World Seen in Black and White

This page is a collection of thoughts on the basics of photographing the world in B&W. It is by no means meant to be a definitive guide on ‘how to do B&W photography’, but I have come to the conclusion that there are certain things that are worth reflecting on and, yet, are not much discussed. It might well be that some, or all, of it is self evident to others, but it wasn’t to me, so perhaps it might help someone else. (My observations are mostly drawn from photographing natural landscapes, but much of it is, I think, fairly broadly applicable.)

The Naturalness of Monochrome

In today’s 24/7 world of street lights and ubiquitous light pollution, many of us are rarely exposed to natural darkness and this somewhat obscures from us the fact we don’t always see in colour. But in evolutionary terms much of human seeing was done in low light conditions, and hence, thanks to how the human eye works, entirely in monochrome. Indeed, in existential terms, our ability to see in low light has, until very recently, been of the utmost importance.

As a consequence our brains are extremely well adjusted to this task, and that also means that the brain has certain expectations about how the world should look when portrayed in monochrome. As photographers we deviate from those expectations at our own risk.

This is particularly acute when working with digital technologies, because things like the extensive possibilities to manipulate the colour channels during the B&W conversion make it possible to create images that depart widely from how the human eye sees; my observation has been that such images can be quite striking at an initial glance (the unexpectedness registers), but are often unsatisfactory, for hard to quantify reasons, as the eye lingers.

One of the common tropes in contemporary B&W photography that I think also falls into this category, is excessive micro contrast. This arises out the general preference of the day for high contrast imagery, coupled with excessive use of the clarity and sharpening sliders; I’d go as far to say that this is one of the hallmarks that often makes it easy to differentiate between digital and analogue B&W imagery (it is not that analogue photography is immune to this, e.g., to too much acutance in negative development, but it takes a bit more effort to achieve).

The problem with excessive micro contrast is that it tends not to occur naturally in scenes lit by a large light source. The place where this is perhaps most striking, and most jarring, is in the rendering of clouds. While clouds in nature have a wide range of luminosities from super bright whites to shades of near black, the cloud mass itself doesn’t exhibit high micro contrast (i.e., you pretty much never get both black and white in a small area), for the simple reason that clouds are essentially diffusing filters lit by a very large (i.e., soft) light source.

The Supremacy of Structure

Whereas colour is interesting to our brain in its own right (for it’s a critical means of identifying things, even things we can’t see clearly), the grey scale is not; it is just a reflection of how much light there is, and carries no useful information that would be independent of the rest of the scene. The critical information in our monochrome perception of the world is structure — lines, shapes, boundaries.

What that means for the B&W photographer is that a scene that lacks clear structure is very difficult to make a compelling (B&W) photograph of; a helpful starting point for a monochrome photograph is, therefore, to query what and where the structural elements are. And we need to be honest with ourselves: there are many types of scenes that are unsuitable for, i.e., cannot be done justice to by, monochrome photography.

But the other side of that coin is that where structure is the dominant feature of a scene, a B&W photograph can capture the essence of it in a far more compelling way than a colour one, for colour is always a powerful distraction. This, I think, is why B&W imagery has an enduring appeal even in a world that can display colour exceptionally well.

There is another consequence of B&W photographs being all about structure — compelling monochrome images can be made in a much wider range of light conditions than when working with colour, for while structure is typically a physical property of the scene, colour is merely a capacity to reflect light, which means it’s not there when the light is not.

Naught but Texture and Luminosity

The are only two expressive elements in a monochrome photograph: texture and luminosity. If the structures of the scene, and the photographer’s overall intent, cannot be encoded in terms of changes of texture and luminosity, the photograph will not work — I think an ability to judge this is one of the more essential skills for any monochrome photographer to develop, for both of them are rather slippery things to judge.

Our perception of texture seems to be quite closely tied to, and exaggerated by, our perception of colour. It took me a while to appreciate that natural textures in a landscape, particularly those associated with vegetation, are often very similar, and only appear clearly distinct to me because of different colours. If a structural element in my imagining of the photograph relies on such textures, it might be completely absent when looking later at the negative.

Luminosity is also quite difficult to judge by the naked eye, and it is also often confused with colour. One of the defining elements of typical winter Scottish landscape is the contrast between greens and oranges, but as it turns out these have very similar luminosity levels. When working in digital this can often be addressed easily enough by manipulating the colour channels during the conversion, but the options for the analogue photographer are limited to lifting out a single colour by a relatively small amount through the use of a colour filter, which might, or might not, be enough. The only way to assess this is to use a spot meter through the filter (which makes both colour filters and a spot meter an essential tool for B&W analogue photography).

Black and White Thinking

The above observations lead to the necessary conclusion that the chances of producing a compelling B&W photograph are much improved by thinking of the scene in B&W terms from the start. It is fairly apparent that many of today’s B&W photographs are merely attempts to save an unsatisfactory colour image from deletion, and it shows. It is not that one could not produce a good B&W image from a colour one after the fact, but I do not think it works that often. Clyde Butcher, arguably one of the greater living B&W landscape photographers, in a recent, worth to listen to, interview by Matt Payne, goes as far as to assert that one has to make a choice between B&W and colour, for a photographer cannot do both well at the same time. Some might feel this to be an overstatement, but I suspect he is not far off the mark, they are two very different games for sure.