To shoot black and white, you’ve gotta think black and white

The first year curriculum in photography school was mainly black and white. Ewww! I hated black and whites. Well, not really hate but I loved color. I had grown up poring over the books of Elliott Porter and David Muench. Both color photographers, each very different in the way they approached it. Porter was a master of subtly using the laborious dye transfer process achieve great control over his prints and Muench was almost like Jackson Pollock to me. Wild, brilliant splashes of color.

Black and white seemed to me to be so boring. I never got the “art” photographers of the time that shot black and white. I’d sit in the library and be completely and utterly bored looking at these shots of weird people, photographed in a very flat footed, boring way and wonder what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I find those photos interesting?

Thirty years later I have an appreciation for black and white photography. Some of it makes me downright jealous. The tones and lines are exquisite in some of the better landscapes. Also thirty years later looking at some of the photography that hangs in local art galleries of places that I photograph I now say someone was a better, excuse my French, bullshitter than photographer. Some of today’s and yesterday’s fine art photography still baffles me. I am dumbfounded. I stop at the side of the road. Shoot a square photo of “nothing”. Make a five foot by five foot print and ask four thousand dollars for it. Oh yeah, I give it a creative title and voila! instant art. LOL

Back to photo school. In photo school they teach you how to crawl before you can run or even walk. The first months were about learning the most basic and simple of things. Depth of field exercises, how I hated those numbered cards. Major ewww.  Worst of all, I wouldn’t get to shoot color until near the end of my first year. So I begrudgingly shot black and white. I even found photographers who shot black and white landscapes that I liked. That was my goal, to achieve the same look, tones and light that I saw in the photos that I liked.

Off to the mountains I would go with my school issued, heavy, it was made of steel I think, Calumet camera. That tripod must have weighed twenty five pounds, at least. I ended up buying a wooden 4×5 Wista view camera that weighed a couple of pounds. It made shooting outdoors so much easier.

By the end of my first year, I did develop an appreciation for black and white. It was more complicated than I had imagined. From the visualizing in black and white to the processing my sheet film to expand or contract the dynamic range to the printing. Once I started my second year and got into color, the black and white part was quickly forgotten.

Today color still gets most of my attention. Only when something is obvious to me as a subject for black and white do I even consider it. Sunday morning while taking photos and looking down a gravel road towards the sun I briefly saw something that I thought might make a good black and white. I’ve included a similar but different photo as a comparison of how the mood of the photo can change in the absence of color. The original color in the black and white was almost identical to the color one I’ve included here. Two completely different moods but almost the same scene.

I think that I could still get into black and white but when I see a fabulous sunrise and the colors of the rainbow splashing across the sky, eh, black and white, phoooey. LOL

Happy shooting,


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~ by Dan Jurak on August 27, 2012.

14 Responses to “To shoot black and white, you’ve gotta think black and white”

  1. I like both BW and color.. black and white conveys the mood while color conveys the beauty..

  2. @ Vicki, I agree. That’s exactly how I feel.

  3. Black and white photography is far more complicated than it looks. It’s not as easy as ‘conveying the mood or beauty better’. It has different qualities that a colour shot will never be able to show.
    O and Dan, Minimal photography is a movement that is valid as any other photography movement. Have you ever tried to photograph nothing and convey a message? It’s harder than you think. And if you strip away the colour, it’s even more difficult. But hit the sweet spot and it’s magical.
    You do know your ex-city friend (he just moved to Van City) Eric Fredine right? That is some BRILLIANT minimal photography. Eric has an eye for composition that a lot of people just miss.

    You often read that colour photographs make people see the shot. B&W makes them step into the shot. Everybody perceives a B&W shot differently. In our mind, we all ‘convert’ the graytones differently. So 1 B&W photograph can have a different effect on multiple viewers at the same time.

    BTW I’m ditching digital photography to pursue a more classic approach to B&W landscape photography. Back to film it is. You still have that Wista 4×5? You should be ready to sell… right? ;)

  4. @ Oli, u sound ready for the arts scene. You’re starting to sound like one. LOL

    BTW, I don’t know that I wrote that it was easy, I’m not a great fan of it. The artist you mention, that’s what is so great about the visual arts, we can all have our opinions. I COMPLETLEY disagree. That composition isn’t lost on me, I just don’t like it. What you’re saying is that if I don’t like what you like, I don’t get it. That’s so wrong. It works for you. It doesn’t work for me.

    I still have the wooden 4×5 and a wooden 8×10 along with half of a freezer full of black and white sheet film in those sizes but I’m keeping that to hand down to my grandchildren as a connection to the old days. I don’t say good old days because I lived and breathed film for too many years. The allure that it has for the younger folks is lost on me because I breathed in far more developer and fixer than is probably healthy. Good riddance to film. Maybe one day I’ll dabble in film again but right now I have absolutely no interest in it.

  5. great background story and overview, Dan! as for me, I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy high-quality black&white ( monochrome?!) images. when well-done, such as yours above, they convey to me a sense of beauty and mystery

  6. @ Steve, I see that you got back safely from the river trip. I love black and whites too but I’ve always been more drawn to color. I’d shoot more but it requires a different way of seeing. It’s not more difficult just different. Both can be beautiful when well done. Apples. Oranges.

  7. @Dan. I know it’s a matter of taste. That’s why photography or art in general doesn’t deserve an explanation. If you HAVE to explain your art then that’s because your message doesn’t get across all too well.
    I think you should sell that 4×5 to me. :p

  8. @ Oli, Deal. U can pick up the 4×5 and take all the film from the freezer when I hold my next workshop. ;)

  9. Dang….. that’s like…… never :(((

  10. For me…. I shoot color during the golden hours and have moved almost entirely to shooting b/w during the day, squeezing out as much photography time as I can when I’m in the field. ;)_

  11. @ Derrick, that sounds like the perfect situation.

  12. I know that you preach (correctly, most of the time!) that your best shooting is done in your backyard… but I love the canyon lands and mountains of west Texas…. and that’s a bit of a drive. Shooting for every hour I’m awake maximizes my time. :)

  13. @ Derrick, I only emphasize shooting near home because of a couple of very important reasons. The first is that the more you visualize, shoot, edit and process your landscapes the more quickly you are likely to improve. The second is that when you’re away from home you’re at the mercy of the elements. If the canyon lands have sucky light and weather, that’s what you get. At home you are available almost every day of the year to take advantage of the times when all the conditions are perfect. Light and weather to me are far more important than where I am.

    BTW, I like to get away too. In a couple of weeks when Jasper and Banff get their fall colors, I’ll be there. :)

    Have fun in the canyon lands and mountains.


  14. I couldn’t agree with you more!! It’s just that suburban Dallas is kinda boring for cool landscape stuff. ;)

    Your rationality is spot on, that’s a big part of the reason I carry a camera of some kind with me everywhere, even when I’m trapped in the metro-mess.

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