The Timeless Quality of Black & White Photographs

Timeless Quality of Black and WhiteBlack and white images often possess a timeless quality that is more difficult to achieve with colour images. This is largely because colour provides more visual clues as to when a photograph was taken. Variance in the colours themselves can sometimes suggest a specific era –  the difference between the colour renditions of the 1970s for example, and today are often discernible; this is due to differences in colour processing, which have changed significantly over time.  The first permanent color photograph was taken in the 1860s using the colour separation method, which required shooting three separate black and white photos using three different coloured filters which are then projected together to create a color image.   By the first decade of the twentieth century colour separation using the Autochrome process which used millions of tiny colour filters made of potato starch spread over the surface of a plate of glass was available.  In the 1930s multi-layered colour film was developed, the first of which was Kodachrome.  The 1960s saw the development of instant photographs by Polaroid, and in the 1970s the C-41 chromogenic colour negative process replaced the C-22 process that Kodak had introduced in the 1950s.  Printed colour images may also be subject to varying degrees of instability as they age, which is also helpful in dating them.

With the advent of digital photography these clues have disappeared, but colour is also an element of fashion which inevitably gives a better sense of when the picture was taken.  Regardless of changes in fashion, colour provides a level of detail absent from black and white pictures – there is just less information for us to process, making a picture more difficult to date.   This is helpful in many genres of photography but is especially so for travel, street and portrait photography.  Whilst we know the approximate date we took our pictures, if when these photos were taken is difficult to discern, it seems to imbue them with additional value.  Why this should be a virtue is largely attributable to the notion of the ‘classic’ – something long-standing that does not date with age.  Synonyms of the word classic give us a clue to the value implied by the term: simple, elegant, understated, uncluttered, restrained, time-honoured, timeless, ageless, abiding, enduring and immortal.   Portrait photographer Anne Geddes made the point well when she said: “The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.”

Photographing souls

Another aspect of timelessness, although more subjective, is that many photographers consider black and white photography promotes a stronger emotional connection with people.  Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s quote on this is well known: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
   Souls being more durable and important than clothes (to all but the fashion industry!) this quality naturally creates a more timeless photograph.  Black and white photography preceded colour and so many of the pioneering masters of photography from Adams to Weston shot in black and white.  This adds a significant pedigree and a degree of nostalgia to black and white images.

The accompanying photo is of Newcastle based photographer Irena Childers and was shot in Garth Park, Bicester, as part of a camera club shoot.  It strikes me that the picture could have been taken at any time between from 1950 and the present day, but this only became apparent when I performed the mono conversion with Silver Efex.  The colour version just didn’t have the same timeless quality…

All About Tone

Converting a pianist

Colossal head of Constantine

When a photograph is converted to mono and the colour removed, what remains is tone. Tone is in fact one of the reasons black and white photography has continued to be popular after the advent of colour.   It was the tonal quality of Paul Strand’s work that inspired landscape legend Ansel Adams to make a career change from classical pianist/hobby photographer as a hobby to full time professional.  It was the“full, luminous shadows and strong high values, in which subtle passages of tone were preserved” in Strand’s photography that Adam’s found so compelling.

Tonal range

Tonal range refers to the range and distribution of tones in an image from the darkest to the lightest values.  An image with a wide tonal range will include very dark (black) and very light (white) elements, whereas as one with a narrow tonal range will be limited to a more restricted area and will have less contrast.    Lighting conditions have a great impact on tonal range.  On a misty day in Oxford, UK the difference in brightness between the lightest part and the darkest parts of the scene will be relatively insignificant, but under the harsh light of the mid day sun in Arizona the range will be much greater.  Extremes such as that aside, images with a wide tonal range tend have both greater contrast and greater appearance of drama and depth. A narrower tonal range makes the image look flatter, though this may be by design.  Tonal range is influenced by the amount of and quality of light (harsh or soft) and the reflectance of the subject.  The addition of a polarising filter, something I use extensively, improves contrast and can thus help expand the tonal range.   Tonal range is different from dynamic range which refers to the ability of the camera’s sensor to capture shadow detail from the darkest values and highlight detail from the brightest values in the same shot.   Dynamic range is maximised in RAW format which records all the image data the sensor is capable of recording, and is one of the main reasons this format is used.  Cameras.about.com describes the the tonal range of a digital image as “the number of tones it has to describe the dynamic range”, which helpfully describes the difference between the two.

Tonal contrast

Tonal contrast is created when light tones and dark tones are adjacent to one another – it has the effect of directing the viewers attention to the contrasting area and is the basis of the success of many black and white images.  It is an essential element of composition, but is not as well known as other compositional rules such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, framing, and diagonals.

A tonal curve is typically applied to the image by the camera by default as the image data from the photo sites is linear (the values are directly proportional to the light received), whereas human vision is non-linear.    The process is known as  (tone curve correction aka gamma correction) and makes the pictures look right to the human eye on a screen display. This process generally lightens the midtones.  This default tonal curve can be adjusted in the curves tool of RAW  conversion programs (such as the ageing but excellent Aperture, which I still use).  The Aperture user manual describes the use of the Curves tool quite well:

“You use the Curves adjustment controls when you want to manually set the tonal values of the shadows, midtones, and highlights in an image using a tonal curve. Unlike the Levels adjustment controls, the Curves controls do not reapportion the luminance values in the image by constraining the white and black points. Instead, you use the Curves controls to precisely remap the position of the midtones relative to the white and black points. Because the human eye’s perception of light is logarithmic rather than incremental, a curve is necessary to distribute the luminance values across all tonal ranges in an image in a way that matches how the eye perceives light in nature.”

