Written by guest photographer: Joel Wolfson


Viewing the world in color as most of us do, there is a mental challenge to seeing a black and white image in your mind’s eye. This combined with technical and artistic elements make black and white especially interesting and challenging.

The main reason I chose my image Vue de la Rivière is for the feel of timelessness. In my mind’s eye I knew this would be a monochrome image. It was a rainy day in this Provencal village that was once the home of Vincent Van Gogh. I knew he must also have experienced this vantage point atop a centuries old structure overlooking the town. It’s only the inconspicuous cars in the photo that provide any clue as to whether this image is from today or a hundred years ago.

A Little History…
As a young boy, standing on my tiptoes I could barely see into the developer tray watching, like magic, as the image appeared on the paper my sister had just exposed in the enlarger. So mysterious and fascinating, this was probably the moment I got hooked. I got my first camera at age 8 and by age 13 I got serious and built my own darkroom using the enlarger that was collecting dust since my sister went to college. I started dreaming, breathing, and living black and white photography.

I read every photography book I could get my hands on and attended any photo exhibit I could get to that came to town. My heros were no longer Spiderman and Superman but the masters of black and white photography: Ansel Adams, Ed Weston, Imogen Cunningham and the whole Group f64. I learned the Zone System, how to visualize in black and white and taught myself composition and visual design by forcing myself to shoot with a box camera that had no settings, not even focus.

In college I didn’t take any photography classes but helped teach photography courses to knock off credits. I became a full time professional when I graduated in 1985. At this point I was shooting mostly color, especially for my clients. Fast forward to present day: Although I love color photography, black and white is still a passion. I have found over the years that the lessons I learned and techniques I developed and ways of seeing the world around me were all influenced, in a very positive way, by black and white photography.

Not only am I rediscovering my own black and white roots but there seems to be a resurgence in the interest of black and white in the whole photographic community. One of the premier custom black and white labs in the country is hosting an all black and white show of my work, Topaz just introduced software dedicated solely to black and white, and my August digital black and white workshop filled up in no time. This is a great time to explore black and white photography if you haven’t before or want to rediscover it. There is a timelessness to black and white and there are so many options now for working with it. I put together a handful of tips based on my experience to accompany this article.

About Joel
Joel Wolfson, a Southwest native, is published internationally and his roster of notable clients include Newsweek, Elle, Seventeen, Houghton Mifflin, Family Circle, and corporate clients such as Apple, AT&T, 3M, United Airlines, Chase and Pillsbury. He is one of the pioneers of digital photography. His technical articles on digital imaging have been translated for use in more than 30 countries. Yet he is best known for his artistic images of nature’s fleeting moments as well as abstracts and unexpected views of everyday places around the globe.

“My goal is to capture with my camera what I experienced, not just document a scene. This is my standard for a successful image”

His love of photography started as a child peering over the developer tray witnessing the magic of the appearing image as his older sister made prints in the darkroom. By age 13 Joel built his own darkroom, shot pictures and printed them when he wasn’t devouring every photography book he could find. Initially influenced by Ansel Adams, Joel learned the zone system and black and white “visualization.” Further inspiring Joel’s artistic vision were painters Rembrandt, Monet, and Picasso. And he had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s most renowned photographers. He has devoted the 20+ years of his successful career as a photographer pushing the limits of the medium, continually expanding his talent for revealing the hidden, extraordinary moments in our world.

More from Joel Wolfson:
10 Tips & Techniques for Digital Black and White Photography
Joel Wolfson’s workshops, website, and blog
Preview of Topaz B&W Effects

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