Making a Black & White Picture

Processing the image, not the real scene

I seem to be following a couple of converging streams lately. Several times recently I have discussed whether art, specifically photography, should be “real” – e.g. faithful to the original. I have also been thinking a lot about black & white. Today I am merging these thoughts (don’t cross the streams!). I want to talk about making a black & white picture. That is explicitly chosen rather than saying “taking” a black & white picture.

A unique art

In my last post I mentioned some of the history of black & white imaging. This is important to keep in mind. This is not just general photography. It is a specific art form with a long tradition.

We are not talking about just taking the color out of a picture. How many times have you heard someone say “that did not work in color, let’s try it is black & white”? As if to say that black & white processing is a last ditch effort to save an image. What a very limited view.

When we step into the black & white world we are now following a different path. The way we look at the image, the way we work, the results we try to achieve are all very different from working a color image.

It is art

By its very nature, a black & white image is an abstraction. It is removed from reality. We use black & white to reinterpret scenes we see. This is art.

As art, the results do not have to recreate the reality we originally started with. Did VanGogh actually see what he painted as Starry Night? If he did, he was on some serious drugs. Are Monet’s water lilies a faithful representation of the original scene? No, they are an interpretation. This is a characteristic of art.

Likewise, black & white images are not meant to be a colorless picture of the original scene. It should capture a unique view or feeling about what it was.

Recent videos

This was brought home to me when watching a recent video by Serge Ramelli. The course was “Mastering Black and White Photography in Lightroom”, available on Kelby Training. (I get no compensation from Serge or Kelby One.)

What hit me was not that Lightroom is a pretty good tool for doing black & white – I knew that. I came away with a new view of how Serge approaches modifying a picture to become a good black & white image. Not just the techniques, but the boldness.

Serge has the ability to forget about the scene as shot and just look at the image on screen and ask what should be done to it to make it interesting. What it was originally is not even a consideration at this point.

Realization – I haven’t let go

The realization the hit me is that, despite all my talk about art not necessarily being representational, I have trouble making that transition in my black & white images. I get stuck too much in my memory of the scene as shot.

All that matters is the image I am working with on the screen and the final print. That is the art. What I started with doesn’t matter.

I have to get better at letting go and just working the image.

No sales pitch

I don’t want you going away thinking I am just promoting Serge. No, while he is unmistakably a very good artist, he is too commercialized for my taste. He has a neatly packaged set of products encompassing books and training videos and actions and tie-ins to other photographers and their training, etc. There is a strong a flavor of “follow my instructions and you can make pictures just like me”. Thank you, but I don’t want to copy you, Serge. I just want to improve my ability to realize my own vision.

I have learned good things from Serge’s videos, and I recommend you checking them out on Kelby One or Creative Live. He presents a lot of excellent information, but I do not want to be a Serge Ramelli clone.

My takeaway

Serge opened my eyes some. I realize that the boldness I thought I had is only a shadow of how I ought to be behaving. What I saw Serge doing was just working with the image until it was the artistic piece he wanted. I need to completely let go of my “knowledge” of what it is and where and how it was made. Those things are not important at this stage. All that is important is how can I make this set of pixels an interesting black & white image?

The image here is an attempt to follow this advice. This is where I live and this is a snapshot I took on a daily walk from my studio. This is basically the original image, no compositing or major editing. Creating this result was frustrating and a little painful until I really broke down my inhibitions and got in the spirit of the process. What you see here is very different in feeling and impression to the original. It works well in black & white, but it is not a faithful representation to the original. This picture was made, not just taken. I like the result.

How about you? What do you think? How much liberty should artists take?

Thinking Black & White

Example black & white image

It seems to me I have been seeing and thinking in black & white more lately. Not seeing the world as black & white. Things are not that simple and clear cut. No, seeing the world as black and white images. That is the interpretation of reality I am leaning more to these days.

Contribution of photography

I believe black and white is one of the great contributions of photography to the art world. Yes, at the time it was a technical limitation rather than an artistic choice. The processes and chemistry of the late 19th century through mid 20th century could only create monochrome images.

