Here’s a recent photo I shot of Eagle Peak in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. End of the day, dramatic subject matter, vibrant colors, great light, what’s not to like? A scene like this is the reason we love color photography. Imagine how this would look as a large format metal print?
Hold on a minute, though… What if we shot this in black and white?
You mean get rid of the color? Why on earth would we want to get rid of that beautiful pink light? Simple; when you reduce a scene to black and white, your bring the elements of shape, shadow and tone to the foreground. This forces your viewer to focus on the simplicity of light and form without being distracted by all the pretty lights.
Also, by removing the “realistic” aspect of color, you create a symbolic representation of your scene, which increases the mental engagement of your viewer’s imagination. No matter what you’re shooting, that’s the real power of photography. It isn’t about perfectly reproducing a subject, but rather representing it in an artistic way that matches your own creative vision.
So, by removing the element of color, you can actually increase the impact of your photograph and create a more powerful image. Basically, if it works in color, it should work in black and white, because drama is drama, and great light looks just as good in BW as it does in color. At least that’s what Ansel taught us.
With that in mind, here’s the same scene shot in black and white. What do you think? I guess the important question to ask is, if you looked at this version only, would you miss the color?
Of course, there are some scenes that look strikingly better in black and white. These are usually scenes shot under less dramatic light.
Here’s a mountain I shot a few hours before the good light hit. It doesn’t do much in color, but the black and white version is a little bit better. Add in some adjustments in Lightroom, and suddenly I’ve got a much more remarkable image!
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Of course, this is all subjective. Ansel Adams shot in in black and white. Galen Rowell shot in many of the same places, but exclusively in color. There is no right way, there’s only what excites you and your passion for photography.
Whether you shoot in black and white mode on your camera, or if you shoot in RAW and convert on the computer, the next time you have a dramatic scene, try creating some black and white images, it will make you perceive the scene a little differently, and that can help improve your creative eye and your images.