. In the color version, they stand out because of the difference in their color from the foliage behind them. I think giving the buildings more presence improves the overall balance in the image. Both are lovely, but you asked for a preference.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Ellen.

  3. I agree with Ellen — the graphic elements in this image are a bit subtle for monochrome. The image really needs the colors of foliage and buildings to make the eye keep moving around the image. With the color image, my eye goes first to the white building, then the other buildings, then counter-clockwise up through the foliage, around through the soft clouds and down to the boat and water, finally ending (briefly) on the rocks in the foreground. With the mono version, my eye doesn’t see a clear path through the comp and it doesn’t work nearly as well. My $0.02 since you asked… Interesting exercise and fun!

    • Thanks for taking the time to offer an opinion, and for providing a rationale, Steve.

  4. With the tonal values, the black and white photo is quite pleasing. I like the lines pointing to the left and stopped by the vertical lines of the boats. The complimentary colours make the first photo work for me a little better and believe the mist is more noticeable as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jane.

  5. Hi Kerry. I remember that day well, and I actually have a photo I shot at Lake Willoughby that day matted and framed and hanging in my house. I’ve probably taken nearly 100 shots from there, but the weather that day provided a drama that I really liked. Although your monochrome image is nice, I do prefer the moody original color photo.

    • Thanks, Carol. I was hoping to chime in, as you were present when the image was made, giving you a unique perspective.

  6. The day surely posed problems. The haze on the hillside is especially problematic. I’m a lover of form and structure, so the monochrome version hit it for me. After looking at this image in Lightroom and consulting the histogram exposing to the right would have reduced the haze and brought out the ripples on the water so that we could appreciate the rhythm of the day.


    • Thanks.

      Merely as a point of clarification, this image WAS exposed to the right at point of capture. You’re reviewing data for a tiny JPEG produced form a postprocessed rendition of the original image, which was a raw capture. The histogram of the version of the image that you downloaded tells you very little of value about the exposure properties of the original capture.

  7. Kerry, I like them both but the subtle colors of the first are so appealing and add layers of depth to the overall image, my favorite.

    • Thanks very much, Lynn.

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