Photography for most of us has for some time been mostly about colors, myself included. Ever since I studied under and then worked with Galen Rowell I’ve learned how to find color in the mountains; from alpenglows to floral and geologic combinations, to the jackets that people wear to complement the land…. Nothing wrong with that, Georgia O’Keefe called herself a colorist. We’ve all enjoyed the amazing developments in color technologies, to the point now that we expect every local newspaper and brochure to feed us in color. But this year I’ve started to work selected images in black and white, and it’s opening my eyes anew.
Our first reaction to the idea of black and white photography is that it’s classic, a style from the past. I don’t mind that message, but quickly I’ve relearned how looking at color files and the colored world around me for the black and white structures within is a path to deeper seeing. When you look in black and white you see light and shadow in a purer form. And when you load a digital image onto your computer and take it to monochrome and it works in tones, you understand that color can be a distraction. By taking color away we see the image’s core design more clearly; the shape, form, light, shadows, and the texture of the subject come right up front. Good black and white is like a hidden story disclosed, a visual tale hidden within the color world we so easily take for granted now. When I work in monochrome I feel more like a craftsman, bringing out that hidden tale. Today we are surrounded by color imagery, and even when we see a great color photograph now we turn to seek the next almost as soon as we admire the first; in this context black and white photography can come forward as something special; it’s post-color art that draws our eye to look deeper and longer.
The better digital cameras also enable a new era of great black and white. I now use a Nikon D800e with my old Zeiss-Contax lenses. This system gathers as much resolution as a 4×5 film camera, and captures detail through a wider range of values than even black and white film. I turn selected RAW images to monochrome in my first stage of processing, using Iridient Developer software. The latitude for “burning and dodging” light and dark is pretty impressive.
Wide latitude or not, an image still is only as good as the moment of shutterclick. Composition and light on the subject will always define what you can and (and for me, what I want) to portray. From there, in digital monochrome you have wonderful latitude in lightening and darkening different parts of the image to strengthen the story. In color, to avoid unharsh hues and get pleasant colors you generally need to shoot at times of lower light, often morning or evening, when colors are not burned with contrast. But when you’re working with relative values, you might be able to shoot in the middle of a bright day, depending on the subject and your vision for light and shadow. The image here of Yosemite falls I took at about 2:30 in the afternoon, when the high sun cast across the falls and cliff in a way that brings out the breathtaking feel of the valley under the heat of a pleasant spring day in California’s backcountry. In color this image looks kind of baked; the hues are contrasty and they detract.
Feel free to comment and if you like any one or two of these images in particular let me know.
Spring Storm and Virga over Owens Valley, White Mountains