Researching Black and White and Some Thoughts on Digital Capture

The Maiella from Roccacalacsio October 2010 - 1/125 at f/6 ISO 100

The Maiella from Roccacalacsio October 2010 – 1/125 at f/6 ISO 100

I sense that this is a subject that I will return to time and time again during this course. For me, black and white images have always had a strong effect, I respond to the qualities of tonal breadth and graphic design that are often present in landscape and architectural photography; the gritty, timelessness of old Life magazines or the frighteningly, brilliant and moving war photography of Don McCullin; the intimacy of the best contemporary street photography or the work of the great masters of the art that crosses many genres.

However, it has never been my forte and it is a key objective of my learning journey to start to “see” in black and white and to produce well thought through, technically strong black and white images that work. Lofty ambitions indeed. To this end, and over the last few weeks, I have been starting to read more of the thoughts of people who have mastered monochrome and to spend time just looking at great black and white photographs. On-line, second hand book shops are a great source of material and that combined with a couple of books I already own and a visit to the local bookstore has given me a starting point for research.

For many years my interests lay with Landscape so the first book from my own shelf is The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, a book I purchased in a Manilla bookshop that recycled books from American libraries. As the title suggests this is primarily a collection of Adams’ photographs, in fact seven portfolios selected by Adams himself to show his work across many different subjects. There is a preface written by Adams where he makes the intriguing comment that he has worked with much the same approach and the same general techniques for forty five years.

Ansel Adams lived from 1902 to 1984, and I wonder whether he would have said the same if he had been born 50 or 60 years later? In the very late 20th and early 21st Centuries we have seen photography turned on its head by the “perfect storm” the need for digital image capture, transmission and storage created by, amongst others, the space race, the rapid development of that technology converging with a quantum leap in computer processing power for the home user and the coming of the ubiquitous smart phone.

The first commercial digital camera was patented as early as 1972 by Texas Instruments but I would argue that few professionals or serious amateurs would have considered a full or partial switch to digital until Nikon launched their first digital SLR in 1999, the D1, and Canon quickly followed with the EOS D30 in 2000. The Nikon D1 boasted 2.7 megapixels and the Canon D30 3.25 megapixels. This compares with the 36 megapixels offered by the Nikon D800 launched last year. I am not technically qualified to answer whether Ansel Adams could have created the subtle tones of his masterpieces with 36 megapixels, Photoshop CS6 and modern papers and printers but I am certain that he would not have been able to do so as recently as 2000.

It is not for me to say what Adams would or would not have done but many, most (?) or a sizeable proportion (?) of working photographers and a high percentage of amateurs born in the 50’s and 60’s discarded a significant amount of the technology they grew up with sometime after 1999. For some, such as press photographers, it might initially have been an enforced change and for others an act of faith to climb onboard the digital revolution and to explore the possibilities. I wonder if, in the year 2030, when like Adams they are 79 or 80 and publishing a portfolio of their life’s work, that any of this generation of photographers will write that they have worked with much the same techniques and the same approach for the whole of their career.

But, that is all about technology. Adams chose to use black and white, long after colour processing became available. Initially his reservations could have been analogous to using the limited ability of a D1 in 1999. According to Richard B. Woodward writing in the on-line Smithsonian Magazine (2009) Adams wanted to control the whole process from capture to final print and the complexities of colour processing from the 1930’s to the 1950’s meant that processing occurred in laboratories and the results were, in Woodward’s words, a “crapshoot”. However, Adams this icon of black and white photography, did use colour and captured many Kodachromes in the 40’s and consulted to Eastman Kodak and Polaroid in their quest to create accurate colour film so he was obviously no Luddite. We know that Adams continued to predominantly use black and white long after colour was available and, indeed practical, so this was clearly an artistic choice.

The answer to why he made this choice lies in his work. His famous American Western landscapes are more about tone than shape. The range of light captured, for example, in Lower Yosemite Fall where the highlights on the leaves leap from the page, defined and textured above the dark waters of the river with its glistening reflections and sense of deep waters. The towering peaks subtly receding into the clouds above the pine valley in Winter Storm includes a tonal range as broad as the valley he photographed.

My research this week has helped me understand that his technique of processing the minute detail of his prints, selectively managing every tone to create the desired effect would have been impossible in colour then and is still impossible now. To reach this understanding I needed two key pieces of input, one was obviously to look at the work of a master of his art but the driver to take me to that point was my local book store purchase; Michael Freeman’s Field Guide to Black and White Photography is a compact and informative introduction to the subject. His practical comparison of the broad limits of post production processing of black and white versus the narrow limits of processing colour and how detail filled highlights and deep textured shadows can more easily coexist in a black and white world begin to explain why, for the right subject, managing tonal range can provide a more compelling image than the best processed colour original. Freeman (2013) explains that monochrome is not what we normally see, it is “distanced from what we take in through our eyes”  and that allows us to manipulate it in post processing in more extreme ways without breaching any norms of acceptability.  Understanding this is an important step for me to have taken on the road to understanding when and why to create black and white images and hopefully to discovering how to create compelling monochrome images.


Adams, Ansel, with an Introduction by John Szarkowski. (1981) The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, New York, New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company.

Freeman, Michael. (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide, The art of creating digital monochrome, Lewes, The Ilex Press Limited.

Nikon DSLR History –

Canon DSLR History –

Texas Instruments –

Ansel Adams and Colour Photography –


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