Look. See. Imagine. Create: The Power of Black and White

Jailhouse Rock, Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Jailhouse Rock, Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, UT

The very best time to make nature and landscape photos, even portraits, is the golden hours, i.e., one hour before and after sunrise and sunset.  I have written about the Golden hours here before.  The  issue is that sometimes you just can’t shoot sunrise and sunset for various reasons, especially when on vacation.  If you have to make photos in the middle of the day, black and white will almost always be a better option than color AND with digital cameras, shooting black and white is easier than ever  Here’s how:

The Problem – Look and See


When Mary and I drove through Cathedral Valley (with our friend Mark McDermott), Mary and I made a conscious decision to shoot differently.  I would shoot color and she would shoot black and white using her infrared camera.  We were lucky that we had muted light and high wispy clouds that day because the color images came out just fine.  I still think the black and whites have a more powerful feeling with all of the contrast.

When you have harsh light that is bright and contrasty, look and see all of that contrast in black and white.  For this trip, we knew we would be out in the middle of the day – all day – because Cathedral Valley is so remote, so black and white became the go-to option.  Black and white works best when you have few colors, in this case, blue, brown, and white.  If this was a field of flowers, I would not recommend black and white.

Think in Black and White – Imagine

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park, CA
1204_PSA_Joshua Tree_023-Edit-Edit

This is a popular subject in the Jumbo Rocks campground at Joshua Tree.  It is not so interesting that I would sit here and shoot this at sunset, but it is a fun composition nonetheless.  The sky was pretty bald and the light was not so great so I imagined what it would look like in black and white and knew I had a good one.  The black and white brings out the clouds in the sky and the contrasty light brings a glow to the “penguin rock” and juniper tree.  This photo came out just as I imagined it could.


The Church in the Bodie Ghost Town, California State Park
The Church in the Bodie State Historic Park, California

Bodie is in the California Eastern Sierra Nevada near Lee Vining and Mono Lake.  It is very difficult to shoot here at sunrise or sunset because of the drive and because it is a gated State Park.  You can only go in when it is open, from 9 AM – 6 PM, so you have to shoot it in the middle of the day.  I have many fine color photos of the day we were at Bodie, mostly because we were lucky to have a few clouds in the sky.  However, when converting to black and white, the textures and drama really emerge.

Body 12

Here are some options for converting your color digital image to black and white.

In almost any software package you should have a black and white conversion option.  You also should be able to decrease “saturation” down to zero which creates a “gray photo” and then adjust exposure and contrast.  If you have a histogram, make sure to set the black point and white point which will make the image sharper and set the basic contrast.

However, the best thing you can do is buy Silver Effects Pro from Nik.  This is our go-to plug-in for black and white.  It has many presets so you can see the image in various options, but you also have the freedom to make adjustments.  The photos above were all processed in Lightroom, then PhotoShop using Silver Effects Pro.

Here is one of our blogs with more tips on processing black and white images.  So don’t worry too much about middle of the day shooting.  Look at it as an opportunity to channel your inner Ansel Adams and think in “black and white.”

To see more of our photographs please go to www.pamphotography.com.


  1. Redterrain

    Stunning photographs! Black and white photography takes viewer to another planet. It would be interesting to see if the black and white images would be on par with what colourblind people see… If there is as much contrast, or if the images they see are flat and less defined.

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