The Beckoning Of Black & White

I was a film photographer long before—and even after—digital photography became mainstream. Back then, I recall making careful decisions about the kind of film I would need to pack prior to each shoot. My photographic intention had to be deliberate, thought out and carefully planned.

I had to make choices, both before the shoot and about what end result I wanted to achieve. There was a little room to adjust in the darkroom or via my photo lab technicians, but the possibilities of creative afterthought pale in comparison to the choices I—and we—have now.

Although my practice of artistic forethought hasn’t been deliberately neglected (it took me quite some time to fully embrace digital photography), I’ve slowly let that part of my photographic vision atrophy. In fact, the more I shoot digital, the more I move into a methodology that allows for certain creative choices to be made after the shoot. Of late, I rarely think about the end result until I’m near the end. I hold no judgment on experiencing the art of photography either way; I just notice how I’m taking a different approach to my photographic process now.

With postprocessing, I give myself permission to play with the images after the fact, which is obviously a lot different than plotting and planning prior to the project. This shift has undoubtedly helped to hone a completely different part of my vision as an artist.

I never really did embrace the darkroom (too arduous a process for my need for instant gratification), so the digital darkroom has really opened up a new world of creativity to me and has pushed me into being much more engaged in the entire process of creating my images.

I’ve begun to mindfully observe myself work this other critical step of my creative process. I’ve paid attention to my editing tendencies, habits and preferences. I’ve explored the why, how and what of each step that takes me from an original image to final photograph.

What has become most clear to me in my process is that I try to allow the image itself to tell me what it wants to be. Does it need a little boost of saturation, richness added to the darks or some subtle recovery in the whites? I coddle, massage and coax it along.

What makes it look its best or convey its message? What brings it to life? It’s a little different for every image. But there are certain images that beckon to be transformed into beautiful, poignant, timeless black-and-whites.


I shoot a ton of images of my everyday life: a pair of shoes, a stack of books, a plate of food, a mug of coffee. In all of these things I look for shape, texture and, of course, light. When you take these mundane objects and compose them in an interesting way, sometimes the color actually can be distracting and take away from the overall shot. I choose to keep simple subjects simple by removing any elements that distract either in framing the shot or processing it. When the color doesn’t make the image stronger, I just remove it.


Certain shots are more inclined to packing a dramatic punch than others. They usually begin with a subject that has powerful potential of intense emotion and end with a bold editing choice that emphasizes the impact and evokes a mood. Through use of contrasting blacks and whites, the drama of the image can be intensified. This kind of image unmistakably warrants a monochromatic manipulation for that "wow factor." People, places, things—it makes no difference. It’s the energy and intensity of the image that calls the shot.


I know it as soon as I shoot it; the kind of distilled moment in time that will always take me back to that very minute, no matter when I revisit it. Sometimes they’re soft and slightly out of focus due to motion or me being unprepared right when I pressed my shutter. In other images, the scene is in perfect focus, each detail outlined and clear like a quintessential documentary shot. In these cases, it’s not about focus, it’s about nostalgia. There’s no better way to create that timeless feeling and evoke that kind of melancholic longing than by painting the fleeting memory with a monochromatic palette.


The use of line, shape and repetition can make for strong images. Arranging these common elements of composition in just the right way in the frame is often all you need to create strong visual photography. Nothing works better to emphasize the orderly and linear pieces in the shot than a range of black to white and the grayscale in between. The treatment allows you to appreciate how the shot has been carefully configured.


Sometimes an image is so perfectly telling (through an expression, for example) that it feels timeless. Even still, there might be elements within the frame that make it look dated. Whether it’s the color of the furniture or a logo on a T-shirt, the color doesn’t match the timeless nature of the image. The quickest fix I can think of, and often use, is the black-and-white fix. It’s simple, instantaneous and can transform a dated shot into a timeless treasure.


Throughout history, poignant photographic stories have been told through a monochromatic lens. Wide angles, deep depth of field, a telling moment captured in a single shot; these are the quintessential elements of documentary photography. When I’ve shot with this storytelling technique in mind, there’s no other treatment that could possibly heighten the style more than black-and-white. Nothing represents the genre of documentary photography and candid visual storytelling more perfectly.


Given the choice, I’ll usually opt for shooting in soft golden light. Using the word "golden" might be indicative of a scene that likely will end as a color photograph. But even the softest, most beautifully colored light translates well monochromatically. In contrast, more dramatic, harsh light (strong shadows and bright highlights) can be as beautiful in black-and-white, as well. Oftentimes, the blacks and the whites bring attention to the elements that go unnoticed and underappreciated when they’re seen in color. I find myself able to best study light and its many nuances through monochromatic eyes.

Tracey Clark is the founder of SHUTTER SISTERS, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts. Learn more about Tracey and her work at


Landscapes: You can’t beat the textures and visual interest of landscapes as depicted through black-and-white processing. Use the vast range of a grayscale palette.

Sky/Clouds: No other processing can cover the range of tones (from white to black and everything in between) like the monochromatic treatment of a cloud-filled sky.

Portraits: Classic, timeless, moving—portraits in black-and-white offer visual impact and emotional response.

Details: The little things that often go overlooked can be brought into focus by stripping away everyt
hing that might compete with them (including color).

Architecture: The elements in architecture (line, repetition, shape and angle) are perfectly suited for black-and-white photography.

Macro Shots: Curious and intriguing, getting up-close and personal using black-and-white can bring an unexpected intimacy to your shot.

Ordinary Objects: Find the beautiful in the mundane by using a monochromatic treatment. You’ll be amazed at how extraordinary ordinary life can look.

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