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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.

(Shortly after posting this gallery, I came upon a stunningly effective black and white image posted by one of my cyberbook students, Dandan Liu. You can see it at: http://www.pbase.com/celestine/image/39230266 . It as close to a masterwork of travel photography as there is on pbase. I praised Dandan for using it in black and white. When I clicked on her very next image at http://www.pbase.com/celestine/image/39796498 I was stunned to see the same picture arrayed in color that utterly destroyed its beauty and message. If ever there was an example where black and white would be preferable to color, this would be it.)

Travel photographers face still another potential issue when using color imagery. Viewers expect to see it reproduced in the “correct” tones, etc. With black and white there is no “right” way to worry about. Because of its ability to abstract a scene, simplifying it and making less into more, black and white can be more effective at stimulating the imaginations of your viewer. Black and White is best used with art-oriented, journalistic, or documentary intentions.

In fact, I often find myself responding to my subjects more as a travel photojournalist, than as just a travel photographer. When I am shooting with the mentality of a reporter, working as a visual storyteller making spontaneous images rooted in the reactions and interactions of people, rather than carefully and deliberately previsualizing images to express the reality of the places in which they work and live, I find that black and white can often work more effectively than color. The images on display in this gallery, many of which are really a form of travel photojournalism, bear this out.

If you go through my overall cyberbook, you will note that I’ve posted very few images in black and white in my other galleries. And that is because I am generally teaching expressive travel photography here, not art photography, photojournalism, or documentary photography. Color imagery reflects reality, and reality is at the very core of travel photography. That is why most travel brochures and magazine articles are reproduced in color. Rare is the travel image that will work more effectively in black and white, unless it is intended to be primarily artistic, journalistic, or documentary in nature.

In this gallery, you will see examples of how black and white can work as expression in some forms of travel photography, particularly as travel photojournalism. Some of these images may also work well in color, but for different reasons. I will note such cases in some of my captions. Wherever possible, I will also provide a link to the same picture, showing you how it also looks in color as part of my travel articles posted on worldisround.com, so you can compare them side by side. I hope that when you have finished studying these images and my comments, you will gain a better feel for the kind of travel photos that might work effectively as black and white imagery.

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.