View Full Version : B&W Photography

11-12-2012, 16:08
Here's some advocacy for black and white outdoor photography. Personally I think B&W photos can be just as striking as the color photos often done by most outdoor enthusiasts.
Here's my not-so-professional opinion why. ;)

Note: I am not a professional photographer. Just an enthusiastic amateur who enjoys photography as something that supplements my love for the outdoors. This just my opinion…take it for what it is worth. http://www.pmags.com/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif
Black and White (B&W) photos are often used for portrait photography. B&W (or its closely related cousin – sepia tone) evoke a certain drama and mood. Effects are more heightened and the eye is more drawn to the subject matter.
The album photo for Spirit by Willie Nelson (http://www.allmusic.com/album/spirit-mw0000186424) really is evocative of the album itself. A great album (and one you really should listen to) that is about heartbreak, loss, regret and (ultimately) acceptance…I don't think a color photo of Willie Nelson would have the same effect on a person about to listen to the album.

One look at the album cover and you see the craggy and worn face. The sorrowful and intense eyes looking back. You know what the album is about. Somehow I don't think a color photo would evoke the same emotion and thoughts.
It is a stylistic and aesthetic choice that works really well for certain situations and emotions when it comes to photography.
As striking as a medium B&W photography can be for portrait photography, it seems to be used less for outdoor photography.
At first glance, easy to see why. Wildflowers, sunsets, deep blue lakes and deep greens of the forests seem to call out for the use of color.
By not making use of B&W photography, there are limits with what a photographer can do with a given scene.
Personally, I find B&W works well for:

Low-light conditions typically found during overcast days
When the light is "flat" and the contrast is naturally low
When the natural colors are gray, brown or white to begin with
For winter photography
When the landscape is mainly rock, ice and/or snow

Many of my winter photos are in B&W for the reasons listed above.
The B&W tones really bring out the beauty of the stark landscape.
A color photo of this scene from Brainard Lake Recreation Area would not be as evocative of the winter landscape:

Likewise this scene from Knapsack Col in The Winds (http://www.pmags.com/wind-river-dreams). In many ways, this high alpine terrain is naturally almost devoid of color. On the overcast day I took this photo, the sepia tones really brought out the glacier, rock and ice:

For poor lighting conditions, I find B&W photography turns what can be a lackluster photo in something memorable and even beautiful.
Here are two scenes that normally would not look good in color.
In the first scene, the sun is behind the cottonwood, it is late morning/early afternoon, the lighting is terrible and the tree would be washed out in a color photo:
In B&W? It seems to bring out the feelings of hiking on a cold, windy November day. The scene looks chilly, cold and remote. Fall is ending and winter is about to begin.
In a similar vein, this photo from my friend Mark on Lookout Mountain (http://www.summitpost.org/lookout-mountain-rmnp/152515) looked terrible in color. The sun was behind him and the color was washed out. In B&W? The photo seems to evoke the feelings we had about this summit block: This obscure peak has an amazing finish with awesome views. I can't believe how few people hike it!

Ultimately, it is an aesthetic issue. I find that what can be a pretty, but nothing special, scene looks more dramatic when in this format. The B&W photos bring out the richness and subtlety in some scenes.
Here's a photo from the Pawnee Buttes (http://www.pmags.com/high-plains-drifting-pawnee-buttes-pawnee-national-grasslands) in northeast Colorado. A subtle landscape that really works well with B&W or sepia tone photography:

The first image is in color. I think it looks nice:

http://www.pmags.com/gallery2/d/23648-1/image012.jpg?g2_GALLERYSID=53f86365bd23d28d3a28fc7 461163b40

But I think my second photo is more dramatic even though they are both the same photo:

http://pmags2.jzapin.com/gallery2/d/23700-1/aak-bw.jpg?g2_GALLERYSID=2b4933d0ccd20f8193dfe3be0248c 4b9

Though very closely related, Sepia Tone and B&W photos evoke different emotions and moods in a scene.
B&W produces more striking photos that seem to work well when there is naturally a high contrast area such as what is often found in high alpine environments during certain lighting conditions.

Because B&W is striking, it works really well for bringing out fine details in such things as signs, wood grains, rocks and so on.

