Seeing and Making Black & White Images

First, thank you all for turning out in good numbers last Thursday evening.  For myself and Will it makes all our hard work worth while. Attached to this E Mail is a slightly expanded version of my talk notes which puts a greater context throughout the history of photography the battle for supremacy between Black and White and Colour. Also covered are my thoughts on the aesthetic side through visualisation to seeing and making Black and While images, which in my opinion is sadly neglected and marginalised against the modern technical side, which is digital photography as we know it today.   -Sandy

Seeing and making photographic images be it black and white or colour begins before picking up a camera and ends when the final printed image is complete.

Black and white photography is really about how you feel about your chosen subject. Also it is as much about what you see and who you are and how you interpret what you see in the world around you in your own particular way

Today we shoot mostly everything in colour, so why black and white?


Colour photography has been available to photographers since 1904 through the Autochrome process, (1904 to mid 1930’s) and modern colour photography has been universally available for the last 76 years. However, some of the most memorable and powerful images that have ever been made throughout the history of photography have been black and white. Although black and white photography has since been mainly overshadowed by colour photography over the last 56 years, it is still popular and has a timeless quality that colour photography struggles to match.

With the surge towards colour images through easier processing techniques in 1960/1969, Black and white photography seemed to be marginalised, and there were some sources even saying that black and white photography was dead, but it was given a new lease of life when Ilford brought out its resin coated and fibre based range of black and white Multigrade papers.

It was only again in 1980’s that there was resurgence in the black and white photography when the third generation ink jet printers were able to produce neutral greys. Since then it has held its own as a way of producing fine prints.

Many people may feel that the black and white medium is most suitable for art type pictures, those that are not concerned with normal everyday humdrum subject matter. The switch to colour photography as an art form in the 1970,s caused shift in thinking with John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York hailing William Eggleston’s colour photography the new art form, marginalising the black and white medium even more.

This is not true, for over the first 65 years of photography’s existence there was only black and white photography available for making images. So there is no subject that is best suited to black and white, or any particular subject that suits colour more than black and white.

Black and white photography does more to evoke an emotion, because of its stark contrast and sharp focus on the subject.

Here is shining example:

It was interesting that Will showed a still from the movie “Schindlers List,” as it re-enforced the power that black and white photography has, be it as still pictures or moving pictures. Personally speaking in the era of colour photography this was brave decision to make and gave the film more gravity and impact particularly as the studio did not want the movie to be made in black and white.  (See the next paragraph)

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was CEO Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.

Seeing and Making Digital Black & White Images

Deciding to make a digital black and white image is not in any way the same as making a digital colour image, as it never was in the days of analogue colour and black and white image making. Colour pictures are all about warm and cold colour, colour hues and colour harmony whereas black and white pictures are all about light, contrast and tones.

To create a digital black and white image is not just a matter of eliminating the colour with various types of image editing software at a later stage of the process. You have to be able to pre-visualise in your mind how the image would look as a black and white picture before the image is made with your camera. Not an easy task.

By removing colour from the subject you immediately convert your photograph to one step back from the depiction of a true likeness, for then it is divorced from the reality of the way we all see the world.

It is a fact that a black and white image allows the picture’s audience to exercise its imagination, because the image is not in any way a literal rendition of the subject. The black and white image also allows you the photographer greater scope to stamp your own identity on the image. Also the black and white medium simplifies the image stripping it down to its essential elements of Contrast, Tone, Light and Shade, Shape, Form, Texture and the added ingredient of Luminosity. Most of these elements can be controlled by you the photographer through your image editing software.

It is advisable when shooting digital images that you select the correct white balance when shooting in colour if you have the intention of later converting the image to black and white. The more inaccurate the white balance is the fewer true colours your image editing software will be able to use when converting the image to black and white. Also check that your histogram is not displaying clipped shadows or highlights.

It is not advantageous to set your camera’s picture parameter menu to black and white or monochrome, always shoot in colour RGB and convert the image to black and white later with your image editing software. Doing this gives you far more scope and leeway when converting the image to black and white achieving an image with a better range of tonality and luminosity.

