Black and White as a Photographic Medium

1. Cameras  2. Ghost town  3. Kamloops fence & hills  4. Quick turn at the rodeo  4.Chuck the rooster  5. Flower  6. Bailea  7. Monica  8. Church lantern  9. Headwaters

Lois Lane, Kelowna

Black and White as a Photography  has always been my favourite photographic medium. I recall when I first began pointing my camera at different subjects, and started making photographic prints, that I didn’t think too much of colour photography. Yes, colour was fine for documentary work as found in “National Geographic” magazine, or making snapshots of some family, but in the 1970s creative photographers seemed to be working in black and white, not colour.

Photojournalist Ted Grant, who is regarded as Canada’s premier living photographer wrote,

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”

Black and white photographs always (and still do in my opinion) seem to create moods and convey an almost tactile quality.

During the period of film photography, photographers had to decide whether their subject would look best in black and white print film, colour print film or slide film and most photographers trudged around with at least two camera bodies weighing them down. However, today that decision to make a black and white image is best left to the computer and some exciting post-production software. And there is no need pack around another camera. (Well, unless one is worried about camera failure.)

Thankfully post-production is no longer contained to dedicated, darkened rooms. I still have an 11×11 foot room in our basement, complete with a six-foot stainless steel sink and custom cabinets. However, it’s mostly used to store photo equipment and for washing my chickens’ eggs. Now my lab is on the main floor of our home and instead of chemicals, the image and print production has become an intricate combination of computer programs, quality printers, and papers that easily rivals the quality of chemical-based, traditional, black and white photography.

A black and white photograph depends on its ability to communicate, it doesn’t need to rely on eye-catching colours for its’ visual presentation. Those B&W images that stand and pass the test of time combine attention to subtle changes in light, composition, and perspective. And it stretches our creativity and forces us to visualize our world in different terms. I remember a photographer once saying that he believed shooting in B&W refined one’s way of seeing. And I heartily agree.

In spite of the many modern photographers that don’t bother with anything more than just accepting what comes out of their camera, black and white photography is far from being left behind in the past, and, in my opinion, with the current processing software, updates in high quality printers, and the latest in printing papers, black and white image-making will continue to be an option for a host of serious creative photographers.

Those photographers that are good at black and white photography learn to exploit the differences in tonal elements in a scene and present viewers with successful B&W portrayals that make excellent use of shapes, textures, light and shadow, and the loss of those original colours becomes irrelevant.

For those that haven’t tried monochromatic (another word applied to B&W) image making, I will mention that it is easier than ever. Most digital cameras have a black and white mode available in the menu. I don’t really like using that, as it does nothing more than de-saturate an images colour data file, excluding control of the different tonal values that make up a black and white image. I suggest trying one of the many great programs available on the Internet that can be downloaded to test for free. Who knows, you might, like I do, really like black and white photography.

Readers by now must know how much I like quotes from famous photographers. So I’ll finish this up with some words from a turn of the century fashion and commercial photographer, Paul Outerbridge: “One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.”

I welcome any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

14 responses to “Black and White as a Photographic Medium

  1. I love the moods that B&W photographs portray, I try to do some myself now and then but I look at the result versus my colour version, and nearly always opt for the colour!! I’ve just bought a B&W film for my polaroid, to try ad address my shortcomings, and am inspired by your post now too.

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    • Polaroid? cool. But shooting with your digital, then converting that image to B&W with a program like NIKsoftware’s SilverEFX or with some of the neat presets in Onone software’s stable will give you so much more control. Still, shooting with a Polaroid should be lots of fun.

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  2. Hello John,
    Thanks again for a very informative articles and the beautiful images. The lantern on the wall (image #9) conveys the mood of a late fall afternoon; very restful. I love the last image: the Superman sign drew me right in. My thoughts were if I loved antiques and had a bundle of cash I would have bought the sign for sure and maybe the baby carriage. The staircase is very inviting too. It makes you wonder what other treasures are hidden up there. Funny you would publish this article. I trialed the NIK collection package (14 days free) and I loved it so much that I bought it. Yesterday I used one of the programs (plug in) on one of my photos and converted it to a monocromatic one. It is a side of photography I never tried before. It is very interesting.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Diane. I too like the “lantern on the wall”. The light and shadow were so interesting I couldn’t help but point my camera in that direction. Take a trip to Kelowna and you can photograph the Superman sign. The location is called “Lois Lane”. Gosh, you are going to have fun with the NIK collection, I use it’s programs as much as Photoshop.

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  3. I think it is much easier to have B/W photo today with digital camera compare to when it was film.

    I can shoot in B/W on my camera and make some adjustment directly on my cam like applying filter, brightness but I have to say it is more complicated than taking a color photo in a software and processing it in black and white

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    • Yes Nelson, you can use the B&W feature on your digital camera, but the control over the tonal values in an image is almost worthless. Photoshop or better yet SilverEFX will bring the image life.

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  4. So true. For beginners, the monochrome option in camera is a good start, but I agree wholeheartedly with shooting in RAW, and processing on a large screen computer. There are nuances you don’t appreciate in a phone app.

    And consider the depth of emotion in holding a black and white photo, compared to looking at a computer screen. I’ve bought 2 cameras this year. An Olympus trip 35 and a Leica M3.

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    • I was waiting…for a comment from you Lignum Draco. I am so aware how adroitly you use B&W in your images. You used the word “nuances” and think that is a word the aptly discusses a B&W image vs Colour.
      You purchased “An Olympus trip 35 and a Leica M3”? Gosh, what a difference.

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  5. John, I love your perspective, and man do I ever like your b&w photography! You’re a master. Look forward to more of your b&w work.

    When you’re next in Kelowna please let me know for a coffee. Cheers! Giovanni

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    • Thanks for your comments Giovanni. Glad you liked my b&w work. I have been working in Kelowna a lot lately. Just got home tonight after 4 days. And I will be heading back tomorrow for another overnighter- Tuesday 23rd and Wednesday 24th.

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  6. The flower and Girl with Hat stand out for me……..
    Great post John, I should give some of the conversion plug-ins another go (I just found Channel Mixer easier) especially in CS6 with all the sliders.
    Does not keep me from the darkroom though – so much fun.

    David.

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