For better or worse, I am known for my color photographs. The great majority of them come in two flavors: both softly lit, warm-toned images made with the sun near the horizon, whether morning or evening, and bright, contrasty, saturated shots.
However, my roots have always been in Black & White. Like most of us “of a certain age,” when I began playing with photography as a kid, Black & White was the only show in town. My darkroom skills developed early, both in my parents’ only bathroom (less fun when my very frustrated father was banging on the door) and that of my friend Lou whose big Beseler enlarger rested on a thick sheet of plywood that covered the bathtub. His father was just as frustrated as mine at being denied access to his only bathroom.
Along the way, I learned about development, enhancing and reducing contrast, dodging, burning and related skills. These facets of image processing have now made their way from the wet to the digital darkroom. For those of us who learned the craft with our fingers in developer and fixer, the learning curve has perhaps been a bit easier, since we can more intuitively relate to the fundamental concepts.
Someone was once quoted as saying, “I like Black & White. Its only shortcoming is that it’s just so monochromatic.” Right. Got it.
Color is certainly great, but when viewing even an excellent color image, our primary visual impression is too often just the color. Look at some popular modern art. A great deal of it is made up of just sections of color which also serve as compositional elements.
When adjusting a bright, saturated color image file in the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel of ACR (Adobe Camera Raw), just for fun to see what it might look like, I often check the little box labeled ‘Convert to Grayscale.’ Somehow, I am always surprised at the low contrast and very uninspiring result. While there are surely much better means of performing this conversion, this one simple click can still provide a valuable insight.
Even though the colors make the original file appear eye catching and potentially successful, they are largely of medium reflectance, largely devoid of the contrast almost always necessary to attract the same degree of attention to a Black & White photograph.
On the other hand, when absent all color, an equally well executed Black & White photograph reveals a great deal more to the viewer. Here we get to better appreciate such aspects of the scene as form, line, highlight, shadow and texture. In this way, the true essence of the subject is often better expressed.
After having grown up on a steady diet of Ansel Adams’ high contrast Black & White prints, I was able to understand that part of the key to a successful image is employing the widest possible tonal gradation. The longevity of his iconic and haunting Half Dome with its virtually black sky made possible by not only his super-natural printing talents, but also his judicious use of a red filter, comes quickly to mind.
The mantra that I learned early on is, “Clean whites and rich blacks.”
Stick to that and you’ll rarely, if ever, go wrong.