Is black & white the purist form of photography?

In November 2011 I posted a bit titled, “Photography Purist – Whatever…”.  I briefly refuted a claim that film was more pure than digital and went on to profess that I didn’t think it was possible for absolute purity on either front.  Most recently I have been reading another claim of purity in regards to black & white vs. color photography.  Is black & white the purist form of photography?  Ponder that for a moment.

My love for photography began in high school some 20+ years ago.  It was my junior year and I had transferred to a different school.  A significantly smaller school that was even further out in the country than I was used to.

I cannot quite remember how I ended up in photography class.  I was surprised this subject was even offered at such a small school.  When I say small, I am referring to 30+ kids per graduating class small.  There were several teachers that crossed over into different subjects.  The photography teacher was also the shop teacher.  The English teacher also taught art.  By doing so, I imagine these teachers enabled the school to offer more and do more with less.

I am still young enough to remember film – or is it old enough?  Whatever the case may be, I cut my photog-teeth on a Pentax ME Super with a 50mm f2 lens.  I shot black & white film and developed my own prints in the school darkroom.  I enjoyed the whole process from beginning to end.   A pretty standard story for many I suppose.  I remember all of the equipment and the smell of the chemicals.  Gone are those days for many, including me.  I haven’t shot a roll of black & white film since or much film at all for that matter.

My interest in photography continued on through my twenties.  I had a point and shoot film camera to capture all my fishing, hunting and biking adventures.  I do recall some disappointment after receiving film back from processing.  The point and shoot just wasn’t the same as the SLR and I guess my attention wasn’t completely focused on the whole process anymore.  My very first digital camera that I purchased in 2004 was a Sony DSC-W1.  I bought the x0.7 wide angle and x2.6 tele conversion lenses for it as well.  My 5.1 megapixels wonder got used and abused.  In total, I think It was dropped in a trout stream at least six times.  I happily clicked away and thought nothing of post processing back then.  I have it to this day and it still works great.

It wasn’t until about five years ago that a more serious interest in photography was sparked.  The age of digital was very well established and I figured it was time to take a leap.  I always wanted an SLR camera; a DSLR camera would be even better!  I purchased my first DSLR, A Nikon D60.  It has been a wonderful camera.  I’ve found that I have been shooting it again lately.  These days it seems that I shoot it more than my D7000 that I picked up approximately a year ago.  Its compact size enables me to carry it with me most everywhere I go.  I am completely immersed in digital and will likely never go back to film.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately that suggest that black and white is the purist form of photography.   I have been doing some research in hopes of bettering my understanding and implementation of this particular craft.  I can readily identify with the reasons cited and find myself agreeing with the arguments that favor the notion.   Black & white is a whole different beautiful beast of elements and understanding.  I absolutely love black and white photography.  It is where I started and also where I have been dabbling for the last year.  I’ve been testing myself with my “revisited” posts where I review my previous month’s batch of photos and create black & white conversions.  In looking back, I see that I have done some horrendous renditions and have made all of the classic mistakes.  I’ve created some freaky and flat imagery.  My first conversion that I spent a lot of time on and was very happy with was Country Road – Sleepy Hallow Road.  I am currently working toward reviewing and redoing a group of photos from this last year.  I hope to apply what I’ve learned over this past year and put it together in a photo book.

When I shoot now, I just know in my mind’s eye if it is going to be a great black & white or not.  You can convert images all day long, but if it is just not meant to be – it certainly will be nothing more than a muddle mess of shades of grey or overdone contrasts.  In my mind a good black & white can consist of several components or just a few.  Some of the most interesting black & whites I’ve seen have been very simple.  I haven’t mastered simple at all, but took a stab at it with Waterscape – Winter Spring Flow.  I tend to gravitate towards depth and dimension and love layers, shapes and lines.  I like to create contrast, but feel sometimes I overly exploit it a bit too much.  I often attempt to span all 10 zones (within Silver Efex Pro) even though digital’s capability natively covers only zones 3-7 or less.  Most of the time I end up covering 1-8 which I think works well too.  It is all a learning process and one day I hope to settle in and find my photographic style.

I don’t know if I completely agree that black and white is the purest form of photography.  I do know that when done with much consideration and in conjunction with the elements that make a strong black and white image, the results can be pretty wonderful.  As I’ve stated in the past, I do favor black and white.  I think the absence of color makes you work harder and think more about what you are capturing.  In the long run, understanding what makes a great black and white photo can only help you no matter which way you prefer to shoot.  At the end of the day photography is in the most simplest of terms an art.  I still have not found a right or wrong way.  What do you think?

Here are a some of the images that I have adjusted from previous renditions.  I think you may recognize a few.  I do 90% of my black and white conversions in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.  I have really enjoyed testing its limits and exploring its features.

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7 Replies to “Is black & white the purist form of photography?”

    1. 🙂 You are too kind – thank you. I love that bull shot and the old blue jeans hanging above his head. That shot was mostly luck + patience + 3 shot bursts for 30 seconds or so; pick the best from the group. This was another one of those shots that I caught out of the corner of my eye at about 45 mph traveling down a county road. He was just barely visible, but you could see he was a big, handsome fella. If you think you saw something, chances are you did – back up or turn around and never dismiss what you thought might be there.

  1. Love these BW conversions! I had a hard time picking a favorite, but I am always drawn to the old windows and the bull photo is really great! I enjoyed reading your essay. I rarely convert or shoot in BW, but would love to experiment. Something to try in the future.

  2. Toooo many great shots to handle on a Thur morning. I have clk liked on my favs and commented on the stand outs for me. Don’t ya just love NIK for b/w!!! I also started in the darkroom with classes in b/w. Each shoot I go on I transform some of images into b/w…. still embrace the form… still on the fence about the ‘purist’ thing. 🙂

  3. “You can convert images all day long, but if it is just not meant to be – it certainly will be nothing more than a muddle mess of shades of grey or overdone contrasts.” You hit the nail on the head with this one. I can’t say if I agree with B&W being the most pure or what have you but I do think it takes a greater skill to shoot B&W because you have to be spot on with exposure and lighting. I know that I find it more difficult to shoot that way than just color and I am so jealous of those who get it right.

  4. Beautiful images Dan. I just love B&W too. There’s something mysterious and ‘pure’ in the sense that B&W images cut through the noise and busyness that colour creates. It’s like looking deeply into someone’s eyes and seeing the essence of who they really are, and what you see is beauty in it’s purest form. Thanks for dropping by my blog. I enjoy your posts. I think it makes the images more interesting when you know the thoughts and ideas behind them. It’s often I find the stories behind the images and how they came into being, more interesting than the images themselves. 🙂

Comments are always welcome and very much appreciated

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