Thursday Tips: A Lesson Relearned: The Black & White Counterpoint

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I’ve written about black and white photography on a couple of 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.

I mentioned, in my most recent guest posting here on 1001 Scribbles, that I’ve been slowly going through and reprocessing a huge number of old images as part of a long-overdue website reworking. Some of these images are more than a decade old and it’s been an interesting experience to revisit dated photo shoots, albeit vicariously.

In any event, going through this mass of material has reminded me of something that I learned a long time ago, but has 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.

Color photography is usually pretty unappealing in harsh, contrast 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 make often 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.

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).

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 this period of website work that I’ve been doing—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.”

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.

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.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.