But the look stuck. It became associated with photography, with “reality” in image making. It helped establish photography as a distinct art form from painting.

Because that is the medium they had, the practitioners of it became extremely proficient at creating beautiful, artistic images. A good artist learns how to use his tools. Some people say their achievements of the old masters of black & white photography have never been equaled. I’m not so sure. We can do a pretty good job today.

Not obsolete

Most people view black & white images as obsolete today. Why do that when we have a wonderful world of color imaging? Why throw away all that rich color information?

The reality is that black & white is still a unique and vibrant art form. It can create very captivating images. Well done and well printed I believe we can still rival the best of the “old masters” like Ansel Adams.

There are magazines that only showcase black & white. There are galleries that only accept black & white works. Some artists only do black and white. Why? Because many art lovers look to it as a wonderful medium for conveying emotion and feeling. It is still quite popular.

Advantage of black & white

But why? What advantage does black & white have? These days, since we have an equal choice between black & white and color, there must be a reason to chose black & white at times.

Black & white is an abstract medium. Eliminating color brings a new and different view of the world. Without color the image becomes shades of tone and forms. It creates a whole new way of looking at things. It is clear that it is not just a representation of reality, it is an interpretation, a new view. The photographer could have worked in full color. So black & white was a conscious choice to show something different.

Being so different, it is immediately set apart as something to be looked at in a new way. That helps with the reinterpretation of the scene. Plus, many viewers appreciate the pure tonal variations without the distraction of color. It becomes a new type of art.

So creating black & white prints is no longer a technical limitation of the medium, it is an artistic choice. We use it because it can better express our view of the scene.

Why now?

As I said, it is an artistic choice. Some subjects seem to work better in black & white. There is a lot to be said for removing color distractions and focusing attention on tonal variations. Shapes and form and relationships take on a new prominence. It is a different interpretation of a scene.

And the technology now shifts the work from the darkroom – in the dark and where you are breathing all sorts of chemicals – to the computer – in the light, maybe with a glass of wine nearby. Sounds more pleasant and creative to me. The masters, like Ansel Adams needed to make a number of test prints to work out the “map” of the dodging and burning and sharpening and spotting required to create the final print they like. Then they, or more likely their assistant, would spend many hours in the darkroom hand creating each print. Each print required hours of work.

Now technology lets us push the time consuming work up front. I may spend hours on the computer working with an image to get it exactly the way I want. Then in a matter of minutes I can print it. If my systems are set up correctly, the print is a very good match of what I created on the computer. And I can push the button again and produce perfect duplicates every few minutes. The computer and printer technology completely changes the game. No more colored filters on black & white film, no more long sessions in the darkroom in possibly harmful chemicals, no more having each print be a performance piece that may of may not match the artist’s template.

Technology-wise, this is the best time in history to be creating black & white prints. Artistically it is a great time, too. The world is saturated with color prints and black & white seems fresh and unique – a different point of view. It is time for a resurgence of black & white. At least for me.

Fall in Love

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

I advocate it, but I’m not talking about a romantic meeting. Making art should be an act of love. We should fall in love with our works, or else, why do them?

Because it’s there

I mostly wander and explore without a lot of planning or result in mind. Sometimes I shoot pictures just because something is kind of interesting and I’m there to see it. That can be good, but usually not.

Being an explorer, I follow my curiosity. I tend to try a lot of experiments to see what happens. So if something tweaks my interest I often see what I can do with it. Occasionally I have a tingle and excitement when I press the shutter, knowing that I have captured something I love. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until I am reviewing the image large on my computer. Then I discover that it is far more interesting than I thought at the time I took it. Both are joyous occurrences.

More often than not, I find I have well composed, well exposed pictures of – nothing much. I look at them later and say “yeah, it was an interesting scene and it’s an OK picture, but it doesn’t grab me.” Usually I think it is because I did not feel strongly about the subject or scene. I didn’t fall in love with it.