Applying a tone curve

Applying an S-shaped curve to the data, which is initially shown as a straight line, applies a steep curve in the mid tones, which increases contrast and give the image greater impact.  A correctly exposed film image has an inherently more S shaped tone curve than a digital image, and film, being based on a chemical process, and therefore essentially analogue, also creates a smoother continuum of tones than digital cameras.  This difference diminishes with every generation of sensor.  As much as I care about tone, the advantages of the digital dark room, for me at least, vastly outweigh any disadvantages of digital photography.  Let’s take the example of dodging (applying reduced exposure locally) and burning (applying additional exposure locally), both of which are important techniques to modify tone.  To quote Ansel Adams once again: “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”  Both are fiendishly difficult to master with film to the level Adams used, and far simpler with image editing programs such as PhotoShop.  It is worth noting that some photographers also consider that dodging and burning can give a more natural impression than adjusting the tonal curve.  I use both techniques.

The black and white advantage

Here are some of the advantages that the various attributes of tone confer over colour:

  • With only tones to work with, black and white forces the photographer to pay closer attention to composition – which is in itself an advantage.
  • The simplicity of a race of tones makes the subject easier to focus on, which is one of the reasons so many street photographers eschew colour.
  • Simplicity can be enhanced by discarding extraneous detail more easily in monochrome images.  I often burn out distracting detail in dark areas to further simplify the image.
  • Editing a photo converted to black and white provides a much greater opportunity to redistribute the light to create finely graduated tones, which can make architecture and sculpture both more three dimensional and more beautiful.
  • In portraiture, skin tones are evened out.
  • Graphical elements and patterns are more evident.
  • Abstract images are stronger.
  • Textures often appear to have more depth.
  • Black and white photography is more effective in low contrast situations, such as under heavy cloud

My example of tone from Flash of Darkness is the Colossus of Constantine in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums) on the Capitoline Hill  in Rome.  The statue, built c. 312-315 AD is truly immense and once stood at around 40 feet high.  I have experimented with many different versions of this image, from low key to high key and with varying tone curves and application of dodge and burn.  The image I prefer however is the one on this page which is fairly neutral, with only a slight increase in contrast; it seems to be the most effective at describing the shading of the marble forms and the subtle changes in the tones of the painted plasterwork.

The Importance of Form

Marina City ChicagoWe have had colour photography since the 1930s and the invention of Kodachrome, though it took until the 1970s for it become the norm.  So why has black and white photography persisted?

Perhaps the most obvious difference between colour and b&w photography is that unlike their colour equivalents, black and white images are not direct renditions of their subjects.   By omitting colour and substituting shades of grey, black and white photography presents an abstract and therefore less realistic image.   This takes us into the representational world of art, where the artist tries to portray what is perceived and interpreted with the mind rather than what is seen directly by the eye.  Both the artist and the photographer are working with a 3D subject in a 2D medium and this is where black and white photograph has an advantage over a colour rendition – black and white excels at tone; which describes the darkness or lightness of a particular area of an image.  This is important as tone is essential to convey the illusion of form – or how the subject looks in three dimensions.  Black and white draws more attention to the shadows and lines that depict form and gives a better illusion of depth.    This is one of the reasons that black and white is often an effective medium for both landscapes and architectural shots as it can emphasise the shapes and forms within the scene.  The case for black and white is even stronger with a side lit photo where light  intensity varies across the person or object and the scene is subject to strong shadows.  This is one of the reasons why I am fond of film noir which uses a lot of side lighting, shadow and contrast as opposed to the the more evenly exposed lighting of mainstream Hollywood.

On to my example, which is a shot of the columnar and iconic Marina City Towers on Chicago’s Riverfront, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg.  This is one of Chicago’s most notable buildings and was designated a city landmark in 2015. I was much taken with this 65-storey building complex, the tallest residential concrete building in the world at the time of completion in 1964, and known locally as the ‘corn cobs’, as I was driven to my hotel in a taxi.     At the time I thought it was the world’s most elegant car park, but actually only the lower 19 floors are used for parking, whilst the upper floors contain apartments, restaurants and a concert hall.  The towers were used as a back drop for a chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1980 film ‘The Hunter’ .  In his last film appearance, McQueen played a bounty hunter who is himself being pursued by a psychotic killer and chases a fugitive up the parking ramp in one of the towers before the car he is pursuing skids off the edge into the Chicago River.

I shot the towers from several locations, including the river, whilst on an architectural tour of the city, and eventually captured this image, which I felt depicted the organic form of the building best – the contrast between the light edges of the circular elements and the dark background, together with the sweeping curves of the tower in the foreground, draw the eye  and help describe its form.  It was shot in the morning, and, as usual,  I used a circular polariser to darken the sky and increased the contrast between the building and its background.  I took the shot with a Nikon Df with a ‘walk around’ 28-300 lens at ISO 200/45mm/f11/1/250 sec.  The towers have a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow over the course of the day and are an ideal subject for black and white photography as well as a great piece of architecture.  I was much taken with Chicago, which I visited for the first time in 2015 – it is undoubtedly one of the finest cities for modern architecture in the world and I am keen to return to capture more of it, but my enduring memory of my first visit is those iconic, sci-fi columns of Marina City.