The Elegance of Black and White Photography

September 9, 2022

If you've followed my work for any amount of time, you're accustomed to seeing the bold, vibrant color I tend to work with. And make no mistake, I very much see the world in color, and enjoy capturing the color I see with my camera and in my editing process. That said, like many other photographers, I began my photographic journey using black and white film. A few weeks ago, I was inspired to return to those roots.

Morning light shines on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan on a spring morning in Yosemite National Park.

The Dawn Wall Monchrome

Morning light shines on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan on a spring morning in Yosemite National Park. I photographed this on a spring morning, just as trees were beginning to blossom and the Merced River flowed by sleepily.

What happened? I was contacted by a collector of my work who wanted a new print to replace one on his wall that he'd tired of (that one wasn't one of mine, thankfully). During our conversation, he explained he wanted an epic landscape, in black and white, and he also wanted something I'd never sold before and would not sell again- an exclusive edition. I've taken tens of thousands of photos over the years, and only edited a select few. Just because I haven't edited them, doesn't mean there aren't some fantastic images among them. So with those parameters in mind, I started to dig through my archives to find something that would match.

Stones washed smooth by Short Sands Creek sit where the creek feeds out onto Short Sands Beach in Oswald West State Park near Arch Cape, Oregon.

River Stones

Stones washed smooth by Short Sands Creek sit where the creek feeds out onto Short Sands Beach in Oswald West State Park near Arch Cape, Oregon. This black and white photograph is an elegant study in light and shadow.

In the course of the conversation, he stated a love for mountain images, so I focused my attention on my trips to the mountains to find something fresh. But, in the process, I came across so many images that looked good in black and white! I sent my collector a set of five images, one of which he chose for a print. Those other four images, now free to be released as open edition prints, formed the basis for my new collection of Monochrome Fine Art Prints. Those four in hand already, I set about digging further into my archives to find more suitable, never-before-seen images that would make great black and whites. Then I set about editing them.

Denali is surrounded by dramatic clouds as it rises above the tundra of Denali National Park in Alaska.

Above the Tundra

Denali is surrounded by dramatic clouds as it rises above the tundra of Denali National Park in Alaska.

So what is it about black and white exactly? I think for many, black and white photography has a timelessness to it. It could have been taken 100 years ago, or could have been taken yesterday. Meanwhile, color photography didn't truly take hold until the 1960s, which automatically dates it for the viewer. Another reason people love black and white is that it actually removes the emotional response the viewer has to color. Most people are predisposed to respond to color in a positive way, which can mask many flaws in both the exposure and composition of a photograph. We've all seen examples of this on social media, where someone shares a photo of a fiery sunset or sunrise, the sky ablaze with reds and oranges. We've likewise seen the "Likes" pile up, despite the fact that the exposure may be incorrect or the composition may be weak.

Davis Peak towers over the far end of Diablo Lake on a summer day in North Cascades National Park, near Whatcom, Washington.

Diablo Lake

Davis Peak towers over the far end of Diablo Lake on a summer day in North Cascades National Park, near Whatcom, Washington.

Black and white photography eliminates that emotional response to color, allowing the composition and tones to shine through in a photograph. Because that emotional response to color is absent, everything else must be spot on, or it simply becomes a failed image. It took me a long time to understand why, when in college, my professor would not allow us to use color film. In the end, however, it made me a better photographer. I am very conscious of composition and lighting in my images thanks to his emphasis on those elements back in my formative years as a photographer.

A stormy sea sends enormous waves crashing over Otter Cliff at Acadia National Park, Maine in this black and white image by Rick Berk.

Nor'easter at Otter Cliff

The stormy Atlantic Ocean relentlessly pounds Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park after a nor'easter passed the night before.

I was somewhat surprised to find that not all images work well as a black and white image, however. Certain colors share similar tones when converted to black and white, even though they have sufficient contrast as colors. I found that some images, when converted to black and white, simply looked flat and lacked depth due to this fact. So while not all black and white images would look good in color, the opposite is also true that not all color images convert well to black and white. This has been my challenge in editing these images, ensuring that I edit them in black and white in such a way that brings out a full tonal range, and maintaining the depth in the scene.

Devil's Club, Sitka Spruce, ferns, and goatsbeard fill the old growth forest at Cape Falcon, Oregon in this stunning black and white image.

The Old Growth Forest

Devil's Club, Sitka Spruce, ferns, and goatsbeard fill the old growth forest at Cape Falcon, Oregon in this stunning black and white image.

There is an elegance to a black and white presentation of image that many seem to appreciate. I've really enjoyed going back through years of images and finding some that are appropriate to edit in monochrome. I'll continue to look for more. I also plan to seek out black and white compositions as I produce future work as well.