When is Black and White Right?

The earliest photographs I remember seeing were all black and white. For many photographers, in the film era, black and white was the simplest way to go as developing your film was much easier, with black and white, than with colour, film. Black and white has long been a favourite of mine and is still hugely popular even in the digital era. A question I often get asked is when do you shoot in black and white? As usual there’s no single right answer. I always shoot in colour regardless of my plans for processing. Capturing the initial image in colour gives you more digital information to work with when processing your images. Unless of course you can afford a camera like the Phase 1 Achromatic Camera that is designed specifically to capture a monochrome image. I can’t so I shoot my images in colour and convert to black and white during processing of the photographs. 

One condition that works well for black and white is high contrast scenes like the one above. The morning sun hitting the snow covered pines created areas of bright highlights while the shadow areas, in the back of the forest, were much darker. Shooting with black and white in mind can allow you to shoot right through the middle of the day if you choose your scenes carefully. Look for interesting skies, avoid shooting into the sun in afternoon images, and seek out scenes that have high contrast. Long exposures can create more interesting moods particularly if you have rough water or fast moving clouds.

The image you see above was shot just a few minutes before noon on a breezy day. The rough waters on the lake decreased the chances of getting a nice reflection so I went for a long exposure to smooth out the water and create a bit more drama in the sky. The midday sun on the mountains, and trees, contrasted nicely with the shadow areas creating a scene that looks more dramatic in black and white. Often in high wind conditions you get some intriguing skies that can really benefit from the added impact of a black and white image. 

Above you can see some striking patterns created by high winds at the upper elevations. As always a good composition is crucial to creating a good black and white. In this image I used a leading line, as I have discussed in previous blogs, to pull the viewer into the image. The mountain, with it’s high contrast areas of snow and rock, is the first subject that grabs the viewers attention. The patterns in the sky are greatly exaggerated in the black and white version due to the increased contrast between the white cloud and blue sky creating a dramatic backdrop for the mountain. In this image there’s plenty of detail to keep the viewers eye busy. Scenes with lots of detail can make for a vivid black and white.

Afternoon light on Lake O’Brien, in Banff National Park, accentuated the detail in the scene making black and white a good choice for the image above. When processing a black and white watch for colour contrast, as well as dynamic range contrast, in an image. As you develop a black and white you can choose what colours you want to be more, or less, light sensitive in the image. In the scene above the bright orange of the autumn larch allowed me to add additional contrast in the forest creating the appearance of more detail for the eye to explore. Once again here I have utilized natural leading lines to pull the viewers eye into the scene. 

Another situation where black and white works well is when there is lots of haze, or in the case of the image above, forest fire smoke, that can add some mood to the image. The shot above was quite mediocre in colour but with some careful processing I was able to accentuate the old snag in the foreground bringing more focus to the scene. I use Capture 1 software to process all my images, black and white, or colour.  In my next blog I will delve a bit deeper into processing black and white images.