Like most professional photographers I create all my images in color. For the same reason that we don’t let our cameras do JPGS we don’t let the camera convert to B&W; way too much compression and loss of tonal range.
But first WHY convert color to B&W?
One of the aspects of color that can weaken it as an artistic medium is when it’s presented as a literal representation of a subject. Art is about an artist’s interpretation of his subject; Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is a great example of interpretation—he definitely had an alternate vision of the world!
As the genesis of photography began with it perhaps its greatest advantage and strength is its ability to create the B&W image. Having grown up in the late 20th century I and many other photographers were witness to the perfection of the B&W print by several legendary photographer/print makers. Ansel Adams’ fine art prints have influenced several generations of photographers; my influence has been the very dramatic and socially profound work of W. Eugene Smith, perhaps the greatest photographer Life Magazine ever showcased.
The next question is WHEN do I decide to convert an image to B&W?
Like many professionals I usually know a great B&W subject the instant I see it. But what am I looking for?
- I want good blacks or shadows (created by directional light)— that’s where the drama lies—giving me three dimensionality.
- I want something with clean whites or high-lights.
- I also look for textures.
(Side note: When I am working with clients, and not on a personal project, I usually know before the session I am going to do the output of the entire session in B&W or a portion and will choose the location and direct clothing accordingly.)
When traveling bring your camera with you! Just 3 months ago I found this….
f11.0 @ 1/640 sec., ISO 400
I’d say this scene fits my requirements and then some! You can see why I want clean whites and blacks and shadows—that contrast creates drama. Then there’s rampant texture here thanks to the barn wood and because I exposed to control my whites there’s great detail in those skulls, too.
I’m not going to go into the How I convert to B&W in this blog. It’s safe to say that there are many ways it can be done and the image tells me how to work in it. I think it’s more important that you learn to SEE B&W—Ansel Adams thoughts on previsualization are relevant here.
I urge you to look-up the great Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith. He elevated photo-journalism to an art form with his B&W images that he printed himself. His images during WWII, in the Pacific, particularly on Iwo Jima are harrowing. His photo-essays on Albert Schweitzer in West Africa, the Spanish Village, Country Doctor, and Nurse Midwife are legendary. But first look up his work from Minamata, Japan and see one of the greatest B&W portraits ever made titled, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath”, and read the story behind this gut wrenching photo-essay. The power of the B&W image has never been put to better use to date.
Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
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