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Why Choose Black And White Photography

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

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.

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