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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Choose B&W

Creating a monochrome image lets you focus on form, texture, shape and composition

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Black-and-white adds a timeless, fine-art appeal to an image. In this photograph of the Santa Cruz Island, California, shoreline, the rich tonality and stripped-down palette work in tandem with a long exposure to produce a photo of otherworldly beauty.

We see and live in a world of color. That's how we've evolved, and it's the world that we know. Naturally, people gravitate to color photography like a kid to candy, attracted to images that pop with Disney-like vibrancy. Our affinity for color even can show up in our speech. We use the word "colorless" to describe a thing or an experience that's dull, tedious or boring. So, why shoot black-and-white when today's digital darkroom technology makes color management so easy?

A bridge in the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve along the Central Coast of California is made all the more surreal in black-and-white.
Black-and-white is timeless, but more than that, it transcends reality and transforms an image into a realm that isn't abstraction, but isn't reality either. A black-and-white image deconstructs a scene and reduces it to its forms and tones. Distracting colors are recast as subtle shades of gray that add to a composition—at least if the image has what it takes to be rendered in black-and-white.

Personally, I love good black-and-white images. In fact, as a viewer of photographs, I've been most moved by good black-and-white images that have broad tonal ranges and deep, rich blacks. There's something about them that just draws me in. I believe black-and-white has a strong place in today's photography, and I can see two clear reasons to experiment with such a "restricted" palette—it's easier than ever before, and it allows us to look at our subjects more deeply, expanding the possibilities of our photography.

RAW Files, And The New Golden Age Of Black-And-White
In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not opposed to color. In fact, I love my big-screen color television and color photography. But there are some subjects that are best revealed when we transform them into monochrome images.

A leatherback turtle hatchling returns to the sea, Las Baulas National Marine Park, Costa Rica.
For many, the days of Ansel Adams are remembered and revered as a time of high-art photography, and black-and-white imagery recalls a lost era of the craft. The tools have changed, but the same sense of craft endures. Instead of the wet darkroom with all the chemicals and mechanical tools, we have a digital version that makes black-and-white photography more accessible while maintaining the need to be a craftsman.

I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for my black-and-white conversions, and I'm often surprised how quickly I can produce dramatic results. I can produce black-and-white photos with deep tones and rich contrast in a matter of moments. Having that ability frees me to focus most of my efforts on finding a meaningful image.

What's also truly revolutionary about creating black-and-white today is that we do it using RAW files. If your first camera wasn't digital, you remember being forced to decide what film to put in your camera long before you hit the shutter. This was a big decision. But with RAW technology, we're liberated from such painful decisions at the point of capture. RAW converters allow us to decide after our shoot if we want the neutral or high-contrast look. Furthermore, we can create many, many black-and-white versions of the same file. We can create warm- and cool-toned versions or emulate films like Agfa Scala, Ilford HP5 or straight-up Kodak Panatomic-X. And with all the versions we can create while in our RAW converter environment, experimentation never alters the integrity of the original image file. You always can reset whenever you want. It never has been easier to experiment with all the different possibilities.


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