If you scan back to previous OP Tips of the Week and return to July 6, 2015, you'll find my Tip Of The Week entitled, “In the Mood: The Psychology of Color.” It’s based on the ancient European and Asian medicinal practice called Chromotherapy. It uses color as a healing method. It’s proven that specific colors evoke given psychological moods. The idea behind Chromotherapy is to introduce given colors to patients based on their ailments. In that colors alter the way the mind works, a color is shown to the patient that’s supposed to “alter” the mind and, in turn, heal the viewer. Go back to the article and give it a read as I gave the concept of Chromotherapy a definitive photograph twist.
The article generated a lot of traffic and many Facebook Likes. I also received many personal emails relative to its contents. The reason for revisiting the above stems from one response I received from a photographer friend. What he brought up intrigued me so much I decided to focus this week’s Tip of the Week on his thoughts. In his email he stated, “I have seen many photos that, while looking great, seem to step up a couple of notches when converted to B&W. Many times, I will look at a photo and, just for fun, hit Silver Effects Pro. Something about that conversion and the shades of grey and black-and-white seem to change the mood as well as the whole viewing experience.” John—Thanks for sending those words and for planting a seed for the following: While viewing a B&W image may not cure a stomachache, what is it about a B&W image that evokes mood?
B&W imagery reduces a scene to shades of gray. In color photography, there are warm tones, cool tones and neutral tones. A magnitude of colors and hues make up each category. Each color and hue evokes given feelings and is associated with given stereotypes. In B&W, it’s much more simple. Black is synonymous with evil, mourning, darkness, etc. White elicits purity, virginity, innocence, happiness, etc. Gray conjures up specific feelings based on how dark or light the gray appears. Given the above, let’s see if I can answer John’s question.
First off, it’s nice to see a resurgence of interest in B&W. I can’t count the number of hours, days, weeks and years I spent in the darkroom. I logged a lot of education, smiles, listened to great music and built a foundation for Photoshop while locked away in my basement. I even created a few wall hangers perfecting contrast, paper grades, cardboard cutouts to darken or lighten parts of an image and some basic chemistry conjuring up different formulas for film and print developers.
The masters of B&W, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier Bresson and numerous others all proved that mood can be evoked in a print. Be it through print technique, light, subject matter, the decisive moment or more, every print they created conveyed a feeling. Color was stripped and never got in the way. As a matter of fact, when color was introduced into the movie industry, directors and cinematographers had to change the way movies were created and lit because vibrant, warm or cool colors generated distractions. When movies/stills are colorless, it all comes down to the light—contrast, brightness, shadows, highlights etc. are critical. I constantly profess, “It’s All About The Light.” As you can begin to see, light creates mood. With B&W, when the light is right, it’s the mood that captures the viewer’s eye and holds it captive.
Let’s look at a few scenarios:
The Mood of Fog: Fog reduces the majority of tones to shades of gray. This is especially true as it recedes into the background. The layers that are created become brighter and brighter. To create mood in a B&W, include a dark toned foreground element and get close to it. In that fog doesn’t impact subjects close to the lens, these compositional pieces will be rendered darker. Ominous dark to mysterious receding gray is a classic recipe for mood.
Dramatic Clouds: On the edges of a storm, dramatic skies appear. They are associated with dark gray to thunderhead white formations. Think about the contrast of these tones. The contrast causes mood, hence the emotional impact of a B&W photo. Mix in a bit of clearing blue and by darkening just the blues in Silver Efex Pro, skies explode with drama.
Emphasize Textures: Think about a classic sand dune shot recorded in B&W. The highlight and shadow side of every ripple creates a patchwork of light and dark leading lines. The contrast screams out mood. If a composition is created where the lines lead to a towering dune, yucca or mountain peak, a bold and dynamic photo is constructed.
High Key / Low Key: High key imagery is dominated by light tones. Low key is dominated by dark tones. Within each, if an opposite toned counter point it introduced, it becomes a key focal point. For instance, a high key portrait of a pretty lady with a dark flower in her hair is a great example. The dark flower becomes a small counter point but a key component of contrast, mood and feeling.
A primary reason why a B&W photograph has high emotional impact is when a photo is made or converted to B&W, it makes you study the image as opposed to giving it a once-over glance. Nowadays, the world is so tuned into color, a glance is all that most photos receive. B&W forces the viewer to analyze the image. When color is reduced to shades of gray, lines, shapes, forms, textures and most importantly, CONTRAST, become the primary elements. Color is no longer a “distraction.” I leave you with this thought: a rainbow in B&W doesn’t have the same impact. Some subjects require color, but many don’t. Those that don’t are great candidates for B&W conversion.
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