What do I like about this photo? It’s a good–not great–but good black and white photo. It’s one of the better black and white photos I’ve taken through the years. Why is that significant?
Black and White
Black and white is old-school. Black and white is classy. And you know what? Black and white is hard.
It’s difficult to make a good black and white photo. It’s not as simple as taking a picture and slapping a black and white filter on it.
It’s an egg.
Chefs say if you want to see how good a cook is, ask them to cook an egg. That’s because an egg has all it needs to taste good. How those flavors are brought out, though, depends on the cook’s skill.
Sure, you can enhance the flavors with salt, spices, and fats, but you walk a fine line. Too much enhancement, and it stops being an egg; it becomes a spice accompanied by an egg. Don’t use enough, and you’re left with something flat. There’s nowhere to hide with an egg.
It’s a jazz riff.
Great jazz musicians can make magic from sound. They know just when and how to combine their respective instruments. They combine melody, harmony, and beat to make something so wonderful you’ll be walking to a syncopated rhythm for days.
The simplest of sounds. The dulcimer notes of a piano. A bright trumpet’s wail. The lusty steadiness of a clarinet or sax. And behind it all, a driving snare and a bass line that combines the best of them all.
Photography: Light, Shadow, Combine Well.
The same is true about photography. You want to see how good a photographer is? Put them in a strange setting and tell them to make a black and white photo.
There’s nowhere to hide. It’s photography at its most raw.
What is photography about? Light and shadow. Pure and simple.
With black and white, you don’t have color to distract you from the heart of the photo. Don’t get me wrong—I love big, bold, sock-you-in-the-mouth color! But even I have to admit if you take the color out of a photograph, you’re often left with something meh.
Take color out of a photo, and you’re left with light and shadow. You can’t hide a lack of contrast by using bright colors. You can’t lead the eye through the photo with anything other than your composition skills.
Black and white photography tests the photographer’s skill with the simplest of photographic ingredients. Light. Shadow. You can enhance on or the other, but get the ratio wrong, and you can’t fix it.
It’s the umami of the egg white balanced with the fat of the yolk balanced with salt and the earthiness of pepper.
It’s jazz. It’s knowing when it’s each instrument’s time to shine, and when to back off.
It’s you, the subject, and the viewer.
All together. All alone.
It’s complicatedly simple. It’s simply complex.
It’s all there needs to be.