The Black-and-White Experience

FL Everglades-02 I have to share a bit about my recent trip to Southern Florida. I was there for the FotoFusion conference with Palm Beach Photographic Centre. I also spent a little time in the Everglades though I never got to the national park of that name. The Everglades is a very large ecosystem based on a flow of water that begins near Disneyworld in Orlando. I was mainly in the Eastern Everglades near West Palm Beach. The first image is of young cypress in the Grassy Waters Preserve.

Just before this trip, a friend had sent me a link to a TEDx Talk by Clyde Butcher, the marvelous black-and-white Florida photographer. It is worth watching – click the link to see it. You may remember that I am a big fan of occasionally setting up my camera to shoot black-and-white with RAW + JPEG. This gives you a B&W JPEG, a color RAW (RAW cannot be anything else) and a B&W image on your LCD so you can actually see the B&W as you shoot. I have always felt that shooting black-and-white (not just converting color to B&W) is a good discipline for any photographer and it will enhance your craft as a photographer, including color work.

So I decided I would shoot everything in black-and-white (I did color for a workshop I was leading at FotoFusion, but that was it). This turned out to be an amazing, incredible experience. I gained much from it. I have often said that B&W photography is not about the removal of color from a color image. To really understand B&W, you really need to understand how it works visually. Three contrasts are extremely important to B&W: tonal or brightness contrast, texture or pattern contrast, and sharpness contrast. None of these require color to work. They only need a contrast.

FL Everglades-01Boy, did setting discipline of only shooting black-and-white force me to see and work with these contrasts! The immature lubber grasshoppers above have a very interesting contrast with their background. Since you look at a B&W image on the LCD (and Live View is great because you see B&W as you shot), you have to deal with these contrasts directly.

FL Everglades-04That was actually hard with the alligator in the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge. Here the contrast is mainly a textural contrast, but I liked it. This all made me start to see the nature of the Everglades in some different ways. It brought back some important memories that I had forgotten about black-and-white.

Color is obviously a key way we see the world. Color photographs remind us of that and this creates a distinct connection to what we see in the photo. Our "color memories" can influence how we see that photo and how we interpret it. When there are no colors to see, we start seeing the photo differently. We then respond with a different emotion, though black-and-white can still create an emotional response to an image.

Black-and-white encourages us to see the subjects as separate from the world and the photograph itself becomes more important as an object to the viewer. I don't mean this necessarily distances the viewer from the subject, which I don't think is so good for nature photography. What it does is more easily create an "artful" experience of the image if the black-and-white is done well.

FL Everglades-07I am having trouble explaining this very visual phenomenon in words. This photo of floating bladderwort in bloom among the cypress in Grassy Waters simply does not work as well in color. The color throughout the image distracts from the flowers and their relationship to the scene. The black-and-white creates a more direct connection of the flowers and their environment without losing the flowers. Sometimes black-and-white
can get people to move away from the realistic aspects of the subject to dig
deeper into what the photograph is really about. And to be honest, I am not sure I would have even tried to photograph this in color alone if I had not been thinking about black-and-white.

FL color-01Another way to put it might be that with color, we see the color and can have our attention directed by color. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a problem when it distracts from us really engaging with the subject. Black-and-white simplifies the experience the viewer has with the subject, and when the image is carefully crafted to control contrasts, that can have a strong impact on the viewer.

FL Everglades-05I will be returning to the area next month to do some classes with the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. I have a class on Lightroom as a Darkroom (March 8-10) and a class on creating photo e-books with iBooks Author (March 4-8).

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About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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20 Responses to The Black-and-White Experience

  1. Love the B&W tree photos Rob! Done to perfection!-----Jeff

  2. Hugh Nourse says:

    What a master Clyde Butcher is!! I like what you have done in Black and White. This was a very interesting and informative blog for me. Thank you.

  3. Anthony Di Novella says:

    I took your advice and i have been shooting black &white in the camera setting
    for RAW &JPEG with good results.I am new to black &white and so far i have been
    doing the conversion from color ,using the virtual copy in lightroom.Do you do
    any adjustement in the camera when you shoot B&w.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      The big deal is to work to make the B&W look as good as possible as you shoot. This can be challenging, but as you do it, you get better. Then I will make some standard adjustments to the JPEG B&W in Lightroom, such as setting blacks, checking whites, adjusting mid tones, using local adjustments. To get the JPEG and RAW to show up in Lightroom, you have to tell Lightroom to import the RAW and JPEG as separate, individual files (this is in Catalog Settings) before you import (you can do it after the import from the memory card by telling Lightroom to do that, then use Import>Add for the folder).

  4. Aram Langhans says:

    Very nicely stated. I love the first and last photos. The last for it's simple composition and the first for repeating patterns of trees and reflections, the vertical pattern. Did I say that right?
    I would say in my film days, not so long ago, I shot maybe 50% in B&W. Drug two cameras around all the time, one with slide and one with B&W. They were lighter than today's beasts, and I was younger, too. Being able to do both with the same camera is nice. Thought I lust for the Leica Monochrom.
    When I started digital, someone told me when I import the photos I should convert them all to B&W for the first edit. Easy and quite reversable in Lightroom. That way you can pick out the strong compositions w/o being distracted by color. You can easily see your tonal or brightness contrast, texture or pattern contrast, and sharpness contrast. I have tried this a few times and it works well. But I often get lazy, or anxious, and just delve into them right away.

    Thanks for the nice blog.

    Aram

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      That's an interesting idea about looking at all images in black-and-white. Thanks for sharing! The one tough thing about it is that you will miss color relationships which can be very important for color compositions. Not all good color relationships show up in black-and-white.

  5. Steve says:

    Great info to keep in mind as always. Is there a Disneyworld
    near Atlanta or did you mean Orlando?

  6. Meghan says:

    That was an awesome example of the crypress Grassy Waters photos. I literally said "wow!" I loved the BW crypress, the color one seemed to be lost in distraction. It was really cool to see, thank you for this article. I will try BW shooting sometime, the last time I did it was with film!

  7. Pat Albertson says:

    It always seems that if I see shadows, textures, contrast, I just flip to B&W...so much better to grab my vision of that moment. Wonderful and insightful, Rob. Thanks!

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  9. Rob Shapiro says:

    Rob,

    What are your thoughts regarding the use of B&W filters via either software, such as Silver Efex Pro, or the old-fashion way such as red or yellow filters mounted on a lens? I have not used the real filters for several years but may give it a try.

    Rob

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      You certainly could shoot with filters on the camera. That would be a variant of the RAW + JPEG technique I discuss here. Color filters would give you more control over the black-and-white image. Personally, though, I think I would find that a pain to carry and use the filters all the time (though everyone is different and someone else might find it an interesting discipline). The advantage of using the equivalent of filters in software (used with the RAW file because it is in color) is that you can literally change and compare filters very quickly, plus you have an infinite variation in color and strength of the filters when you are using software. That can make a big difference with many images.

      Rob

  10. william lester says:

    enjoyed your article in outdoor photography the lost art of shooting black and white it seems google has taken over niks software i really want the software program silver efex pro do you know if it will ever be back on the market ? thanks bill

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Silver Efex Pro is still available. It is part of the "Nik Collection by Google." I have been exploring some other options. I don't like Topaz's b&w program. I really like OnOne Software's b&w program which you can get as a package that includes Perfect Layers that seems to be good for layers with Lightroom. I just bought a copy and am starting to use it.

      Rob

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