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  • Writer's pictureCristina Mittermeier

Mastering the Art of Monochrome

My creative journey and process when creating striking black and white images

I often get asked why I choose to make some of my images black and white while I keep others in color. Working in the modern digital darkroom and shooting everything as a RAW file allows me to make those decisions even as I shoot. Much of it concerns the early lessons imbued in me during my time in Art school.

The vast majority comes from the visual intuition anyone can attain after years of studying the work of masters and field experience.

At the very beginning of my career as a photographer, back when I was starting to understand the workings of a camera and had barely dipped my toe into the work of the incredible photographers who came before me, I had the enormous fortune of stumbling into a black-and-white photography course at the Corcoran College for the Arts.

For an image like Ocean Dance, the decision to make it black and white was simple; the white sand contrasting with the dark patterns of these spotted eagle rays created a sense of the ethereal, as if they are floating through light itself.


At the time, digital cameras were in their infancy, and Photoshop was a new technology. Most photographers relied on using the wet darkroom and understanding how to use photo lab equipment and chemicals to bring images to life. At this point in my career, I had barely glanced at the work of Ansel Adams, Robert Capa or Henri Cartier Bresson; Dorothea Lange, Graciela Iturbide, and Sebastiao Salgado had yet to capture my imagination.

Back then, one could not rely on a histogram to shoot, and so much of the mystery and creativity of photography came from the laborious process of using an enlarger to reveal an image shot with film.

That was, for me, the best school. You had to learn the technical aspects of photography to create a properly exposed and composed image. No shortcuts. I was learning how to think backwards, from a vision of what an image might look like once it's printed to how one might create it. I was mastering how to use my imagination to predict what the result of the image would look like. When it comes to black and white versus color, here are a few considerations I take when deciding whether an image should remain in color or be transformed into black and white. By sharing my process with you, you will be able to discern for yourself how you create your art.


Emphasis on Mood and Emotion:

Black-and-white photography has a quality that can evoke strong emotions and convey a sense of nostalgia or drama. By removing the distraction of color, I can focus on the interplay of light, shadow, and texture to create a more powerful emotional impact.

Simplicity and Minimalism:

Without color, images can become more minimalistic and focused on essential elements. This can result in cleaner compositions that draw attention to the subject, allowing viewers to engage more deeply with the core message or narrative of the photograph.

So often we ignore the way light dances through water. By making Into the Light black and white, it transforms the natural pattern of this shark.

Highlighting Contrast and Texture:

Black-and-white images are particularly effective at showcasing contrast and texture. This can reveal details that might be overlooked in colour photographs, making it an ideal choice for subjects with intricate patterns or strong visual contrasts.

Timelessness and Classic Appeal:

Black and white photography has a classic, timeless quality that transcends trends and eras. By choosing this medium, photographers can create images that feel relevant and impactful regardless of the passage of time.

Here are two portraits of women from the Suri tribe of he Omo Valley in Ethiopia. The choice to make them in color verses black and white comes down to visual impact. One woman, adorned in color, sits illuminated against a stark background. The other almost bathed in light, with the distraction of color forgotten.

What emotional responses do these images evoke? What are you trying to portray in your art? Consider questions like these when composing your images.

Narrative and Storytelling:

Black and white photography can add a layer of narrative depth to images. It can create a sense of mystery or introspection, allowing me to tell stories that encourage viewers to interpret and engage with the photograph on a more profound level.

Artistic Expression:

Some photographers simply find black-and-white photography a more compelling and expressive form of artistic expression. I like having the option to think differently about composition, light, and subject matter. This often leads to unique and striking results.

Challenging Conventions:

By stepping away from color, I can challenge conventional expectations and encourage viewers to see subjects in new and unexpected ways. This can lead to a heightened sense of curiosity and engagement with the photograph.

Harmonizing Elements:

In situations where colors might clash or appear distracting, using black and white photography can harmonize the elements within an image, creating a more unified and coherent visual experience. Sometimes, however, an image is all about the color, as is the case, for example, with Azul.

Color is a vital component to this image, it conveys the vast, mysterious expanse of our oceans in a way black and white could never accomplish. I even named it for its blue color: Azul.

Ultimately, a photographer's choice between black and white and color will be a reflection of your personal style, artistic vision, and the message you wish to convey. Different photographers may choose different approaches based on their unique perspectives and creative goals.

For me, the choice to use black and white photography aligns with my storytelling objectives and my desire to emphasize the emotional and narrative aspects of my subjects. For you, it may be completely different.

However, I hope that by sharing my work with you, you are as inspired as I was by the works of those who came before me. Perhaps the best piece of advice I can hope to impart is to be creative with your vision, experiment with your images and most of all enjoy the process.


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