Black and White Photography – Pictures for the Imagination

A very personal view of black and white photography.

This article is based on an online talk on black and white photography I gave to Kelso Camera Club in November 2020. As well as writing up the talk itself, I’ve linked back to previous articles on this website, expanding on some of the points I covered.

Why bother with black and white photos?

This article is more about my personal voyage of discovery into the world of black and white photography rather than a survey of other photographers. Neither is it going to be a technical how-to piece although I do mention some of the processing strategies I use.

Colour is everything

Just about everything is in colour these days. After all, we see in colour, most of us – the whole of the visible spectrum. Colour is just considered more realistic. Anyway black and white (apparently) makes a picture look old and old-fashioned.

The only reason black and white works is because of the history of photography. You probably wouldn’t set out to create desaturated pictures if they hadn’t already been invented.

So why bother? There must be some mitigating factors!

Guiding the viewer

Most of all, black and white helps me direct your gaze in the direction I want it to go. So right now you’ll be looking at those mellow autumnal orange leaves and nice warm tones. You might even be following the lane into the distance. But that’s not what I want you to be looking at.

Move the slider over: what stands out more now? The different shades of orange merge into a single grey tone. Other things begin to stand out. You start to take in the drama of the converging lines of the tree branches half silhouetted against the sky, none of which you’ll have really registered in the colour version.

And that’s the power of black and white in a nutshell. Draw attention to the shapes and lines and away from the blocks of colour.

Now, not every colour picture (or every scene you see in colour through your viewfinder) works in monochrome so the other thing I want to talk about is how I recognise a suitable subject for monochrome pictures. Most of my current images are landscapes in the widest sense of the word with some architectural and people shots but the key messages should transfer to just about any genre of photography.

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