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Phil Douglis | profile | all galleries >> Gallery Twenty Two: Black and white travel photography – making less into more tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Gallery Twenty Two: Black and white travel photography – making less into more


I am often asked when black and white can work effectively in expressive travel photography. My answer: rarely. That’s because color itself is so much a part of travel itself that it usually helps us to define the nature of a culture, a place, or an event. To remove the color from an expressive travel image will often remove an entire dimension of its meaning. Seeing the colors is part of travel experience. We remove those colors from our travel images at our own peril.

Yet, as my very first gallery in this cyberbook abundantly demonstrates, abstraction is also a pivotal tool in expressive travel photography. And black and white is, in itself, a powerful medium of abstraction. In any black and white image, the black and white medium itself must always be part of the message. A black and white travel image functions best as expression when its monochromatic effect enhances the idea you are trying to convey.

Another reason why I use black and white so sparingly in my own travel photography is that a color image often appears to be more “real” than a black and white image. That’s because a color picture generally is faithful to what we can see with our own eyes. Black and white is not. Black and white is nothing at all like reality. It reduces everything to shades of light and dark. Travel photography is usually based on reality – it’s the nature of the medium. If interpreting reality is to play any role in my expressive message, it might well be worth keeping the color in my picture, if just for that purpose alone.

So when should we seriously consider producing travel images in black and white? Now that most of us exist in a digital world, we can have the option of shooting everything in color and then have the luxury of converting some of them later to black and white to see how they function. You will find that when you want to drain a travel image of everything but its essence, making it seem to be timeless, or remove distracting colors that call attention to themselves at the expense of meaning, black and white will work more effectively than color.

One other point deserves mentioning: when we shoot digitally in color and convert later to black and white, we lose the advantage of actually “seeing” our subject in black and white as we shoot. Most digital cameras allow you to shoot in black and white. It might be worth doing so, just to train your eye to “see” in tones of black and white, instead of in color. However keep in mind that shooting in a black and mode discards color information, so you can’t change your mind later and have that picture in color as well. The answer: if possible, shoot in black and white and then re-shoot in color. You may not be able to capture exactly the same behavior, etc. the second time around, but at least you will have covered all of your bases, and learn more about the differences between the two mediums.

All of the initial examples posted in this gallery were made in Laos and Burma in early 2005. In the future, I will be adding examples of black and white photography to this gallery made elsewhere as well. I’ve selected most of these images from my archive of digital travel articles posted at: http://www.pnd1.smugmug.com/ . Many appear there in their original color versions, so you can make comparisons.

This gallery is presented in "blog" style. A large thumbnail is displayed for each image, along with a detailed caption explaining how I intended to express my ideas. If you click on the large thumbnail, you can see it in its full size, as well as leave comments and read the comments of others. I hope you will be able to participate in the dialogue. I welcome your comments, suggestions, ideas, and questions, and will be delighted to respond.