About Black and White Photographs

Sax player

Cups and a mirror



Bronc rider



Sentinal after the fall

One of the fun things I like about photography is the endless conversations I get to have with both long time and beginning photographers, as they explore and re-explore this exciting medium. Last week I talked to photographers that wondered if reverting back to film would help them become more creative. And in the past few days more than one person has stopped by wanting to talk about converting their images to black and white.

When I started out with photography I spent most of my time shooting with B&W. I studied Ansel Adams’ books on his zone system, and Richard Zakia’s writings on tone control, and I read or looked at everything I could find to understand black and white photography and printmaking.

I began to understand exposure as of shades of grey, and got used to thinking about the subjects I photographed in tonal values instead of only bright colours. I remember a trick that one of my photography instructor’s suggested for those students that had trouble “seeing” contrast. He said we should “squint down to f/16 when we looked a subject”. I expect other students on campus wondered about the camera-toting students squinting up at the college’s clock tower after class.

I learned to previsualize, and as I selected my subject I would think about how I would process the film and make the final print. I might adjust the exposure rating and developing, as with the Zone system, and select different papers and alternate chemicals to change contrast or tonal values in the final print. Nowadays I do the same, but think about what I will need to do to enhance my image file with Photoshop.

Modern cameras capture images in colour, but that doesn’t mean we can’t previsualize the outcome; and converting a RAW colour file is really easy with programs like Photoshop, and my favourite, Silver EFex Pro. Converting that image to B&W stretches our creativity and forces us to visualize our world in different terms.

A black and white image is a matter for the eye of the beholder, the intuition, and finally the intellect. Of course colour is all that, but much of the time it seems photographers, overwhelmed by colour, just push the shutter seeing nothing deeper in a scene than the colours. 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.

Black and white images don’t attract with a play of colours. To me they are subtle and make viewers think about the picture. The B&W image demands close attention to composition, lighting, perspective, and the context in which the image is shot

A 1950s photographer named Paul Outerbridge, once said, “In black and white you suggest. In color you state.”   And I remember another photographer saying that he believed shooting in B&W refined one’s way of seeing.

I am of the belief that 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 B&W image making, converting an image is really easy with programs like Photoshop and Silver Efex. Readers will find a new way of displaying work. Black and white will have readers visualizing the world in new and creative ways and who knows, like me I expect they will enjoy black and white photography.


I look forward to comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

9 responses to “About Black and White Photographs

  1. I enjoyed this post on black and white photography and the photos, too. I shot black and white film for years but I usually carried a spare camera body for color slide film. I probably shot a ratio of 10:1 (b&w:color). I was lucky in that I had a very nice darkroom I which to print. Like many other photographers, I believed a good print was the crowning achievement for a successful photo.


    • I remember the days of carrying two (or three) cameras, each loaded with a different film type. For weddings B&W and colour. Vacation, B&W and slides…oh, and then there was Infrared film that needed another body!!!! How did we survive?
      I still have a room that once was my darkroom. The vents, light sockets for safelights and the custom made cabinet with a stainless steel six foot sink are all still there. Now its my private camera “stuff” room. Oh, and that expensive sink is handy for washing eggs.
      I really like your words, “I believed a good print was the crowning achievement for a successful photo.” Well said! and thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.


      • I don’t have a ss sink but I do have a 7 foot plastic sink and a working 11×14 archival print washer in excellent condition. I miss the darkroom but I feel I’ve made my last print.


  2. Great post, John. I recently took a class and one assignment was to shoot in the monochrome setting in camera. (Which, by the way, I learned that you have to shoot RAW and JPEG pairs in the monochrome setting or the RAW will go back to color in post)
    When I shoot, I often see a scene in B&W even though I am shooting in color and then convert using Silver Efex. Shooting in monochrome in camera, however, was a valuable exercise. Your posts always give me food for creative thought. Thanks.


    • Thanks Jane, Ya know…I have never bothered with the monochrome feature of any camera I have had. I’ll have to try that someday.
      Like you, I am always thinking how a particular subject will look in B&W.
      I am glad you liked this subject and I appreciate that you took the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I taught photography I would sometimes use a 35mm polaroid film product that only allowed 12 shots. I’d send students out and they would return, use a little single roll processor and mount their B&W positive images and we’d project them.
        Gosh, now an instructor must require learners to shoot B&W. We were restricted to what ever film we had. And would carry multiple cameras, one with B&W, one with colour and one with slides. Ain’t digital wonderful!!!!!!!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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