"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Paperwhites, Quince, and Camellia in Black and White

Paperwhites, Quince, and Camellia in Black and White

From Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“Until color film became reliable, many great photographers brought to light the beauty they saw in nature using black-and-white imagery. Some of them stayed with black and white their entire lives. While Ansel Adams used color in his early commercial work, he chose black and white to express the natural world that he loved. Black-and-white work has long been considered to be art photography.

“Working in black and white will actually strengthen your ability to compose pictures, and to see and use light. In the absence of color, we can see the shapes, lines, forms, and textures that light reveals in the landscape. Color can seduce us away from those things, if we let it. I maintain that you can work in both color and black and white and do well, if you are looking at the elements for their graphic representation and paying attention to tonal values. I still think in color, and I understand the language of color, after so many more years devoted to it…. But the digital darkroom has allowed me to explore black and white more easily again, and now, when I create a black-and-white image, it’s because the color isn’t doing it for me, while light and contrast are.”

“It was a dark and stormy day….”

Actually it wasn’t that stormy until a few minutes ago, but it has been unusually dark — dark gray winter dark — all day long, so despite my camera begging me to take it on an outing, I opted to stay in, keep it dry, and convert a few of my previously posted photos to black and white.

I probably don’t do these conversions often enough, especially since I do find the exercise interesting — more interesting than just pushing the “Black & White” button in Lightroom. The button-push creates a very literal interpretation of the image with the color replaced by gray tones that look pretty flat and lack contrast. The fun comes when you realize that in the color photos the white blossoms aren’t just white but contain blue, aqua, and sometimes yellow or orange; the stems contain green, red, yellow, orange, and a bit of purple; and the backgrounds (for those where I hadn’t already removed it) contain every color Lightroom lets you work with: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta.

Playing with the “Black and White Mix” in Lightroom lets you adjust various color channels to bring in more contrast; in this case, I could brighten up the flower petals, dim the backgrounds and stems, and create little black dots or other shapes in the center of those blooms that had yellow or orange filaments in the color photos. After doing that with these photos, I then used Lightroom’s Color Grading to add a little silver/blue to the midtones, shadows, and highlights — which is just something I like (and previously described here, here, and here). For these photos — especially the camellia’s, the last two images — I added more softening than I usually do using Lightroom’s Texture and Clarity adjustments, because they seemed to work well on those big white petals.

As I was working on these, I started wondering if I would have composed any of the images differently if I intended them to be black-and-white images instead of color. I already know that I often compose with the idea of removing backgrounds in mind, so it would seem that I might do something different on a shoot if I was intentionally trying to produce grayscale images. Like many people, I suppose, I shoot in color because Lightroom lets you convert color to black-and-white, but not black-and-white to color. Theoretically, the camera captures more shadow and contrast variations by shooting in color then converting; but I’ve never tried it so I think it might be worth switching the camera to black-and-white mode to see what happens. Also, creatively speaking, sometimes it’s good to work within an artificial constraint like this just to learn from it.

Below are the black-and-white images, paperwhites followed by quince then two camellia blossoms. After that, I’ve included a single gallery showing the color and black-and-white versions for comparison.

Thanks for taking a look!


    1. Dale

      Thank you! It is really interesting; I end out trying a lot of options with black and white, and it’s fun to see how even Lightroom settings that have little to do with color (sharpening, for example) change a B&W image in ways you don’t see with color photos.

      Thanks for leaving a comment!


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