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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

Onlookers peer out at the stormy Pacific, Garrapata State Park, California.
The Joy Of Discovery
I find the most compelling argument for shooting black-and-white today is the way it allows photographers—and viewers of photos!—to explore some of the most basic elements of composition, texture and form. A color photographer often will rely on contrasting colors to create separation between elements within a frame. With black-and-white, we don't have that luxury. Instead, we consider contrasting light, simplistic negative spaces, textures, lines and shapes. Such rigorous concentration helps to expand our understanding of what we're shooting and what we're seeing.

Take, for example, an image of an elephant seal I photographed on California's Central Coast. Normally, I would find this animal's molting skin not only unattractive, but a feature I certainly wouldn't want to highlight in an animal that can be aesthetically challenged to begin with. Seen in black-and-white, however, I'm drawn to the incredible texture. And the molt's texture, coupled with the scarring on the animal's proboscis, creates an engaging set of patterns that keeps the viewer's eye moving throughout the frame. In a color shot, I might consider the molt and scars flaws, but without chromatic distractions, the image is transformed.

Black-and-white transforms a portrait of a molting elephant seal into an incredible study in texture, Año Nuevo State Park, California.
In an image of the southern end of Santa Cruz Island in California's Channel Islands National Park that I took from a dive boat as the sun was coming up, the horizon's brilliant yellow glow dominates the original. It exudes—and is all about—warmth. A black-and-white version offers an entirely different experience. The black-and-white story is all about the island and its arresting shape. My eye is drawn to the slopes and peaks of the island's topography, and I focus upon the silhouette instead of the glow from the sunrise. It's a completely different experience, and in many ways, a stronger one.

See Differently
With even these few examples, it's easy to understand how black-and-white can reveal different things to a photographer and viewer. As nature photographers, we can develop and use our ability to see in black-and-white to our advantage, expanding our aptitude for seeing the potential of what's in front of the lens. Color is the most obvious element of composition, but shape, line and texture can separate a nice picture from something that's truly special. Thinking in black-and-white will train your eye to spot the full potential of a landscape or a wildlife portrait.

The Zone System For The DSLR

Many black-and-white photographers use the Zone System made famous by Ansel Adams. The system enables us to control the process and produce prints that show precisely what we envisioned when the initial exposure was made.

The Zone System divides the tones in a black-and-white print into 11 major tones from the blackest black (Zone 0) through middle gray (Zone V) to paper-base white (Zone X).
If you expose according to a reflected light-meter reading, whatever you take the reading from will be placed on Zone V. You can move the metered subject up or down the tonal scale by giving more or less exposure than the meter reading suggests; the Zones are a stop apart from one another. When used with film, the Zone System also provides test procedures to determine the effective speed for the film in use, and to determine the degrees of development required to produce different degrees of contrast that move the higher Zones up or down the scale as the photographer's visualization of the photographed scene requires.

Digital imaging actually provides much more control over images, via controls in the camera, and especially in postprocessing. Image playback and histograms give the digital worker something the film shooter never had: instant feedback. Bear in mind, however, that the playback image and the histogram are based on camera-processed JPEG images, not the RAW data—even if you're shooting RAW.

I shoot with the hope that my work helps foster new appreciation for the outdoors and the natural world. One of the things I love about outdoor photography is the potential to reveal things that people normally don't get to see. And a scene's richest potential may lie beyond the obvious. So I believe it's my job—our job, really—to keep looking at nature in new and different ways that expose the depth and richness of both the image and of nature itself. Sometimes black-and-white is just the ticket!

Jason Bradley is a nature and underwater photographer based in Monterey, California. His passion for photography extends to all kinds of subjects, but he's happiest and most in his element focusing on coastal habitats and ecosystems. You can see more of his work at www.bradleyphotographic.com.


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