Seeing In Black & White

Copied from “A Gypsy’s Life In Black & White”

I started this post in the morning, and realised that I have to rush for a lunch meeting. I hit the “publish” instead of the “draft” button, and voila, there was an empty post!

When I started into black and white photography, I had already spent a few years reading about black magic, books like “The Doors Of Perception” and books by Castaneda, and others like “The Tao Of Physics”. One thing that they all have in common, is that they talk of perception, and they talk of the power of personal vision. Extending the philosophical argument, I could state that there is no one universe, there is a universe that each of us lives in, bounded by our perception. Life is about the interaction between these universes. The Hindu concept of Maya, is all about illusion and the existence of this world.

So, what does this have to do with photography, and black and white photography? During the photographic process, we seek to imprint our perception of the world on the prints and digital files that we create. To each his, or her, own. Some of us (like me) don’t like too much digital manipulation, other’s do. The moment that the camera clicks, the composition, the perspective changes the story that we seek to create in the photo. But, more of this later.

When I started in black and white, I learned to see in tones. What was the impact of light on the shadows? Would there be strong contrast, or mild? How would I turn the angle of the camera to enhance the contrast, or reduce it?

I used to detest shooting in overcast conditions, and until recently, refused to accept that overcast conditions can produce a gentle gradation of tones, revealing detail that would be lost in a contrasty photo. Now, the intention of this blog is to take the reader through my evolution in monochrome photography, and I am often tempted to jump the years. When I was shooting the Sun Temple in Konarak, using B&W film, I cursed the fact that the day was overcast. However, if I had shot in bright light, I would have lost detail in the sculptures. When I shot at the Halebidu Temple, I shot in the afternoon, giving me contrasty shots, shots that are more dramatic.

Shall I put them up now, or later? I wonder.

When we shoot in colour, we think in terms of the temperature of the light. We don’t often do that when we shoot in black and white, but this can be a mistake. The afternoon sun produces warmer shadows, even in B&W. The early morning light produces whites that have almost a hint of the silvery to them.

Over the years I forgot about the pursuit of light, until recently.

The impact of light on B&W is dramatic. Walking around the subject (you don’t have that luxury always in street photography) is critical. Where does the light land? What is the angle at which it lands? What shadows do you see?

These are the questions that you ask when you shoot in black and white.

More on this later…


  1. I love this conversation you raise. What about the shadows? I love shadows when it comes to b/w I look for the shadows and of course the lightest point! OK so where are they? I want to see them?

  2. Thank you for this post! I have decided to try more B&W this winter and this is a helpful discussion. I have used B&W film in the past and have not been able to do that switch of seeing in black and white when I’m using a digital camera. You know how it was with film? You’d pop in a roll of B&W and you could see in black and white? Winter always seems colorless to me – especially after autumn’s brilliance – so I am going to use that to try to recapture the trick of seeing in B&W.

    1. I started in B&W, so that is an advantage I think. Colour was very expensive. I don’t do much B&W film these days, because it is hard to find. I have to travel 50 kilometres to buy it. Only one chap, 30 km from my home processes it. I lost my red filter, and I have asked a friend in Singapore to buy it for me

      1. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve been thinking about dusting off my old SLR, but I’d better check around for a shop that will process B&W film before I go buying any!

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