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Seeing In Black And White; The Visual Charms Of A Monochrome Image Bookmark and Share

Human visual perception is a wondrous thing—it allows us to see a wide spectrum of colors, with all the subtleties and shades, lights and darks, pastels and richness of the earth and the heavens. To see in black and white is an abstraction of that world, one that perceives luminance, or brightness, without the benefit of hue. Yet hue, or color, and its shades, often determine what tones, or grayscale values, will be seen in black and white. If one were always to see the world only in black and white it would be considered a deficiency of vision. But to see that way occasionally, and to be able to render what we see in a monochrome fashion, opens the door to different perceptions and feelings about the world, and yields a unique form of expression in the bargain.

When you photograph in black and white you are relying on a grayscale “spectrum” that ranges from white to black with all the shades in between (#1). This grayscale step spectrum is arbitrarily divided into segments, much like the Zone System of yore. Digital provides increasingly subtler differentiation of the scale, all of which can be manipulated via exposure and processing.

#1
All Photos © 2010, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

That, in essence, is what black and white photography is all about. It is a way of seeing that counts on tonality, texture and contrast, and that strips color from the definition of what we see. It relies on highlight and shadow, and the secrets they hold or reveal, in a way that often eludes the visual charms of color. It is an abstraction that relies on the ability of the mind to read more into an image than it may hold, or at the least to bring the viewer into a world in which design, content and form play an essential role.

Image processing, a Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw, allows us to change the way in which color translates to various “tones” or shades of gray. Brightness and contrast are also malleable (#2 and #3).

#2

#3

When we record an autumn leaf in color we are dazzled by the brilliant red, orange or yellow; when we do the same in black and white we are more drawn to its shape, veins and graphic design. We have no choice—there is no color upon which we can dwell. The image of the leaf in color may be all about color—the same leaf in black and white may be about its design, or about the archetypal “leaf” itself. Both color and black and white deal in qualities of light; the monochrome image deals in a very distinct set of those qualities.

When we photograph a sunset scene on the water we might be dazzled by the reds and yellows, and the way the color light streaks across the water. In black and white we are eliminating the “charm” of color and dealing with the luminosity alone, although in processing we can translate those colors to enhance the tone further (#4).

#4

This does not mean that every black and white image bears the burden of meaning, or that it needs ponderous thought. But eliminating color is a conscious decision that creates a different aura around an image, one that adds its own unique visual qualities.

Every digital photograph we take is RGB, or color. In fact, being color, a digital file allows us to change the tonal values in many more ways than if we had photographed with black and white film. The color to tonal translation can change with a mere movement of a slider in processing for an almost infinite variety of tone. Here, note the way the red and magenta umbrellas are altered from light to dark tone, simply done in processing without difficult selection techniques (#5, #6 and #7).

#5

#6

#7

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