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  • Writer's pictureIan Miller

Black and white photography: what is its attraction in this colourful age?

Black and white photography is a timeless art form that has been around for more than a century. It captures the essence of light and shadow, contrast and texture, emotion and mood. But what is its attraction in this colourful age, where digital cameras and smartphones can produce vivid and realistic images with a click of a button?

One possible answer is that black-and-white photography offers a different perspective on reality. It strips away the distractions of colour and focuses on the shapes, forms and patterns of the subject. It allows the viewer to see beyond the superficial appearance and appreciate the underlying beauty and meaning. It also creates a sense of nostalgia and mystery, as it evokes memories of the past and invites imagination.

Another possible answer is that black-and-white photography is a creative challenge that requires skill and vision. It forces the photographer to think differently about composition, lighting and exposure, as well as editing and processing. It demands attention to detail and subtlety, as well as experimentation and innovation. It also expresses the photographer's personal style and artistic vision, as it reflects their choices and preferences.

Black and white photography is not just a relic of history or a limitation of technology. It is a choice and a statement, a way of seeing and showing the world. It is an art form that has its own charm and appeal, even in this colourful age.

How do you get the best out of a black-and-white image?

Black and white photography is a timeless art form that can evoke powerful emotions and convey a sense of drama, mystery, and elegance. But how do you create stunning black-and-white images that stand out from the crowd? Here are some tips and tricks to help you master the art of black-and-white photography.

1. Choose the right subject. Not every subject works well in black and white. Some subjects may look dull or flat without colour, while others may benefit from the simplicity and contrast of black and white. Look for subjects that have strong shapes, textures, patterns, or lines that can create visual interest and depth in your image. You can also look for subjects that have a strong emotional or symbolic meaning, such as portraits, landscapes, or abstract forms.

2. Shoot in RAW. RAW files contain more information and detail than JPEG files, which gives you more flexibility and control when editing your images. Shooting in RAW allows you to adjust the exposure, contrast, white balance, and tonal range of your image without losing quality or introducing noise. You can also convert your RAW files to black and white using various software tools that let you fine-tune the brightness and contrast of each colour channel.

3. Use filters. Filters can help you enhance the contrast and mood of your black-and-white images by altering the way different colours are rendered in grayscale. For example, a red filter can make the sky darker and more dramatic, while a yellow filter can lighten the skin tones and make them more flattering. You can use physical filters on your camera lens or apply digital filters in post-processing.

4. Pay attention to the light. Light is one of the most important elements of photography, especially in black and white. Light can create shadows, highlights, textures, and tones that can make or break your image. Look for light sources that create directional or dramatic lighting, such as sunlight, window light, or artificial light. Avoid flat or harsh lighting that can make your image look boring or overexposed.

5. Experiment with composition. Composition is the way you arrange the elements in your image to create a pleasing and balanced visual effect. There are many rules and guidelines for composition, such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, symmetry, framing, negative space, etc. However, you don't have to follow them strictly. You can experiment with different angles, perspectives, crops, and orientations to find what works best for your subject and style.

6. Edit your images. Editing is an essential part of black-and-white photography that allows you to fine-tune your images and bring out their full potential. You can use various software tools to adjust the brightness, contrast, sharpness, clarity, noise reduction, vignetting, dodging and burning, etc. of your images. You can also apply different presets or styles to give your images a certain look or mood.

Black and white photography is a rewarding and creative form of expression that can challenge your skills and vision as a photographer. By following these tips and tricks, you can create stunning black-and-white images that capture the essence and beauty of your subject.

Ansell Adams was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, known for his stunning black and white landscapes of the American West. He was also a pioneer of photographic techniques, such as the Zone System, that allowed him to control the exposure, contrast, and tonality of his images. In this blog post, we will explore how Ansell Adams processed his film and prints, and how we can apply some of his methods to our own digital photography.

The Zone System

The Zone System is a method of measuring and adjusting the exposure of a scene based on its tonal range, from pure black to pure white. Ansell Adams and Fred Archer developed the Zone System in the late 1930s, based on the scientific studies of Hurter and Driffield. The Zone System divides the tonal scale into 11 zones, from Zone 0 (black) to Zone X (white), with Zone V being middle grey. Each zone represents a one-stop difference in exposure or a doubling or halving of light.

The Zone System helps photographers to pre-visualize how they want their final image to look, and then adjust their exposure and development accordingly. For example, if a photographer wants to render a white cloud with some detail as Zone VIII, they would need to overexpose it by three stops from what a light meter would indicate. Similarly, if they want to render a black rock with some texture as Zone II, they would need to underexpose it by three stops from what a light meter would indicate.

Ansell Adams used a spot meter to measure the luminance of different parts of the scene and then placed them in the desired zones according to his creative vision. He also used filters, such as red or yellow, to darken or lighten certain tones, such as the sky or foliage. He then recorded his exposure settings and zone placements on a note card for each shot.

Film Development

Ansell Adams also manipulated his film during development to achieve his desired contrast and tonality. He used a technique called push-and-pull processing, which involves changing the temperature, time, or agitation of the developer solution to increase or decrease contrast. For example, if he wanted to increase contrast in a low-contrast scene, he would push-process his film by increasing the temperature or time of development. Conversely, if he wanted to decrease contrast in a high-contrast scene, he would pull-process his film by decreasing the temperature or time of development.

Ansell Adams also experimented with different developers and films to find the ones that suited his style and vision. He preferred large-format cameras, such as 4x5 or 8x10 inches, because they allowed him to capture more detail and tonal range than smaller formats.

Print Making

The final step in Ansell Adams's creative process was printmaking. He spent hours in the darkroom dodging and burning his prints, which involves selectively blocking or exposing parts of the paper to alter their brightness or darkness. He used tools such as cardboard cutouts, pencils, or his hands to dodge or burn different areas of his prints. He also used different papers and chemicals to affect the contrast and tonality of his prints.

Ansell Adams was meticulous about his printmaking, often making several test prints before producing a final one. He also revisited his negatives over time and made new prints with different interpretations. He called his best prints "master prints", which he signed and numbered.

Digital Photography

Today, we can use digital tools to emulate some of Ansell Adams's techniques and achieve similar results. We can use histograms and exposure compensation to adjust our exposure according to our desired tonal range. We can use filters or post-processing software to change the colour or contrast of certain tones. We can use RAW format to capture more detail and dynamic range than JPEG format.

We can also use software such as Photoshop or Lightroom to process our digital images in ways that mimic Ansell Adams's Darkroom methods. We can use tools such as curves, levels, contrast, brightness, dodge, burn, sharpening, noise reduction, etc., to fine-tune our images according to our vision. We can also experiment with different presets or filters that simulate different film types or developers.


Ansell Adams was a master of photography who used his technical skills and artistic vision to create stunning images that still inspire us today. He developed a system of exposure, development, and printing that allowed him to control every aspect of his image-making. We can learn from his methods and apply them to our own digital photography to improve our craft and express our creativity.

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