How To Think In Black & White

by William Lulow

In the days of photographers like Ansel Adams, America’s premier landscape photographer of the 1940s and 1950s, Black & White film was the norm. The first really viable and commercial color film was introduced by Kodak around 1936. Then, when Kodachrome was unveiled, photographers for National Geographic magazine began using it to document the world. This, of course, led to its wide-spread use.

Today, color images are really the norm. Black & White pictures are considered somewhat more “artistic.”

I like to shoot landscapes in Black & White because they reveal a bit more detail. This can seem to be a contradiction, but sometimes we are dazzled by color and it can blind us to the richness and subtleties of gray tones. Black & White, on the other hand, tends to rely more on composition and the fine differences of light and shadow. Some scenes just cry out to be shot in Black & White. Others need color.

When shooting landscapes, as in most aspects of photography, it becomes necessary to decide what kind of image you wish to make. Do you want to increase the contrast or lessen it? Which method will say what you want about the landscape? From time to time, I like to put my camera in “monochrome” mode to shoot original scenes in Black & White rather than convert them later. Because of all my years of shooting original black & white film (and learning the nuances of making chemical prints in the darkroom), I tend to see landscapes in shades of gray. So, I often filter my exposures the way I did when I was shooting film in order to render certain tones to greater contrast levels.

One thing to keep in mind is that when you shoot in Black & White,  filters will lighten (or increase contrast) colors similar to their own. In other words, if you wish to lighten trees, use a green filter. Conversely, a red filter will lighten red things and darken blue things. So, if you wish to add contrast to a blue sky when shooting in monochrome, use a red filter. One tip that I found helpful was to study a color wheel. This will give you a sense of which colors are opposites and which are similar.

Now with all this said, today’s digital cameras have all been equipped with their own various “modes” of electronic filtration so photographers don’t have to bother with filters.

Here are a couple of samples: both were shot in monochrome mode. The left one was shot with a red filter over the lens, the right one was shot with the camera’s electronic filtration.  You can see how much better and more contrasty the manual filtered image is.

ElectronicFiltration RedFilter

So, if you’re really going after that old Black & White look and feel to your images, I recommend using manual, over-the-lens filters. Here are some more samples of original, digital Black & White images, all shot in monochrome mode with filters:

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The only way to render clouds like this is through manual filtration. This is a scene that almost calls for imaging in original Black & White.

Any scene that has a lot of tonal range and contrast between lights and darks can be rendered in original monochrome mode and filtered to heighten these differences to create a really rich print.