So why use sepia tone?
Sepia tone produces a warmer tone that is less striking and intense than black and white. Besides creating an almost vintage look, it seems to add a majestic feel to a scene.
Sepia Tone also seems to work well on a foggy day. The scenery around the objects looks almost mystical.

If you decide that you want to take a stab at non-color photography, I think it is better to shoot in color and then edit the photo after. All photos, even ones shot in .JPG format, are un-finished photos in my opinion. Even in the best of photos, there are minor to major tweaks to be done. Best to tweak the photos on a computer than in the more limited controls of a camera. Think this especially true for non-color photography.
Here are some popular software products for photo editing. I wrote about them before in a previous article (http://www.pmags.com/outdoor-photography-point-and-shoot-or-dslr).

IrfanView (http://www.irfanview.com/) - I love this freeware program for uber-simple edits and batch resizing. Windows based.
Photoshop (http://www.photoshop.com/products/photoshop)- The most well know and full featured photo editing software. Good if you really want to tweak and/or create more 'artsy' photos. Very complex program and $$$$. For Mac and Windows
Photoshop Elements (http://www.photoshop.com/products/photoshopelements)- I think of this program as Photoshop Lite. Less $$$ and complex, has good features for the hobbyist. For Mac and Windows.
GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/) - An open source alternate to Photo Shop. Powerful, but a bit rough around the edges compared to PhotoShop. For geeks (who me? http://www.pmags.com/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif ) the free price, features and ability to run on different platforms makes it a good alternative to PS. Runs on Linux, Mac and Windows
Photoscape (http://www.photoscape.org/ps/main/index.php) - A simple, easy to use but surprisingly powerful photo editing software suite. It's not Photoshop (or even GIMP), but sometimes less really is more. For Windows. Freeware.

With photo editing software, it is really easy to make color and B&W copies of scenes to compare and contrast. Take the photos, tweak, experiment and have fun!
I really think outdoors people are missing out by not making better use of B&W style photography. What is a so-so photo can look amazing in B&W. And sometimes the best photos are in B&W! With digital cameras and low cost (or free!) photo software, it is very easy for a hobbyist to make some nice photos that are B&W. The striking contrast, the emotions evoked and just how wonderful B&W photography can capture a scene make this type of photography useful. By using B&W photography, an outdoors person can really capture all the aspects of the outdoor experience.

Including love and romance. I hope my friends don't mind me using one of my favorite photos of them as an example. http://www.pmags.com/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

Feral Bill
11-12-2012, 16:33
My mom insists that unless the color is an integral part of the composition, B and W is better. She's rarely wrong.

11-12-2012, 17:38
Good photos! All of these are black and white techniques. BW is great. Go to a museum and take a look at original prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White, Edward Steichen and some of the other masters of the medium. Reproductions are nice, but don't always match the original.

In the ancient days of film, photographic paper came in various tones from warm to neutral to cold. Sepia is an example of a warm toned picture. There were also 'toners', chemical treatments of the prints that changed the tone of the print. Some of these tones were pretty subtle. You could see the difference in tones when two different prints of the same negative were placed side by side. Sepia would be an example of a tone that is not subtle.

I think that the better photo programs can duplicate these film techniques with digital images.

Llama Legs
11-12-2012, 18:07
I'm sure Mark Matheny would love to chat online about b&w photography. His trail name is "freezeframe" check out: http://www.thescenicphotographer.com/

11-12-2012, 18:23
You take beautiful photos. I love b&w for many reasons. I took photography in high school and we only developed b&w. My hippie teacher was very passionate about it. I think color photos can be great, of course, but they are more predictable, obvious. I especially love your first shot of the stream running through the evergreens.

11-12-2012, 18:25
I was informed this technique is actual "monochromatic". Being a Philistine, I'ld stick to the B&W label. :)

I'm sure Mark Matheny would love to chat online about b&w photography. His trail name is "freezeframe" check out: http://www.thescenicphotographer.com/


11-12-2012, 19:58
Like many photogs of my age (who grew up knowing film photography and were comfortable with its characteristics), I learned a great deal as a yearbook photographer - both behind the camera and in the darkroom. I spent many weekends cloistered in the darkroom (much to the amazement of my mother). My dad taught me some basics (he had also had an interest in photography), and I was given much of his original equipment from the 1940's - this was the stuff that I learned on.

