Why I Adore Black & White

Here’s a dirty little photography secret: I don’t work in black and white because I’m artistic. I work in black and white because I’m lazy.*

This photograph of Lilith was captured in natural light, the only kind of lighting a subset of portrait photographers feel is valid. These photographers should be slapped with a fly swatter.

Right outside Lilith’s door was a ton of greenery. A high canopy was filtering the noontime light and the grass was reflecting light from below. The result was the mishmash of colors you see above. Greens and yellows are competing with a rainbow of skin tones, running from tans to peach to red, with even some purples and blues thrown in for good measure.

How do you balance all of it? There are two paths. Path #1 is my chosen path: convert it to black and white. Done! If it was good enough for Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s good enough for me.

Path #2 is to add so much “artistic” post processing that it doesn’t matter what light you shot it in. I could share tons of examples, but it is not my intent to dunk on anyone in particular. So here’s a challenge: look at the current trends in outdoor portraiture using 100% natural light and pay close attention to the processing. How natural are the skin tones? Do they look anything at all like people? How matte are the shadows? How much grain has been added in post? Ultimately, ask yourself: How much processing, in the aggregate, has been applied.

I think you’ll find that very few “Hey, cool!” images actually look like they came straight out of the camera (or with a touch of white balance correction, as you see here). The reason is simply that they can’t. When you are shooting in natural light you are at the mercy of the environment. If you’re in a wooded area, your subject will be tinted green courtesy of the foliage. Is there a freakin’ awesome blue wall you can use as a backdrop? You’ll be contenting with a blue color cast. These can be fixed to one degree or another in post, but unless you are a digital artist rather than a photographer it is much quicker to go the artistic route.

“But wait! Why have I never noticed this before?” Easy: your brain filters it out. Look at a white wall in late-afternoon sun. Then ask the nearest person what color the wall is. Most are going to say “white,” because your brain knows it is white and color corrects without you knowing it. Override your brain and you’ll see golds, and tans, and yellows. There is a lot of very interesting literature backing this up; see “Human attention filters for single colors” for a deeper look into the phenomenon of feature-based attention.

This is what made the Impressionists so fascinating: they painted light as it is seen, rather than perceived. There is likewise tons of interesting literature backing this up, but this article at Khan Academy breaks it down nicely. Look at Vincent Van Gogh’s masterful Self-Portrait, 1889. Look at all those lovely blues and greens! He knew the impact that blue wall was having and he painted the light as it was, not as our brain perceives it. And it is gorge. Seriously – if I could steal a painting, it would be that one.

It is important to understand, however, that painters have a choice in how they represent the subject. You could go the Van Gogh route and paint the light, or you can go the Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres route and paint in the realist style, capturing what your brain filters out.

Digital photographers do not have this luxury. You can’t tell the camera, “Hey, for this image I want that green color cast to GTFO.” The sensor (and color film/transparencies) are going to capture exactly what hits the sensor/emulsion, artistic intent be damned.

Which is why so much natural-light photography is heavily processed. You either live with what the environment dictates and the sensor faithfully records, or you go the artistic route and bend the image to your will.

Is this an indictment of natural-light photography? Hell no! Unless you’re using selective coloring there are few wrong answers in photography. Shoot what you love and process the way you like.

Me? I prefer to either work in a studio where I can control the lighting or ship everything to black and white. Not only does it fit my aesthetic, but it keeps my sanity intact. I would have a psychotic break if I tried to achieve consistent skin tones in the above image and while I looooove the Impressionists and how they painted light, I like my photos to be more realistic. The Impressionist fanboi in my just died. Like, A LOT.

By Chris Ubik

I am a (former) headshot and (current) nude art photographer living in Hillsborough, NC. I'm semi-retired for the rest of 2021, because this pandemic has revealed people to be the worst and I need to rediscover my love of the craft. In the meantime, enjoy my stuff!

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