When to Use B&W to Convey Mood


Lago Puelo (Patagonia) Argentina

1/320s @ f/8 ISO 100 @ 70mm

I find myself constantly reaching back to my photographic roots which is black & white photography. In this day of overly vivid, saturated, and over-baked color I find a certain peace in the simplicity of black & white. Don’t get me wrong, I like color as much as the next person, but many photographers today seem to subscribe to the more is better philosophy and I miss the subtleties of moderation. Without color as a distraction the viewer is more concentrated on subject, composition, spatial relationships, texture, and contrast.

The above image of Lago Puelo in middle Patagonia is a case in point. The leading line (detritus) draws the viewer’s eye from the lower right side of the frame to the small person standing at the intersection of the horizon and leading line. This person is only important in that they provide scale to the scene and a convenient focal point—from the person standing on the shore our eyes continue to wander to the mountains, clouds, trees, lake, and shoreline. It is an un-hurried and leisurely stroll through the picture frame.

Composition is vitally important to this kind of shot. The Rule of 1/3s comes into play: the horizon line is at the bottom third of the frame, and the person is standing at the intersection of the horizon and the right third of the frame. Both the detritus and shoreline provide interesting leading lines, and the shore rocks lend texture to the foreground. The blacks and the whites, the clouds, and the contrast all contribute drama and mood to the image. This image in color isn’t nearly as striking—at least in my humble opinion.


Filagree (Patagonia) Argentina

1/80s @ f/8 ISO 125 @ 70mm

I photographed this second image of a denuded shoreline tree the same afternoon. Patagonia is a rugged, harsh, and often bleak landscape. Travelling to this pristine lake I experienced driving rain and blowing snow, and it wasn’t until I descended into this small valley with its family farms and national parks that the weather moderated somewhat. It was still cold, with subfreezing temperatures, and I wanted to convey the feeling of isolation and maybe even desolation. Once again color would have distracted the viewer and I would have failed in my mission.

Winter is receding in Patagonia and spring is only a few weeks away, but you would never know it looking at these two photographs. Everything is dormant and still. Life will again assert itself in the coming days and weeks, but for now it’s all about solitude. I felt a deep sense of brooding loneliness but surprisingly I wasn’t actually lonely—if you listen carefully winter can impart that sense of quietude. Admittedly, it can be difficult with other people around taking “selfies” and jabbering—but there can be brief moments.

Ansel Adams is often revered as the grand master of black & photography, but there are many others if you seek them out. Black & white photography can be like a fine aged single-malt Scotch whisky—an acquired taste. You may not like at first but it can grow on you. Stunning black & white photography is not simply converting a color photograph to black & white, it involves a whole different set of artistic skills—especially in the processing. Blacks have to be black and whites have to be white, and proper contrast is vitally important. If you’re a photographer revisit black & white.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, Traveller


Patagonia, Argentina


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