SXSW Photowalk: A black and white exploration

Trey Ratcliff addresses the Crowd, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texase

Trey Ratcliff addresses the Crowd, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

I wanted to do something a bit different for this post. I’m using all black and white photographs. While I certainly love color, usually the more color the better, I have an appreciation for black and white. In fact, recently, I’ve done more black and white conversions. I took these photos on the SXSW Photowalk from this past Monday. I’ve posted my favorite color photograph from the event, earlier this week. But for today, we are going strictly monochrome.

We started the photowalk on the steps of Austin City Hall. There were 200+ participants and I was one of a dozen “coaches” who helped people with questions about photography. I brought two cameras with me, the Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm lens and the wide-angle adapter. The other camera was my Olympus E-P3 with the 25mm f1.4. My smaller E-PM2 was attached most of the time to a light weight tripod for doing long exposures and HDRs. The other camera was perfect for street photography. Most people used traditional DSLRs but many looked at my gear with curiosity. Some even commented that they wanted to downscale, weight-wise to a mirrorless camera.

The SXSW Photowalk Crowd - Austin, Texas

The SXSW Photowalk Crowd – Austin, Texas

Trey Shoots Nicole, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

Trey Shoots Nicole, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

How do I decide when to go black and white? This will probably make purists cringe but the short answer is I use black and white when I think it looks better. Subjective certainly, but as I gain more experience, I’m beginning to get a better idea of when to axe the color. Here are some of my simple rules.

1. I often use black and white to emphasize shapes and texture. This works great for architecture and cityscapes, especially if the color pallet is simple.

2. Sometimes, a black and white can add more mystery and moodiness to an image, especially when there are a lot of dark areas.

Hidden Blackberry, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

Hidden Blackberry, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

3. Black and white can also be used to simplify the image especially when similar colors blend into a similar shades of gray. If you have distracting color in the background, getting rid of the color can also simplify. There are at times when black and white can work in reverse and make at image too busy. If you have too much non-repeating texture from trees and bushes for example, it can overwhelm your composition. Make sure your subject is not overshadowed by the increase in texture.

4. When you can’t get those nice blue skies because it is overexposed, turning the image to black and white may better harmonize with the subject. The lack of a blue sky is no longer a negative, it just becomes a non-issue.

5. If the color in the photograph is blah and boring, I find a B&W conversion is worth a try. With black and white, I can usually increase the contrast more than in color. In boring, uninspired light, the stronger contrast can bring out interesting details and add more dynamism.

The Astronaut Among Us, SXSW Photowalk - Austin, Texas

The Astronaut Among Us, SXSW Photowalk – Austin, Texas

6. I’ve also converted to black and white when the color cast of a photograph is particularly nasty. People’s skin color is especially important and in mixed lighting conditions or indoor lights with poor, limited spectrum lighting, getting rid of the color can be an easy way to make a better picture of people.

7. I’ve converted to B&W when I want that “traditional” street photography look or when I try to emulate a particular old-time style. This is perhaps just a gimmick but I do admit to doing this.

8. Finally, you can convert to black and white, just because. You are the photographer and you can do what you want when in pursuit of your art.

The Corner of 6th and Congress - Austin, Texas

The Corner of 6th and Congress – Austin, Texas

The first 5 photographs are a straight forward black and white conversions using Apple’s Aperture 3 software. The last three photographs are black and white HDRs. I created a HDR out of 3 exposures and then converted the resulting image into a black and white. I think the increase in texture and dynamic range adds to a level of detail that changes the feel of the image. To my eyes, it simply looks different from a typical digital photograph. The last 3 photographs were also taken on 6th street which is normally packed with cars. The street was pedestrian only during SXSW so I had a unique opportunity to shoot the street life without the interference of parked cars or worry about getting run over.

Roppolo's and Ritz, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Roppolo’s and Ritz, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Bars of 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Bars of 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Museum of the Weird, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Museum of the Weird, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Photographs taken with the Olympus E-P3 with a Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 and with my Olympus E-PM2 with the 14mm f2.5 lens and the Panasonic wide-angle adapter.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.

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