Making A Conversion

A professional landscape photographer tells why and how using advanced capabilities in software can give new life to color images by converting them to black-and-white
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Whenever the terms "black-and-white" and "landscape photography" are mentioned in the same sentence, most of us conjure up the dramatic work of Ansel Adams or perhaps Edward Weston. Along with several other photographers, Adams and Weston formed the ƒ/64 group in the early 1930s and set the aesthetic standard for American photography for years to come.

At the same moment in time that Adams and his colleagues were mastering the art of black-and-white photography in the ’30s, Kodak and Agfa introduced the first modern color transparency film. It may come as a surprise to the general public that Adams began working with color photography soon thereafter and made more than 3,000 color images during his career. He was the consummate experimenter, always seeking new ways to capture his subjects on film. He stated on many occasions that he felt color was the future of photography and that he had no hostility toward it.

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It took many years, however, for color to replace black-and-white as an accepted form of fine-art landscape photography. As color began to dominate the field, black-and-white receded into the background. But just as radio didn’t disappear when television came on the scene, black-and-white was always there and more recently has made a big comeback with the advent of digital technology. While purists still may argue that using digital technology to convert a color image into black-and-white is somehow cheating, most people familiar with the career of Ansel Adams would likely agree that if he was in his prime today, he’d have the latest version of Photoshop installed on his computer and he’d spend more time developing images on his computer than in his darkroom. And as a consummate experimenter, he’d surely explore the realm of color-to-black-and-white conversions.

The extraordinary prints produced by Adams during his career weren’t simply a direct reproduction of what he captured on film. Capturing the image was only the first step in his workflow. Once he entered the darkroom, he spent hours dodging and burning to achieve the exact effect he wanted. That was simply his era’s version of image manipulation. While he employed analog techniques, we have an entirely new toolbox of digital tools at our fingertips.

When I first ventured into landscape photography, I concentrated much of my attention on the surreal landscapes of the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. If there was ever a location for which color film was invented, this was it. Looking back at the evolution of color landscape photography in America, the vivid colors found in this region probably acted as a catalyst for many early landscape photographers to make the switch to color film. Although I experimented with black-and-white capture early in my career, once I began to focus my attention on landscape photography, I couldn’t imagine not using color film. Even before the days of Photoshop, I knew that I could always produce an acceptable black-and-white print from color film if I wanted one. I simply didn’t want to take the chance of missing a dramatic color scene because I was shooting in black-and-white.

7 Comments

    Great article and examples. Your points about Ansel are, in my opinion, right on the money. He’d be Photoshop burning and dodging as much as anyone which must stick in the craw of those “as it comes from the camera” crowd. Todays DSLR’s also allow shooting in monotone RAW to present a monotone image on the LCD while capturing all of the color information if needed. A great tool for perfecting the art of capturing black & white.

    It seems that the article goes on but no way to continue. It nice to know that B+W is still an important aspect of landscape photography, but conversions can be done i a number of ways and it would have been nice to learn about some of them.

    Oh, I don’t THINK so. The world was made in gorgeous color. While I admire and appreciate Ansel Adams’ black and white photography, and realize that he had limitations and turned the medium into an art form anyway, unless you ARE Ansel Adams, there is a good chance you won’t duplicate his level of artistry and skill. Your two examples show why converting color to black and white simply doesn’t work. The B&W versions are dull and flat. Lifeless. It is especially criminal to turn a gorgeous color photo of a landscape into B&W. I rage at the computer screen when I see all the black and white photos in online galleries that would have been absolutely stunning in color, even if they have SOME merit as presented.

    Yes, Black & White should be used only if color does not tell the story of the shot well. I use black & white in landscape shots when there are abundance of certain elements, blk&wht helps bring some elements out that color can not do. I agree the examples above do not justice to evading color.

    I agree with the article’s premise: color can certainly distract from the shapes and texture of nature. That said, in some natural settings, the color is necessary for the mood/story. That said #2: one cannot always take a crappy color image and turn it into a good B&W, as the examples illustrate. Too bad better examples were not used..

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