Land, Water and People: Are you up for the black and white challenge?

I stepped out of my truck at a pullout within the Bureau of Land Management’s Rio Grande Natural Area. It took an hour and a half to drive from Del Norte to this beautiful section along the river east of Antonito. I grabbed my daypack with my camera stuffed inside and a tripod tied to the outside. As usual, I had the place to myself.

For all of you on Facebook, you may have been tagged or seen your friends tagged to participate in a black and white photography challenge. It’s a fun challenge that asks people to post a different black and white photograph for seven days. I’ve seen some excellent photographs posted, but others needed some help.

Black and white photography strips everything down to its essentials; it can’t lean on vibrant colors to wow the viewer. Instead, everything is expressed as pure black, pure white and all the grey tones in between. It requires strong composition and, usually, good separation of tones. But, since black and white doesn’t rely on saturated colors, great photographs can be taken even at high noon.

Interestingly, the best way to take black and white digital photographs is in color rather than setting your camera to its black and white setting. Then, back at home, convert your color photographs to black and white in your photo software on your computer. If you have decent photo software (it doesn’t have to be super expensive), you will be able to work with the colors in black and white to emphasize or de-emphasize the tones. Darkening or lightening yellow will affect the grey tones of autumn grass. Working with blue will affect the sky and reflected sky in water.

One of the good things about working in black and white is that the viewer doesn’t expect it to look “real” because it doesn’t have color. A black and white photograph is automatically given creative license. This means you can really have fun experimenting with changing the tones in photographs. For example, in some cases, the sky may look best when it is darkened to almost black to contrast sharply with white clouds. Other times, a lighter sky may look better.

A strong composition is always important in a photograph, but even more so in black and white. Lines, curves, patterns and textures can suck the viewer into the photograph. Lines and curves may come in the form of tree trunks or a river, or they may be formed through the placement of objects, such as stones or flowers. Patterns come in many forms, for example, the repeating of light and shadow of mountain ridges in the early morning sun or the ripples in water. And texture can be found everywhere, such as on rocks, feathers, fur, and running water. Your only limitations are those that you place on yourself.

The autumn air was warm in the bright sun down by the Rio Grande. A long river glide curved towards a distant hill and reflected the wispy clouds that streaked across the blue sky. Yellow-orange rushes hugged the curve of the river and dominated an island in the center of the smooth, flowing water. I quickly set up my tripod and camera, composed… focused… click.

This one should look good in color, but even better in black and white.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.