We used mostly Tri-X for sports shoots because it stopped action well, but for "important" photos, we always switched over to something slower to reduce the grain in our enlargements. And for color work (which we couldn't do in our darkrooms), I started playing with some of the slower-speed films (ASA 25 or ASA 64) because of the great color saturation. Some of my better trail photos were shot on ASA 64 speed film back in the 70's and 80's.

But B & W has a "feel" all its own. Landscapes in particular can take on a special quality in B & W that is...well...emotional. That cover photo of Willie Nelson has that same emotional quality. Color photos tell the story of what the eye can see, but B & W tells the story of what the HEART sees.

12-17-2012, 22:12
I think an obvious suggestion might be to use B&W film, so you won't have to resort to computer programs that "duplicate these film techniques". Professional grade film cameras are quite cheap and plentiful. I just bought a Hasselblad. Incredible quality!

Mountain Mike
12-17-2012, 23:26
I loved B & W back when I shot film. I miss my slr's. I preferred manual because it made me think about f-stop & shutter speed. Thus composition. When I went with app preferred I often treated it as a P&S. After I drowned it in my tent on PCT I went back to manual before switching to digital.

Don Newcomb
09-22-2013, 10:44
Many years ago (early '70s), I attended a lecture given by a naturalist from the 1930s. His talk included a huge number of B&W slides. I was so impressed I decided I had to learn how to make B&W slides. I researched the B&W reversal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reversal_film#Black_and_white) process to do it myself and for a number of years I made my own B&W slides. I still have a bunch of them. You can do striking stuff with B&W given the right filters, particularly with Western landscapes.

Of course, today all you have to do is switch the camera into monochrome mode.

slow mind
09-22-2013, 11:03
This is one of my favorite pics I've taken, and luckiest shots- not much skill possesed by me. What I thought was cool is that it is a full color photo with all the B&W awesomness!

09-22-2013, 23:17
This is my favorite picture I've ever taken... This is at max patch!

09-23-2013, 11:18
Excellent writing as always. However, in my case, you are preaching to the choir.
My approach: Black. And. White. Toning on rare occasions. I can't seem to get the toning to look right. The album cover example would look far more dramatic in plain Black and White.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, before there was a Holy Cross Wilderness, I carried a Pentax 6x7 with a 105mm lens and a bushel of Plus-X 120 film on a multi-day trip in the vicinity of Holy Cross City. I am glad that I did.




A newer photo taken in Texas.



09-23-2013, 11:22

Of course, today all you have to do is switch the camera into monochrome mode.

Nope. Just like the inaccurate mantra "you can fix anything in Photoshop", in camera black and white conversion leaves much to be desired.


kayak karl
09-23-2013, 11:33
a boy and his dog

Jaxon & Harley

Don Newcomb
09-23-2013, 14:17
Nope. Just like the inaccurate mantra "you can fix anything in Photoshop", in camera black and white conversion leaves much to be desired.You mean I need to dust off my OM-1 and stock up on FP4 again? Whoope! I love the smell of Dektol at midnight. :)

09-23-2013, 14:26
I find that shooting, developing & scanning B&W film and then printing with an inkjet printer to be a very viable process. With a changing tent, I don't even need a darkroom. I know for a fact that I can get better prints that way than I ever could in a wet darkroom.
FP4 in Xtol is very nice. I don't miss Dektol at all!


Another Kevin
09-23-2013, 16:35
I find that shooting, developing & scanning B&W film and then printing with an inkjet printer to be a very viable process. With a changing tent, I don't even need a darkroom. I know for a fact that I can get better prints that way than I ever could in a wet darkroom.
FP4 in Xtol is very nice. I don't miss Dektol at all!


Or you could use developer that actually smells nice: Caffenol (http://www.instructables.com/id/Caffenol-C-Coffee-Film-Developer/). It gives some interesting effects (http://www.flickr.com/groups/[email protected]/pool/).

09-23-2013, 17:21
If/when Xtol and/or Rodinal are all gone, I'll give DIY developer a try.