Blinded by Colors

Imagine how depressing it would be if we lived in a colorless world. We would never have our chance to experience the beauties of Agfa Optima, Kodakchrome or Fujifilm Velvia. And Cibachrome would never exist…

I love colors. To me, colors are like honey, they spice up my living space and add life to my photographs, even though most of my photographs are in black and white. Come to think of it, there are many famous and powerful black and white photographs in the history of photography. Given that we spend our lives living in a colorful world, why are we still choosing to shoot in black and white?

Some say that color can be distracting and that black and white is a better choice when color becomes cluttered with detail. Others say that black and white transforms a scene into an abstract domain, transcends reality and timeless. Considering both theories are corrected, I’d like to add that black and white also reduces the photograph to pure luminosity, which the viewer’s eyes receive no other information but lines, forms, shapes, tonalities, contrasts and shadows. Talking about the eyes, do you know that only two percent of the light-sensitive part of our eyes can see color?

A vendor peeks out from her kiosk. Olvera Street, CA. Copyright © 2012. stFOTOgrafer. All Rights Reserved!

Copyright © 2012. stFOTOgrafer. All Rights Reserved!

Many of us think shooting in black and white is the same as shooting in color. In reality, it requires a different technique. Keep in mind that in black and white photography, everything you see is in the shades of gray and during the processing stage, you’ll have to determine which shade of gray will correspond better to a particular color—or to the entire image. Technically, we try to capture as many shades of gray as possible when shooting in black and white. The wider the grayscale, the more contrast our images will look. Inexperienced photographers often mistakes the darkest shade of gray is black, but it’s not. Within the darkest shade of gray, we can still see details while there is nothing but a splotch of undefined tone in black color. In black and white photography, white is defined by the brightness of your printing paper.

In order to transform a color image to black and white, we need to understand that individual colors come with various tones. The keys to control these tones are light and exposure. Let just say we put a green gel over a light, bring it close to a white wall we will see a light shade of green. When we move that light away from the wall, that shade of green will become darker. This shade of green inheres the same effect if we brighten or dimmer the light source when it is at a fixed distance. These are examples of using distance or volume to control the value of color or tone.

“Black and white is not color photography without the color.” ~Ben Long~

In a recent discussion in my visual ethnography class, a student asked me what subject should he be looking for when shooting in black and white. The answer is that we should not look for a subject but rather a condition in which we can integrate contrast, shape, texture and shadow into our photographs. In order to capture these, we need to understand our light source and how to control or make that light source works for us.

In one of my blog entries, I mentioned that I always look at the shadow instead of the light when I photograph. The shadow is the photographer’s ally, it’s also our enemy. Many photographers don’t like to use flash because they can’t visualize the shadow until they look at the taken photographs. Other photographers can’t tell the difference from summer light and winter light, or why morning light gives portraits much pleasant looks than afternoon light. Can you look at a scene and instantly know how to position that sunlight to compose a compelling photograph?

Día de los Muertos. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, CA. Copyright © 2012. stFOTOgrafer. All Rights Reserved!

Copyright © 2012. stFOTOgrafer. All Rights Reserved!

Black and white photography is all about recognizing and controlling the relationship between the abstraction of photography and the reality of our colorful world. It is the foundation of photography, the symbol of “the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected,” as Robert Frank said.

I’d like to share with you some experience before I wrap up this entry. After years of shooting and printing in black and white, my eyes automatically interpret burgundy and navy blue into a darkest shade of gray, green and orange into a medium shade of gray, while baby blue and yellow into the lightest shade of gray. I pay more attention to the shadow than the light. I also take reading of the shadow areas instead of the bright areas when I need to measure the light. I always over expose my images when I shoot in black and white because I rather pull down the highlight during the processing stage than having no detail in the shadow areas to work with. And finally, I don’t allow myself to get blinded by colors.

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About Kris Phan

I'm not a photographer. I'm a camera user. View all posts by Kris Phan

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