If I don’t feel passion for the image, how can I expect you to when you view it? It is pretty obvious to me which ones really grab me. I think you can perceive it, too.


At the opposite end I see some photographers occasionally get trapped by over planning. Conventional wisdom from many renowned photographers is that any photo trip or outing should be planned out in great detail. They will research a location extensively, looking at pictures from other photographers to try to find the “best” places and positions and angles and times and seasons. In addition, they will use tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to select the exact time and day and location to get the exact sunrise/sunset/moonrise/ etc. shot they want. And they may book an outing with a workshop or guide to help with the logistics and transportation.

Is there anything wrong with doing it this way? Absolutely not, if that is the way you work. Different personality types need to approach things in different ways. Do what works for you, but don’t get into a mental trap.

One of the traps I see is that we tend to get so invested in the preparation for the shot that we have to take it. We spent a lot of time and money to get to that point. It becomes a quest. It has artificially become so important that we have to take the pictures to validate and justify the trip.

But what happens when you get there and the weather is “bad”? Bad being not what you planned for. Maybe you don’t like the workshop leader or structure. Worst, what do you do when you get there after all the planning and expense, look at the scene, and feel “meh”?

Of course you take the pictures. You have to. But if you’re honest, they may not make your portfolio set you are excited to show people. There was just no life there. You can check off that you got the iconic shot, but maybe it ends up not being very important.

Having our expectations too high can lead to disappointment.


You can guess from what I’ve written that detailed planning is not for me. I am almost an anti-planner. I tend to come at things the opposite way. Going to iconic locations and fighting for a tripod location and taking the exact same image 10,000 other photographers have taken just in the last month is not a motivation for me.

Yes, the scene is beautiful. Yes, it is probably salable because it is the type of image people like to have on their wall. Economically it is foolish to not get this image and pander to the crowd.

But for me, even though I think the scene is beautiful, I probably will not feel great passion for it. How can I distinguish myself from the thousands of other photographers shooting the same things? How can I tell my story or share my feelings?

In love

Back to the original statement of this article, I believe I have to fall in love with my images. If I am going to show you something I have made, it has to be much more than good. It has to have a passion you can sense. How can I bring you art you want unless I feel strongly about it?

Thoreau said “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.” The famous photographer John Sexton said “Too often we attempt to force a photograph out of a situation rather than allow the situation to speak to us.”

I am guilty at times of trying to force images to be there when I’m not actually listening and feeling. I recognize it. It is painfully obvious when I am reviewing them in Lightroom that I have a bunch of well executed pictures that mean nothing to me. Trashing them is the best thing to do. And use it as a reminder to follow the passion more than the light. If I don’t have a sense of wonder and passion for the image that is a good sign that it probably didn’t work.

“Follow your passion” is not always good advice in life – you have to do a lot of things you don’t like. But in art it is great advice. It may not be the clear path to fame and fortune, but you will feel good about what you create. And your viewers can tell. Love your work.

This example

I have used this image at the top before. It is a good illustration of my point here, though.

I love this image. I could stare at it for a long time. It speaks to me at a level I can’t even describe. The rich color, the organic flow, the streaks of movement over time, the standing wave shapes, the minimalist simplicity all move me.

This as shown here is almost straight out of the camera. It is what I shot. Yes, it has been cropped square and had some minor tone corrections, but this is what I discovered and jumped on. The color and the time effects of the flow are as shot. I liked it as seen through the viewfinder. I loved it after I saw it large on the computer.

It is one of the few pictures I have hanging on my wall at home.


Impressionistic photography

It may be said as an insult. It may be used to shame the photographer as “not a purist”. But should it be? What is wrong with an image being Photoshopped?


Photography began as a medium of realism. It is said that Impressionist painting (Monet, vanGogh, etc) was a reaction to the realism of photography. They took their art is a direction photography could not challenge – at the time.

Have you ever thought of traditional painting changing its direction because of photography?

