Desert Photography Primer

Black-and-White Photography
5 of 5

Text and Photos by Chris Wray

In the previous articles of this series we looked at some issues facing the photographer in the desert. Some of the situations covered are created by the photographer and can be controlled, while others are naturally occurring and must be dealt with. Black-and-white photography is probably the most demanding type of photography for both of these situations.

The fine black-and-white image has the ability to raise itself above the literal and take on a power of its own. When color and its associated reality are removed from the image, the print becomes somewhat abstracted. With careful planning by the photographer during all aspects of the process, a black-and-white image can become a powerful, symbolic work of art. Many people have longed to create images with the strength and impression of famous black-and-white photographers like Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, yet few ever work long enough to gain a mastery of the medium. Let's look at what goes into making a fine art black-and-white image.


To be successful in black-and-white the photographer needs to understand the basic exposure methods as described back in the first article of this series. Strict exposure control must be put into practice for virtually every image. The photographer meters the scene to determine where middle gray should be. Black-and-white film has fairly narrow limits with the contrast range it can record and still maintain visible detail.

A typical dark area of an image will not expose more than about two stops below middle gray. (A stop is the difference of one shutter speed or one aperture setting ). Bright areas typically need to remain within three stops brighter than middle gray. It is common to not know if a middle gray object even exists in the image. Rather, the extremes must be known and become the deciding factors.


Black-and-white workers commonly use filters to alter what the film sees. These are not just our typical polarizer or warming filter, however. Since black-and-white film cannot see color, we can selectively cancel some colors and allow others to expose. Filters commonly used for black-and-white include yellow, orange, red and green. These filters allow their own color to pass, but are opaque to their opposites . Hence, a strong yellow filter will darken blues, a green will darken reds, etc.

Landscape photographers like orange and red filters because they cancel blue and green, making skies dark and foliage rich in tone. The opening image for this article, the thunderstorm over the Borrego Valley, was made with a red filter, although the sky was not blue enough to go entirely black. The sky behind the sign at Miller's Garage in Ocotillo, however, was rendered quite dark by a red filter. Subjects with little or no color, like the old car fender, will not be changed by filters.

Film Processing

Once the negative has been exposed correctly, the photographer must develop the film. To achieve control in black-and-white, you must develop and print your own work. If you allow a machine to process the film, you have no idea what was done, and cannot expect to duplicate it the next time. Developing film is actually quite easy. I processed black-and-white in my bathroom for years before I finally built a darkroom, even printing 4x5 inch negatives on a rather big enlarger, then hanging the prints in the bathtub to dry.

Experienced black-and-white photographers also know that manufacturer's figures for film are not worth much. The common "rule" is halve the film speed, and decrease the development time by about one third. This gives a good starting point to work from. For example, for my favorite 100 speed film, Kodak's T-Max 100, I expose at 25 because I use a weaker developer which slows down the film speed. When photographers toss around terms like "personal film speed," or "normal development," this is what they are talking about.

Black & White Printing

With negative in hand, the photographer is now faced with making a print. Black-and-white printing is the completely subjective part of photography. There is no right or wrong. There is only what you want. Ansel Adams used the analogy that a negative is like a musical score, and the print is the artistic interpretation of it. How a print looks is so personal that a print made by another person is not a reflection of the photographer. The images are, instead, those of the darkroom worker. Creating negatives is easy; creating the print you show, and place your name on, is not.

For these reasons, if you want to succeed in black-and-white, you need to learn to print. This is more difficult than developing film, but it is much more fun and rewarding. Classes can be found at most community colleges and adult schools, or you can read some books and begin on your own. The important aspect of learning to print is the understanding that some things can be taught, like processes and techniques, but other things must be gained from experience. Your vision of what you want your work to look like, and what you feel is important in the work, must come from within -- no one can teach it to you.



Darkroom Equipment

On the technical side, printing requires a "dark room," containing equipment like an enlarger (really just a projector), a bunch of plastic trays, a sink and a handful of accessories. There are three basic chemicals used in the printing process -- a developer, a stopping agent and a fixer -- all fairly innocuous. Because setting up a darkroom usually costs a few hundred dollars, it is often easier and cheaper to get started by using the facilities (and instruction) of your local community college or adult school.

Black-and-white printing papers come in many types. They range from plastic-based "RC," or resin-coated papers, to the heavier fiber-based papers. Fiber-based is the better paper, having a richer image. It is also considered archival. If you are going to show work, just assume you need to use fiber-based paper and leave the plastic kind for your proofs and less important work.

Printing Techniques

One of the aspects that makes black-and-white so subjective is the control the printer has over contrast. Since the desert can have very low contrast at times, being able to control the image contrast is quite handy. Paper is made to allow a choice of contrast range to suit the image or the printer's whim. Paper is available in either graded contrast steps, or as multi-grade. Multi-grade uses colored filters in the enlarger to change the contrast of the print.

In addition to contrast control, the printer has the ability to darken or lighten certain areas of the image at will. The techniques of "burning" and "dodging" are vital to creating fine prints. Burning refers to allowing additional light onto an area of the paper by using a card with a hole in it to shield the rest of the print. The added exposure will darken the chosen area. This is usually done after the basic exposure is made for the entire print. Dodging is selectively shading an area for a short time within the overall exposure to help lighten it. The shaded area receives less exposure than its surroundings.

Some people may look upon these techniques as being a way to "alter" the reality of the image, and therefore see them as unacceptable. Remember that black-and-white is not "real" from the outset. The goal of the medium is to create a somewhat abstracted image which takes on a life of its own beyond the literal, documentary level. Many photographers enjoy the surreal look of the desert and work to enhance that feeling in their images. Black-and-white gives them an extra edge to help push the photograph a little further from reality.

By carefully deciding the filtration and exposure of the negative in the field, developing the film within specific parameters, and using paper contrast, dodging and burning techniques, the black-and-white photographer can exert an incredible amount of control over their image. The end result has the opportunity to become a moving, emotionally charged photograph worthy of display in a gallery and being referred to as a work of art.


Desert Photography Primer

(1 of 5) - Basic Knowledge & Exposure
(2 of 5) - Desert Landscapes
(3 of 5) - Types of Desert Light
(4 of 5) - Details & Close-ups
(5 of 5) - Black & White Photography

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