The Power of Black and White Photography: Learning to See in Shades of Grey

Posted on Mon, September 30, 2019
  • by: Jim Preston, Chief Photographer
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“Color photography is like a novel that spells everything out in detail, whereas black-and-white photography is like poetry—its strength isn’t in what’s said; it’s in what’s left out.”  – Heinrich van den Berg 

It is exciting to witness a resurgence in photographers producing black and white images. I was weaned as a photographer on Tri-x film and D-76 developer. Armed with a Weston light meter and an Argus C-3 camera, I roamed the countryside of my native Chester County, Pennsylvania, in search of stone barns and wooden fences for my high school art class projects. Initially I shot with slide film to capture the color. But one day I experimented with black and white film. I had bought a basic home kit to process the film and expose a 4x5 inch sheet of photo paper. It was amazing to see the picture come to life in a tray of developer. And it was that moment that inspired me to become a professional photographer. 

I couldn’t wait to go out and shoot pictures— on the hunt for shapes and textures, looking at light and composition, shooting and rushing to the darkroom to process and print my creations. Black and white seemed to evoke a different emotion than the pictures I was taking in color. There was just something magical about the whole process and end result.

Museum supervisory photographer Jim Preston. National Air and Space Museum photo by Eric Long.

In the early years of photography, black and white photography was simply the standard. But in the early ‘60s color photography exploded with the introduction of Instamatic cameras produced in mass by Eastman Kodak. Cameras were cheap, often given away, and film and processing became more affordable. Like cell phones today, Instamatic cameras were used to capture family activities, birthdays, vacations and everyday life and share them in color.

Early in my career as a Navy photographer, I shot both color and black and white film, depending on my assignments. I began to notice that I approached a subject differently depending on the type of film I was shooting. When I shot in black and white, I would visualize my subject and the composition in shades of grey. It was like I had a monochrome filter over my eyes. I saw my subjects in their purest form.

Flight ops on the deck of the USS America in the Indian Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Jim Preston.

Modern digital cameras allow you to shoot in monochrome and instantly see them in black and white. While that is the easiest method of taking black and white photography today, it is not the most effective. Monochrome mode gives you a basic greyscale photo of the subject. But with today’s technology and post processing controls in programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, shooting in monochrome would be akin to shooting and processing black and white film and not exposing for shadow and processing for highlights. The great photographer Ansel Adams used a zone system to create his magical black and white images, expanding the latitude of black and white film beyond a basic grey scale. I can only imagine how he would have loved today’s technology and equipment. What one can do with post-processing software to create dramatic black and whites is the subject of numerous blogs on the web. Just as there were many ways to expose and process film that yielded different results, there are numerous ways to get black and white images from digital. You need to experiment.

Our team shoots color for all our photography work here at the National Air and Space Museum. But on occasion I come across a subject that jumps out and begs to be processed as a black and white. The engine and propeller of the Boeing 247-D aircraft is an example of something that struck me this way. On another occasion I found myself in a black and white mood while taking a tour of our Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, last year that resulted in a photo essay. This tire photo is one of the images from that experience.

  • Close up of propeller

    Close-up of a Boeing 247-D propeller. National Air and Space Museum photo by Jim Preston.

  • black and white photo of tire

    Close-up of a tire at the Paul E. Garber Facility. National Air and Space Museum photo by Jim Preston.

  • Head-on shot of X-15

    North American X-15 rocket plane. National Air and Space Museum photo by Jim Preston.

I find that shooting black and white photography is all about focusing on the basics—tones of grey, quality of light, contrast, composition and texture. While these basics are important to the impact of a color photography as well, they are the essence of black and white. 

If you have an interest in black and white photography, experiment with seeing in shades of grey and have fun creating powerful images.

“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.” – Ansel Adams


Jim Preston is the chief photographer at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The photo staff of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum will be presenting a free workshop on black and white photography at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on October 18, 2019. Learn more and apply.