The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography, which seemed to devalue the artist’s skill in reproducing reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography “produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably”.[31]

Because of the history, and the fact that everything the lens sees is recorded in detail, people tend to have an expectation that a photograph is “real”. A picture can’t lie.

Not only is this wrong in so many ways, but it is no longer a realistic expectation of photography.

Common practice

All photographs are altered from what the sensor recorded. Even if you just take that picture you snapped on your phone and post it to social media, it was altered a lot before you ever saw it. All sorts of distortion corrections, color enhancements, gamma correction and noise reduction was done by the phone. Their algorithms are very good at making the picture look like what you expected to see. It is not the same as the phone recorded.

All images you see in prints or any media are altered – Photoshopped. Some massively. Some just minor color correction and tone enhancements. I would never insult you by showing you an unprocessed picture. Unless it was to make a point about the kind of processing I do.

Even to do black & white these days requires a lot of image processing.

Did you know that even movies are “Photoshopped”? An obvious example is CGI. That stands for computer generated imagery. It proudly states that a lot of what you are seeing is artificially created. And we love it in big action movies.

Nearly all movies are digitally recorded now . All are processed and retouched frame by frame in addition to CGI enhancements. The overall color you see is even completely controlled. They call it color grading. The entire look and shading of each scene is digitally processed to set the mood the director wants.

Bad Photoshopping

One thing I will join people in denouncing is bad Photoshopping. Photoshop is a very complex program to master. It can take years – and they are constantly changing it. But even so, we are artists. We have no excuse for not mastering our tools.

Not knowing how to use the tools to accomplish our vision is like a painter not knowing how to use a brush or a metal sculptor not knowing how to weld. Just using some simple sliders to make the color of an image wonky is not much of an artistic statement.

Yet I have heard well-known professionals almost brag about their limited knowledge of Photoshop. But the reality is that they know enough to do what they want. The exception is Jay Maisel. Jay is one of the greats who I admire. He brags that he does not even have Photoshop on his computer. That is probably true, but he has full time assistants who do have it and can make a picture look like what he tells them he wants. So, a slight exaggeration for dramatic effect.

For the others, though, who really do not know Photoshop well: spend time learning it. It will reward you by making you more efficient and it will open up new artistic possibilities for you.

Artistic expression

My work is called “fine art”. I don’t like the term, but we are stuck with it. Fine art, among other things, means it is not literal or representational. I feel free to bend and even break pixels to any degree I want to bring you the art I see.

I guarantee that any image of mine you see has been processed in Lightroom Classic and maybe Photoshop. Both great tools are well capable of altering the reality of the original frame. And I do alter them.

It can range from basic color and tone correction to removing distracting elements to compositing several images together to create something new. Anything is fair game. The more adapt at my tools I get, the more I am able to use them to help me change my vision. It is circular: what we find out we can do helps us to see new things to do.

Accept it

I accepted it a long time ago. My Photoshopping goes back to about version 5 or 6. In the beginning, I was mostly just doing minor corrections on my very realistic landscapes. I have fond memories of the controversy in the camera club I was in at the time when I won best of show with the first digitally manipulated image ever submitted to them.

Since then I keep widening my vision and perspective. Realism was so deeply ingrained in me that I have had to work at giving myself permission to let my imagination go free.

I’m not where I want to be yet, but I take a much more liberal view of what I can do in an image. Still, I am my own limitation.

If you are seeking “truth” in images, be careful. But if it is important to you, do some research to find out if the image has been manipulated materially. It has been manipulated. but that doesn’t mean content has been added or deleted.

Finding truth is rare in our world. When you look at an image, assume it is art, not truth. At least, that will be true for my work. I may bring truth, but that does not mean it is realism. My images are photoshopped.

The future

In the 19th century, painting was mostly about realism. Then photography came along and took over realism. So painting moved to Impressionism and modernism and abstraction. Now digital art is perfectly capable of creating any abstract or impressionist images we desire. Where will painting go next to separate themselves?