Black and White Photography: Why? When You Can Shoot Color, What’s the Point?

How To  /  Photography
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Today marks the debut of our occasional series on the art of black and white photography as shown and told by Jim Love, former darkroom denizen, and current resident channeler of Ansel Adams.

Welcome. I’m Mylio’s UX Director, but I shoot black and white landscapes when I get away from the office. It’s a more constructive excuse to get outside than Pokémon Go …for me anyway, since all I seem to catch are Rattata.

My love for black and white began when I first saw Ansel Adams’ prints up close. After studying commercial photography at Art Center in Pasadena, I later attended a workshop taught by John Sexton in 1985. John had worked alongside Ansel in his lab for most of the prior decade. He showed us Ansel’s lab with its monstrous horizontal enlarger. Neato! More importantly, he brought out some of Ansel’s negatives and straight contact prints, which are without dodges and burns, in order to see how the technical work and the creative artistry were woven together. Persevering in my own lab, I became a wizard in the mystical ways of film, photo paper, and arcane chemistry, requiring no small measure of luck and bottle of selenium. But when digital cameras came of age, I jumped ship.

I don’t miss the smell of my lab nor fumbling with film in a changing bag (points if you know how to feel the difference between a sheet of Plus-X Pan and a sheet of Tri-X Pan without looking). I do, however, feel like the same photographer I’ve always been even though my process is completely digital. How is this possible? Although the tools have changed, I’m still guided by the same principles…the very same principles I’m going to impart to you through this blog, if you can stand it.

A great photograph is one that enables you to perceive something. Some photos tell stories, some transport you to another place, most evoke a feeling of some kind. It’s that emotional connection we’re after when we create a photo.

Jim Love Black and White Landscape: Mount St. Helens Midday, 2016
Mount St. Helens Midday (2016). Photo by Jim Love

As human animals we evolved to emotionally react to certain visual stimuli. An artist speaks to the viewer with the understanding for how we react to colors, and uses them to achieve a desired effect. Warm colors are comforting while cool colors keep us awake and alert, probably because the Earth’s sky is blue and a lot of blue in your eyes signals the start of another day and another opportunity to hunt or gather food. The warm light of a campfire signals your brain that it’s time for rest and conservation of energy. Reds get our adrenalin pumping. Many venomous insects and reptiles have red markings, some poisonous plants have red berries or flowers. But most likely, the reason we react strongly to red is because our blood is red. Even now as well as in our evolutionary past, seeing your own blood is a signal that something has gone terribly wrong. Red is widely used for warning signs and important alerts from road signs to software and dashboard idiot lights because the designers want you to feel a strong and urgent connection to the information they want you to receive.

A color photograph is full of information. Not only is the light in the scene modeling the form of the subject, but the colors are speaking to primitive parts of our brain. Often the photo can be giving us competing messages. We may be perceiving the beautiful delicate nature of a flower, but reacting intensely to its color. The artist will not always find this desirable in their work. When we compose a photograph, we create a scene in which we are the tour guide, leading the viewer around the image on a specific path… if we’re doing it right.

Intense colors can be misleading and cause to viewer to stray from our intended path. Stripping away color forces the artist and the viewer to focus only on shape and form without the additional element of color.

I like to think of a color photo as two pieces of music playing at the same time. The two songs can often play well together, but I often prefer to listen to one song at a time.

There’s another consideration, too. The most impactful photos tend to be ones that show a scene differently from the way we normally perceive it. Since our eyes see in color, when we see something in black and white can be much more interesting, calling your attention to details you might have otherwise overlooked.

As an experienced black and white photographer, I can say that creating good black and white images is a challenge. It’s a different way of seeing and specific techniques are employed to create impactful pieces. For me, some of the most amazing work I’ve seen by other photographers has been in black and white. I urge you to take a little time (a quick Google image search) to appreciate the works of Ansel Adams, John Sexton, Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jerry Uelsmann, and Jay Dussard. There’s a deeper truth to black and white that is bold and raw for having stripped away the distractions of color.