I just returned from eight marvelous days photographing in France teaching a photo workshop for Strabo Tours. Cree lived in France and speaks fluent French, so this trip was very special for her. For me it was visiting a city and region rich with art and photography history. Who doesn’t want to roam the streets in Paris like Henri Bresson and photograph street scenes and daily Parisian life?
I tried something I have never done in 35 years of teaching photography workshops; I shot the entire trip in black and white. During classes on creativity I often mention that shooting in BW for a day is a great way to improve your creativity. How so? For most of us we shoot in color, but rarely shoot in BW. Trying something new is always a good first step in the creative process. Let’s face it, we all do certain things photographically really well. Maybe you photograph wildlife, or take senior portraits. You will continue to improve through the years with familiar subjects and techniques…but the learning curve gets smaller and it is harder to make creative leaps in your photography.
This is where doing something different is a great creative exercise. Photography and all its genres have cross over. It can be hard to imagine shooting in black and white will help a landscape photographer, but it will. And the same goes for any subject matter. Doing photographic exercises you are uncomfortable with or even don’t like may be just the spark your creativity needs.
I can’t tell you the number of workshop participants I’ve had through the years who say “I don’t take people pictures”. I said the same thing when I first started out…little did I know for much of my career I would be photographing people, and I loved it. Better yet, photographing people led to my interest in lighting, which in turn changed how I shot my landscapes…it is all related! Getting ‘outside the box’ may be uncomfortable, but it just might change your entire creative process and direction.
There is one very important part of this black and white creative challenge; you must shoot in the field in black and white. Why? Because this exercise is about camera craft and how you see the world walking down the street, not in the digital darkroom. I am always shocked at how reviewing images on my LCD while shooting in black and white drastically changes how I approach and photograph a scene. Without the emotional response to color, shapes, texture and pattern start to stand out. I begin looking at scenes differently while photographing them. As a journalist 35 years ago working for print media I didn’t have an LCD to review my work, but back then all I shot was black and white and saw the world that way. Now, with digital, we get the best of both worlds.
Check your specific camera. With Nikon I can set my Picture Control to Monochrome while shooting in RAW. My LCD preview is black and white, just what I want to see in the field while photographing. But when I open the RAW file in Photoshop the image is in color, so I have all the color information if I need it. With my images in France I just converted them to BW with a few simple steps (upcoming blog post), returning the images to how I saw them in BW while shooting.
What did I learn? First, I forgot how powerful shadows are. We had some sunny days, and midday I would have put my camera away if I was shooting in color, too much contrast. But BW looked great, and after eight days of shooting in BW I was looking for shadows every moment, something I almost forget with color photography. BW creates powerful shapes. I was shocked at how simple shapes became so powerful without color. Once again I would have missed images if I hadn’t been reviewing BW shots on my camera and zeroing in on interesting shapes in the street. ‘Timeless’ rules in BW. Photographing the streets of Paris created a timeless, pure effect in the images; color would have distracted the viewer and minimized the effect.
I also explored how BW tonal ranges affect the emotional quality of an image, and how that applies in my color photography. Color gives the photographer a quick way to influence a viewer; for example the color red means danger, love, heat, viewers quickly respond to this color. In BW photography the extremes ends of the tonal range create the drama, and the middle tone grays set the subtle mood. Black next white creates a lot of tension and drama, while a scene with lots of middle tones allows you to gently create a more subtle mood in an image. I experimented with this in BW in Paris, and considered how a similar approach of subtle color affects mood versus powerful primary colors.
After eight days of shooting in black and white I discovered some new ideas, and relearned how powerful certain graphic qualities can be. But more importantly I viewed the world through a different perspective, which in turn got me thinking in new creative ways. I’m off to Ouray Colorado soon to photograph colorful yellow aspen forests…but maybe I’ll try black and white for a day and see what happens!