You have also to be conscious of the fact of the way that the different colours convert into different tones of grey that make up black and white photographs. Which colours you emphasise when converting to a black and white image will determine the different contrasts, tones and luminosity of the image, and ultimately the quality of the picture.

It is by manipulating and fine tuning the separation of the intermediate tones, and the shades of grey between black and white this controls the mood and atmosphere of the black and white image. You have to be aware of the reflectivity of the different areas in the image when you convert the image to black and white. This means that although two objects in your image may be a different colour, but if they are equally reflective they could still record as the same or very similar grey tone once they have been converted to black and white.

Useful Tool for Pre-visualisation

Pre-visualisation in photography is being able to see in your mind how a colour image would convert to tones of grey at the image making stage when considering to make a black and white image of your chosen subject. Most photographers cannot pre-visualise at the image making stage as it is not easy to see in their mind how the image will convert to black and white. As they can be caught out later by the colours they see in the original colour image, when they merge as similar tones of grey, during the image’s conversion to black and white.

To help these photographers Tiffen made a black and white viewing filter utilising a Kodak Wratten 90 filter. The more you practice with it the better you will become at assessing what your colour image is likely to look like covered to black and white. This filter and other similar filters can be carried and used at any time, and you do not even have to have a camera with you.

To say that this filter reduces the subject to shades of grey is inaccurate. What it does is remove all colours by reducing the subject to lightness and darkness values. It does not make the subject neutrally black and white. Rather, it gives a low saturation orange or sepia colour to the subject.

The history of photography is inundated with exceptionally fine black and white images made by the photographers listed below, that have stood the test of time long before digital photography was invented.


Surf these Photographers on the Internet:

Deceased Black & White Master Photographers

  • Edward Weston (Black & White)
  • Brett Weston, (Black & White)
  • Ansel Adams (Black & White, & some Colour)
  • Aaron Siskind (Black & White & some Colour)
  • Bill Brant (Black & White) 
  • Minor White (Black & White)
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson (Black & White)

Living Black & White Master Photographers

  • Robert Frank (Black and White)
  • Sebastiao Salgado (Black & White)
  • Don Mc Cullen (Black & White)
  • Carl Chiarenza (Black & White)
  • Michael Kenna (Black & White)
  • Paul Caponigro (Black & White)

It is an interesting exercise to study in detail the way the above photographers interpreted their subjects, but in doing this you have to be careful not to become cloned to their style of work and interpretation of the subjects that they chose to photograph. You have to endeavour to interpret the subject in your way.

Something to Ponder Over.

Explaining a Black and White Photographic Masterpiece.

The most extraordinary of man’s artefacts in the reconstruction of reality is the black and white image comprising of course, a series greys. It can be shown that in seeing colour, objects are separated out from each other by the preferential efficiency of surface of one object or another for reflecting light of wavelength or another and that this preferentially remains intact irrespective of the variation in time and place of illumination on the object from the world around it.

Black and white photography generates, as it were, a substitute world: light of the same wavelength composition comes to the eye from any part of the scene. This preferentially for reflecting at different wavelengths (Colours) is absent and cannot be used to designate objects. Rather only the difference from object to object in the efficiency for reflecting a uniform mixture wavelengths can be used.

Here comes the miracle. the enormous variations in illumination of the objects by the world around them have led to enormous variations in the amount of light reaching one object or another in a random way, so that portions of the photograph delineating dark objects may send to the eyesore light that portions of the photograph delineating white objects. In short, the photograph is two entirely different kinds of report transmitted to us by what appear to be mixed languages, the language for delineating objects and the language for displaying illumination.

There have not been many great photographers in history, but the great ones usually turn out to be masters of the vocabulary of these two utterly different languages in black and white photography. For most would-be photographers these languages are mixed together and never disentangle, like the babble of voices at a cocktail party. The breathtaking competence of the great photographer is to cause the object of his choice to be revealed with symphonic grandeur, meticulous in detail, majestic in illumination.
 – Essay by Dr Edwin Land (Inventor of Polaroid film)

In an nutshell what Edwin Land is saying that the great black and white photographers were and are able to separate the two languages of delineating and illumination of the objects in a photograph to create a masterpiece.

The above essay explains why they are great photographers and we are not.

For more information

APC Secretary
Christina Marsh


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