About the black and white

Those who follow me on Twitter (or the fewer who check in to my Flickr account) may have noticed that the photos I’ve shared over the past year have largely been presented in black and white. I thought I’d share why.

The overarching idea is that I’m trying to learn how to learn. I’ve been fortunate to have a knack for my usual creative endeavors—music and writing. Playing piano came easily to me at a young age, and writing is something I’ve always done and enjoyed. Photography, however, is a craft I’ve flirted with over the years, but never taken beyond “buy a camera, shoot stuff, and see what comes out the other end.”

As much fun as it is to get something satisfying 1 out of 1,000 times, I figured it was time to increase the rate of return by devising a plan to make my shots more intentional than lucky. 

I started by RTFM to finally suss out how this whole aperture thing worked. (Little numbers, greater depth of field; bigger numbers, less. Check.) Remarkably, it’s helpful to have some idea what all the buttons and dials do on a modern DSLR.

Next was to limit the locations where I shot. As I explained in About the Beach Photos, I thought that visiting the same kind of location would force me to seek new ways to capture it. And that works—to a point. For example, I’m as much of a sucker for beautiful watery sunsets as the next guy, but having slogged through a massive exhibit of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s work, I can testify that all good things have their limit. 

And then, after a day of shooting a fairly dreary estuary, it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage some fairly just-as-dreary images by converting them to black and white. And it was at this point that I discovered The Black and White Cheat.

I’m certain that this has been well documented by real photographers, but the essence of The Black and White Cheat is that the simple act of clicking the Black & White button and mucking with contrast and black point can produce images that are, to the eye of the hopeful rank amateur, more artful than the original washed-out image of railroad tracks running off into the gloom.

Showing the results of my work to a colleague who actually knows one end of a camera from the other, he remarked, “If this is the kind of thing you’re after, you need a copy of the Nik plug-ins—particularly Silver Efex Pro.” (Then $129, now free.) 

Well. My. God.

If I’d thought I’d been happy with The Black and White Cheat, imagine my rapture as I ran through the many splendid filters that tweaked my average beach photos into Works of Art. (Granted, mostly someone else’s art because, honestly, the filter was doing the heavy lifting. Still….)

Do I feel badly about using a cheat? No. To begin with, I’m a big believer in cheats. Listen to the music recorded in the past 50 years. Full of cheats—the room you record in, the mics you use, the cuts you make, the overdubs, the sweetening, the mixing…and on and on. Watch a movie. So cheaty.

More importantly, however, is that the cheat compelled me to more carefully consider what I shot. With the idea that I’d spend a year shooting only with black and white in mind, I thought about how each image would look in white, black, and gray as I composed it. That led me to seek out tone and contrast when surveying a shot. And at that point, you’re talking composition.

This narrowing of options turned out to be a good way for me to start shooting intentionally. I still walked out with a load of poor results, but at least I had a plan before triggering the shutter.

And after a year of doing it, it’s made me better appreciate what I might do with color if and when I break out of my monochromatic mood.