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Shades of Grey Thoughts about Black and White Photography

I think of black and white photography as an acquired taste, like single malt scotch. The first taste is strange, and then it grows on you, until you truly enjoy it. I am sure you too can think of something that you didn't like at first sight, but as you learned more about it and experienced it more, you started to like it. I think, the same holds true for black and white photography. Not just for me, but I dare say, for the majority of people.

At first glance, black and white is unfamiliar to us because we expect to see color. In color is the natural way we see our world, and black and white is a step away from this reality. Statistics show that the vast majority (over 80%) of images are produced in color, making pure black and white imagery almost a niche product. It is not surprising then, that black and white connosieurs are few and far between. We need to train ourselves to see in black and white to appreciate it.

Removing Color

Colors have their very own dynamic. Color catches the eye. Color temperature gives context to an image. Just picture warm light emitted from a candle as opposed to cold halogen light - it changes the feel of an image. Colors create emotions and visual intensity.

When we remove colors, we remove these effects. We also lose the ability to use complementary colors (on opposite sides of the color wheel) or analogous colors (next to each other on the color wheel) to emphasize relationships between subject matter. An example would be use of analogous colors to create a sense of harmony.

With all color removed, we are left with contrast, shape, shadow, texture, and tone; the ingredients of a black and white image. Great black and white photography heavily relies upon a good understanding of these pillars. We also focus more on tools like contrasting light, lines and shapes, negative space.

Pine Island Fishing Shack

Black and white photography can be described as an interpretation of the world around us in difference of luminance values (intensity of light) and in differences of light (also referred to as light contrast). Black and white images consist of shades of grey tone that go from dark (black) to light (white).

While all this grey may sound boring, black and white photography is far from dull since there are many different ways to enjoy those shades of grey.

Let’s start with one of the extremes, an image with very dark tones.

Desert Noir

Almost all tones in "Desert Noir" are dark. Even the highlights on the top of the dunes, which in this context seem bright, are a dark gray when measured. Yet despite all these similar tones, the image has contrast. We pay attention to the shapes, the curvature of the dunes, the soft texture of the sand.

Bismarck Palm Frond

Again, there are a lot of black tones in the second image, a palm frond, but it has sharper contrasts and stronger texture than the dunes. The contrasts are created by having dark and lighter values next to each other. Black, being the absence of light, neighbored by illuminated areas. An image like this, with mainly dark tones, is also referred to as "low key".

An image on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum would be classified a “high key” image, one that is almost entirely very bright (white) with very little or no dark shadows present.

Survivor Maple

Here are two images, "Survivor Maple" above and "Alligator in the Shallows" below, that carry a majority of white tones. Although interspersed with dark tones, the overall impression is bright, hence the name "high key" image.

Gator in the Shallows

Now for the large grey area between the two tonal extremes.

Silver Rays

The image of the Bismarck palm frond, "Silver Rays", is all about different shades of grey, from dark to very light. Undistracted by color, our eye focuses on the rays of silver, the dark lines and the softer lines in-between, and the even subtler texture. Despite the tones being grey in grey, the image is lively. In fact, we should consider renaming mid-tone greys as shades of silver.

Silver is the new Grey! In photography and in life.

Transitions

The second example, “Transitions”, depicting outer and inner areas of a mosque in Oman, also employs mainly grey tones. The image is carried by geometric and tonal transitions. Again, the absence of color leads the viewer directly to the composition of the image.

Up the Wall
Histogram of measured tones - from black to white.

If we analyze the distribution of tones of this image of the Great Wall of China, as int he histogram above, we get two peaks – a good amount of darks as well as a large amount of whites, and some greys in the middle. It is not the absolute amount of blacks or whites that makes this image interesting, but the arrangement of them. The few mid-tones nestled inside the darks lead the eye upwards to the fortification, itself a middle grey. Then the waves of light grays in front of the brighter sky. The darker areas at the bottom signal closeness, the lighter, hazier bright areas on top of the image translate into distance, or atmospheric perspective.

At this point I would like to introduce a bit of neuroscience.

You often hear people favorably commenting on an image, typically in color, that it has “depth”, that it is not “flat”.

Technically, the perception of depth is created in two ways, by leading lines, like the steps on the Great Wall, and by difference in luminance (dark is interpreted a closeness, lighter values imply distance), and neither one has anything to do with color. "Transitions" clearly achieves this without color. Why is this?

The following is taken from the research of Harvard professor and neurophysiologist Margret Livingstone, The Biology of Seeing: 'When levels of luminance differ across an area or within an object, the brain interprets these differences as signifying three-dimensionality. The part of our brain that detects and analyzes luminance contrast, and subsequently alerts us to three-dimensionality, is impervious to color. In fact, our brain processes luminance and color in two separate parts of the brain that are anatomically “as distinct as vision from hearing”.

Returning to photography, this clearly means that color is not needed for an image to have depth. Apart from shapes/forms that force depth, it is only the luminance values that create depth.

But why black and white images when you can have color, the full spectrum?

Black and white is a deliberate artistic and aesthetic choice. It is your first layer of abstraction, if you will. Besides the historical connection to the great masters of photography, the main quality is that black and white is more interpretive, less factual. It leaves more room for imagination.

No distraction by color is possible and the absence of color that brings out the bones, the essence of an image. Compositions (the arrangement of visual elements) can be seen more readily because structure and spatial relationships take precedence. Shapes, lines, textures, and contrast become more prominent.

As a result, to create a good black and white image, you have to become a better photographer. Glossing over flaws with strong colors is simply not possible.

Just as prolonged reflection periods (I am writing this during Covid-19 isolation) might help you develop a taste for scotch, they might also inspire to contemplate black and white imagery. It is certainly a learning curve, both for the viewer and the photographer. I hope I delivered the point that black and white is not the "lesser" version of a color image, not photography minus the color - it is quite the opposite. To paraphrase another photographer, Jennifer Price, "black and white photography is more like reading the book than seeing the movie”.

So, in honor of dark and light, of black and white and the vast grey area in between, an all grey/silver last image, "Alone in the Desert".

"Alone in the Desert" - The tiny little human at the right edge shows the scale of this vast expanse of sand dunes in the desert of Wahiba Sands, Oman.

Thank you to Carlene Thissen for taking a sharp pencil to my black and white manifesto. All images by Hilda Champion unless indicated otherwise.

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