For the final section of the Processing an Image module, we will be looking at Black and White Photography.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, black and white imagery saw a gradual decline in its popularity; this was largely due to the introduction of colour film to the industry.

‘Creatively, it was a fortunate limitation that photography began in black and white.  Technically, this was all that was possible when, in 1826, Nicéphore Niépce became the first person to fix an image permanently’. Freeman (2008, p.509)

As photographers, our fundamental learning’s surround the authenticity of our images, and that we should strive to take photographs that depict scenes exactly as we saw them when pressing the shutter release; so why then are we lead to believe that although colour techniques were not available during these early years, these pioneers in photography were so fortunate?

Even though back when photography was in its infancy and the colour pallet was restricted, a vast range of tones from pitch black all the way through to the brilliance of white, where available to the photographer.  Considering this, it still did not depict true reality – the jump from colour in the world around us being reality, and the black and white seen in these early photographs being interpretation – so; black and white imagery cemented the medium as an art form.  As colour photography became more popular and common place, instead of black and white declining into extension, it became quiet particular in its ethos of less meaning more, helping viewers to focus more on content over niceties.

The language of black and white photography is therefore oriented towards graphic interpretation; our earlier peers had to learn about the emphasis of good, strong composition including lines, textures and proportions to make their images standout, without the aid of colour to ease the transition.

I am beginning to think that this section is not going to be as easy as previously though.

In the course notes we were asked to consider why we would want to create black and white images, as does this not move away from the mediums current need for true representation?  I have been thinking about this statement for a few days now, looking at various images, trying to determine why there is need for black and white imagery.  I have therefore concluded that the need is really expression; the need to express things in a way that stands out from the crowd, and the need to express things differently than is expected by the world.  Not every scene is suitable for black and white conversion and only special and specific scenarios should be contemplated for this transition.

Back when photography was dominated by black and white imagery, it served a purpose to report and document and only the very rich and people of importance would use this medium.  Photographs were used as a means of interpretation, and this way universally understood, as the use of tones, highlights and shadows were not the usual way to see the world, but an artist’s visual interpretation of how things could be seen. With the onset of colour photography, and of course the popularity of taking coloured photographs, people have become convinced that although these kind of images are still an illusion, it is a very convincing illusion, and one that depicts the world in a more pleasing and accurate way.

As mentioned, not all coloured images work well when converted to black and white, and careful consideration should be taken before the transition takes place.  While composing an image, consideration needs to be taken on the need of the photograph; do you want colour sensitivity or tonal range?  Are you looking for serenity and true representation or something a little punchier or even abstract?  In addition to this, the following contrasting creative concerns should also be considered:

Black and white



Colour effect of exposure

Key (black)

Colour style


Colour relationships


Colour intensity


Colour into tone

 Table 1: Contrasting Creative Concerns

Freeman (2008 p.510)

It is not until you answer these fundamental questions that your image can even be considered for conversion.

With colour images, the focus surrounds the million or so colours available within the colour spectrum, and an alteration to exposure brings out the best, or worst, of these colours.  How do we want these colours to look?  Bright and vibrant or dull and moody?  What colours complement each or which ones clash?  And what are we looking to achieve from the image (this question is asked time and again).

With black and white imagery, there is greater scope for creativity, but it can be a little more difficult to achieve what we are looking for, as our focus needs to shift away from colour symmetry and more towards the dynamics within the frame.  Our tones, shadows and highlights need to be rendered more specifically and our shots need to make sense, with order and content playing a greater role; black and white photography is still judged differently to coloured work, as the aforementioned is still looked upon as an art form, much as it was in the days before colour was introduced.

In order to achieve a successful image conversion, one needs to start thinking in mono.  Successful black and white photographers think in black and white, visualising the strength of the tones, lines, texture and content.  They understand what works well when colour saturation has been removed and what subjects should be left alone.

Now it is time to put this into practice and see what can be achieved once colour is taken out of the equation.



Freeman, M,  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.


Freeman, M,  (2008) Mastering Digital Photography.  East Sussex: The Ilex Press Limited.

Rowse, D.  (n.d.) Starting Black and White Photography [Online Article].  Available at: <; [Accessed 22 July 2013.

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