Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Article: "Shades of Gray"

(Published January 2009 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)
Yes, Virginia, photography is art. Art, in any medium, is to a large extent personal and subjective, as is the choice of whether a photographic image is to be presented in color or black-and-white.
This topic is broadly discussed within the academic standards of artistic merit, but the question of monochrome versus polychrome resides ultimately in what suits your overall style, objectives, and particularly, in what suits a specific image.
In the winter season of this month’s article, many outdoor subjects lend themselves to black-and-white photography due to the comparatively subdued quality of nature’s pigmentation during this time of year, even in southern Arizona. In fact, a color image of Madera Canyon’s snow and trees, for example, may appear not to possess much color at all.
Before digital technology, photographers made up their minds about color or black-and-white before they started shooting. Now this choice can be done afterwards, with the click of a computer mouse.
Digital technology makes the process easy (far too easy) but in the film world there have been many great photographic papers and films manufactured specifically for black-and-white images. As in color photography, this “older” technology still produces superior black-and-white results, in the opinion of many professionals.
Likewise, color, or colored, images have undergone experimentation since the early days of photography. Sepia tones (originally done by adding a pigment to the positive print of an image as a preservative) and other artificial, after-the-fact coloring techniques have been used to varying degrees of success both in photography and cinema.
With digital trickery you can have both color and black-and-white in the same image. Does anyone remember the lackluster “colorization” phase of black-and-white movies played on television? Conversely, using mono and polychrome together can be used for artful emphasis. Just remember the transitions in “The Wizard of Oz.” The basic principle, of course, is that tones of color influence an image’s emotional tone.
Using monochrome may compliment your image and enforce your message. The common perception is that a black-and-white photo is “moody” and its focus is on shape, shadow, texture and composition. Color photos impress the viewer when the ranges and nuances of color are a main point of the image.
Ultimately the question one asks is: Does color truly contribute to the image? Black-and-white strips distractions from an image and can portray a subject in its more pertinent bare essentials.The borderlands photographer can experiment with subjects which lend themselves to black-and-white. He or she should look at them side by side to determine which is best. Often something striking and profound about the photo’s subject appears more clearly and simply in black and white.
As a nature photographer, I try to keep my processing simple: I do very little to alter the original image, using only a fraction of what digital technology offers today (I should be given a discount or refund).
Brightness and contrast are among the few things I adjust in the digital darkroom, especially in black-and-white.
Texture and contrast are ultimately the keys to success in much black-and- white photography.
From the lines in a person’s face to stylish architectural abstractions of shadow and light, monochromatic imagery is often essential for an artful, meaningful result. Moreover, increasing the contrast in a black-and-white photo is often a technique with sure-fire success.
As a nature photographer, I can say that in most nature photography, color is the point of the picture. In photographic portraiture, which is the livelihood of many other photographers, a monochromatic image is often best for depicting the texture of a person’s character.
Deep shadows in nature photography are often to be avoided because they add nothing to the result but a great swath of blankness. However, in black-and-white images, shadows are essential: shapes and angles that shadows define can produce a winning result.
One argument for monochromatic images used to be that color images fade more quickly on paper. However, the technology these days with archival paper is such that this borderlands photographer himself will fade much sooner than the color on the paper! There are so many other reasons to expand your black-and-white photography – you’ll be impressed by the artist within you.


  1. Interesting article, Murray. I agree with you both as a photographer and artist, and of course one need look no further than Ansel Adams' astounding work to see the merit and artistry of monochromatic photography.

    I did experiment with b/w film many years ago, but now shoot 100% digital, and always in color. However, I often know ahead of time whether the image will be more powerful in b/w or sepia tone rather than color. Either way, I'll always be a fan of black and white, both in my work and others.