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Shooting for Black and White

April 26, 2013

The other day I made the mistake of reading the Wikipedia page on Ansel Adams. Now I think all my photos stink. If you’ve done any form of photography long enough the following graph will be a familiar one.

Each time you learn something new it’s easy to look back at what you’ve done and see the flaws, either in composition or technical execution. In a complex domain like photography there are a lot of ways to muck things up. And the more pieces you add to the puzzle the more dangerous you become.

Simplifying the Game

Years back I had a conversation with an artist friend of mine. I asked him about the process of composition in black and white vs. color. He said:

It’s hard enough to get it right in black and white. Add color to the mix and all bets are off.

I was reminded of that when I read the wiki on Ansel Adams, which stated:

He felt color could be distracting, and could therefore divert an artist’s attention away from achieving his full potential when taking a photograph.

Me, I’m just back from a Utah hiking trip and have finished looking through my snapshots. They are weaker than I’d hoped. Sure, we were there for hiking and not photography, per se. And taking shots into the sun on overcast days at high noon isn’t what a pro would be doing, but still. Yes, some photos tell the story of what we were doing. Others are fairly pretty. But there really wasn’t much to them. And many were entirely forgettable. But I happened to see something in one of them and removed the color. Here’s the result:

It’s not art. It’s not fine photography. But it’s something that wasn’t there when it was in color, which is interesting. While I’m probably drawing the wrong conclusions it will be a fun exercise to “think in black and white.” If I can do a better job of getting the core pieces into the shots maybe I’ll some day try to bring color back into the mix. And flail again!

Here it is in color:

The conversion to black and white was a one-click B&W red filter.

Edit

By “thinking in black and white.” I meant looking for shapes and lines and not being too wowed by pretty colors.

I think my friend was describing the additional complexity that color introduces when producing a piece that conveys the right things. But as pointed out on Reddit there isn’t much escaping color when capturing images. Indeed, if I had seen the the canyon wall as something that could be lightened with a red filter - along with darkening the blue sky - I might have seen the potential of the “black and white” image.

PS. The shot was taken in Negro Bill Canyon.