Seeing In Black And White

Exploring monochrome from a color photographer’s perspective
Morning mist at dawn, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016

Morning mist at dawn, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016

When you get to a certain age, one often looks back at events that shaped who you are, and how you got there. I am from the Baby Boomer generation, so forgive me for dwelling on the past for a moment here. I have been making many black-and-white images lately, and often while doing so, I’ve remembered a few of the key influences that have affected my explorations into monochromatic photography.

In college, I took two basic black-and-white photo courses in my university’s art department. My professor disliked Ansel Adams’s work, was not into “pretty” nature photography, and had a distain for color images. As a somewhat rebellious 21-year-old growing up in the 1970s, his opinions were a “perfect storm” for me to resist his efforts to guide my creative efforts away from what inspired me to photograph: wilderness and color imagery. The professor and I battled through our opposing viewpoints for those two semesters. I wanted to do color so badly that I started toning my black-and-white darkroom prints with a blue tint! Not a good look, but I was a stubborn redhead! The reason I made photographs was to record and share the natural beauty I was experiencing in wild places.

When it came to my final portfolio review, my professor decided to show me what he considered to be the masters of black-and-white, landscape-related photography. He pulled down a few books from his office shelf, and opened my eyes to the work of Wynn Bullock, Minor White and Edward Weston. I was deeply inspired by their images, and still am. Wanting to carve my own path, I wondered why I couldn’t create such magical nature images using color. I came out of that experience in college being more determined than ever to be a color landscape photographer, to create images with the magic and mystery of those masters. The power of their inspiration eventually guided me back to black and white in recent years.

Another major influence was when I worked as a staff photographer at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite for five years in the early 1980s. In 1983, I printed a portfolio of Cibachrome photographs and that box of prints was shown to Adams himself. If he approved of my work, the gallery would represent and sell my prints. Adams approved, I was thrilled and that seminal event encouraged me to continue my dream of making photography my life’s work. His key comment about my work was that I “see in black and white.” I never had the chance to question him about exactly what he meant as he passed away a few months later. From what was reported to me, I surmised that he felt that my images did not rely heavily on color, and that the compositions showed the strong graphic structure often needed for effective monochrome imagery.

Flash forward a few decades, I am still a color photographer primarily, but I have become a black-and-white artist as well. With my switch to digital capture, and the evolution of post-processing software, the creative options and control over the conversion process made black-and-white conversions irresistible to me.

Fern Springs, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016

Fern Springs, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016

I used Adobe Photoshop at first, and still do so to refine and make local adjustments. For the initial conversion, the primary tool I use is a Channel Mixer adjustment layer, with which one can adjust individual colors to refine or alter tonal separations for each image. For even more control over the tones in your conversion, you can add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer that works especially well to distinguish between similar tones, with this layer above the background layer, and the Channel Mixer as the top layer. Of course, for the master file, the layers remain unflattened when saving.

As Lightroom has evolved to be a more powerful tool, it has been my starting point for conversion. I use the Black and White panel’s Black and White Mix tool. Much like the Channel Mixer in Photoshop, you can adjust individual tones or mixture of the eight separate colors shown in the tool. The Target Adjustment Tool is very useful in both Photoshop and Lightroom to pick the specific area you want to change. Lightroom will pick the specific color combination that you click on. This works well for me as it provides a quick and efficient way to explore many options. Experimentation is key to creativity.

In terms of my workflow, I’ll make my conversion from a virtual copy of the file, tweak tones using the Mixer panel, then make global adjustments in Highlights and Shadows, etc. Although Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush is a powerful option, I am used to Photoshop’s options, especially for local masking, so I finish and save my files as PSDs.

Before I stared writing this article, I posted a general survey asking what preferences folks had for black-and-white conversion. Besides the Adobe products, Nik’s Silver Efex Pro has been a favorite of many and is now a free download from Google. Others preferred Topaz Lab’s B&W Effects. Another option comes from Macphun called Tonality. I tried it out and really liked the Layers option, which allow for local adjustments that can quickly be turned on and off to see the effects. Each software choice is powerful and provides presets that help you explore creative directions. Since I started out with Photoshop, and used Lightroom from its beginning, I am still more comfortable with those products, but I encourage you to explore all options.

Whatever your path in photography, creating images that connect you and your viewers with your experience is the ultimate goal. Black-and-white photographs by the masters resonated strongly with me as a college student, even though color was my main path. The digital conversion options for my captures, even for my scanned 4×5 film files, have given me a divergent path, an ongoing theme for my black-and-white landscape photography which I entitle “Meditations in Monochrome”. If the black-and-white spirit moves you, too, try out these software options and develop your own theme of monochromic landscapes.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.