Thursday, December 3, 2015

Black and White

A friend of mine asked what my thoughts were on shooting, seeing, in black and white. So, I've thought about this a fair bit, and here are my thoughts.

I don't personally see in black and white as such. I look at the forms and objects in the frame, and let tonal relationships fall where they may.


I was in a gaming shop here in Bellingham (we have at least 3 of these, and probably more). This particular shop hosts collectible-card-game play, Magic: The Gathering and so on. I'd been shooting a little portfolio which was really about living authentically and intensely. A bunch of kids playing Magic are definitely doing that -- nobody plays Magic to get girls and look cool. You play Magic because you think it's fun. It had long occurred to me that I should go take some photos.

I went in to the shop with a few criteria. I wanted it clear what was going on. I wanted a sense of intensity and action. I wanted to protect the anonymity of the kids. I'd already settled on dutch tilt for every single frame (basically because fuck those pedants who say it's a bad idea). So, it really came down to hands and cards and a tilted camera.

And so I shot a bunch of frames, looking for pleasing framing of the hands. One set of hands, two sets of hands. I was looking for motion, action, intensity.

The issues of black and white appear nowhere here, although that was the target (I don't really use color). I was confident that I could separate what needed to be separated in the conversion process, by selecting the right "color filter" (or sliding a slider, or whatever). This project mostly used a red filter to make the skin tones bright in the frame. I was looking for that contrast, that pop, to underline the idea of intensity.

The upper hand isn't separated from the blown highlights, and incidentally the highlights are wildly blown. I am sure that in a camera club or a critique forum I'd be panned for those two things. But do you know how much I care? Guess! I bet you can guess!

The picture succeeds for my purposes. The lack of separation does not conceal anything. The picture is not hard to understand as a result of it, there are no mysteries about where the hand ends and the white stuff starts, and anyways it doesn't even matter. That's not the point.

There are certainly people out there who at any rate claim to pre-visualize fine detail concerning the actual tonal placement in the desired outcome. I am not one of those people. I am pretty sure about the big tones, the bright sky, the dark shadows. The big tonal changes are what really matter anyways, the largest contrasts are the ones that pop out.

In the sample above it seems to me that the dominant tonal relaitionship/element is the near hand against the more or less dark background. That is also where the focus falls, and it is one of the big players in terms of the subject matter and the sense of motion. So it strikes me that things are firing on, if not all cylinders, most of them. This isn't really on purpose, I just made a bunch of exposures in a context that had the material I wanted, and then I dug around for a frame that worked pretty well graphically, and then I fiddled with the b&w conversion until the parts I wanted to pop more popped out pretty well.

Guys like Ansel Adams play much more subtle games with tones. Sometimes he's encoding depth tonally, sometimes he's got a nice rhythm of light/dark across the frame. I don't know how much of that is done with careful burning and dodging, and how much was planned.

In summary, I don't really see in black and white, I just see the world out there. But I do delete the color later, because I find it distracting, and that it generally doesn't add to anything I want to say.

As a bonus, it makes it a lot easier to make a bunch of pictures feel together. In color, you've got a whole new axis upon which your portfolio or book or collection can tear itself apart, and ain't nobody wants that.


  1. So you started with an idea, then went and took some photos? Thats insane...

  2. I should have said "is that legal", though I think my tone was noted anyway :-)

    I've been 'snapping' for years, wandering really, looking for a project to work on. Lots of 'pretty' photos without a theme or idea. I've found one now, having an idea to focus on (no pun intended) feels great.

  3. Kind of off topic, but I'm curious what (if any) music was playing in the shop? Here in the UK we have a similar establishment -- Games Workshop -- which involves war-gaming with mini-figurines. About 6 years ago I was doing some Christmas shopping and in there was a bunch of 14-year old boys nodding their heads to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" -- which came out when I was their age! Weird... Some kind of time-warp thing going on.


  4. I generally like B&W more too. Sometimes the story is the color, but not usually.
    Love your blog!

  5. I usually cheat because my camera evf is set to b/w with yellow filter. So yes I see in b/w :p