#1081. Covid Photographic Ramblings #4

By Lad Sessions | Art & Creativity

Jan 15

As fall foliage gave way to wintry scenes, I have increasingly gravitated toward black and white imagery; in the bleak midwinter, images apparently turn monochromatic.

Naturally, given my bent, this tendency prompted reflection. I enjoy making black and white images, learning as I go, though I do not feel especially competent. I offer the following thoughts in two parts: the first is speculative, the second experiential. Neither is authoritative, and doubtless Dear Susan readers know much more about either subject than I do. I am just trying to make sense to myself of my rambles in the monochromatic world. I welcome other views, and I would like to think I am open to tutelage. (My friend Lash LaRue, who has patiently tried to instruct a willful student, may beg to differ.)

The exuberant exfoliation of these river birch tree trunks at Kendal, November 12, shows that smoothness isn’t necessary to beauty, and the effect I think is enhanced by monochrome.

Let’s begin with speculation. I want to distinguish four kinds of light, what I will call physical light, lived light, living light, and photographic light. These distinctions are not terribly relevant to the practice of photography: photographers learn and understand by making images, but I also try to understand in a different way. I hope these reflections are helpful to some.

First, physical light. No one actually sees this light; it’s an abstraction—albeit a very potent and useful one—for purposes of causal explanation. Physicists tell us that the data ingredient in what we sense as light are only a very small portion of the vast electromagnetic spectrum (only 0.0035%, in fact!). It’s amazing that so much information can be packed into that tiny fraction, and one wonders what we would “see” if we had receptors for some other regions of the spectrum. Imagine observing via X-rays! But while the scientific study of light is fascinating, and its insights profound, I don’t think this is where photographers ought to spend most of their

Trees arch to a cloudy sky November 25 on Brushy Hills.

Second, the lived light we actually do see is not just bare electromagnetic radiation, even if that’s where it begins. The light we actually experience is the illumination of the world in which we all live. Visible light is processed by our optical system and then our neural system (really they are but one system), in extremely complex ways. So what we see isn’t physical light, as a
light meter registers photons William James once suggested that our entire sensory apparatus might be considered not so much (or just, or even) as a sensitive register of reality, much less as an amplification device, but as a “reducing valve” on the firehose of reality, constricting and limiting in various ways the enormous flux of data (not just physical light) that reaches us. We know this lived light because we live in it, but we can never grasp its full reality.

Further, lived light varies among people, with different visual capacities, to be sure, but also with different experiences, training and cultures. The light we actually see depends also upon context and “set”—what we’re looking for, attentive to, perceptive of. It’s ridiculously complex, and I can’t hope to explore it here, save to note the complexity. Lived light differs from person to person: a game hunter and a nature photographer notice different things and notice them differently even when they see the same thing. We can be trained to see things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, as well as inured to seeing what is obvious to others; and as always, it helps to practice, practice, practice.

A rock contemplates the pond below, swollen with recent rains, just off the Blue Ridge Trail at Natural Bridge State Park December 19.

Third, there is living light, which is only a trope, but a very powerful one: light itself is like a living thing, with the power to animate whatever it touches. For some thinkers this is perhaps the most fundamental analogy of them all. Plato’s story of the Cave pictures the sun as the One, the highest principle of being that gives reality to all else and illuminates the deepest
knowledge we have, and Plotinus expanded on this idea, as did ancient Christian theologians when speaking of God.

Photographers sometimes speak of flat, dull and uninteresting light, or even dead light, but also of sparkling light and golden light. Moreover, this sense of living light is something we experience in and through the multitudinous things light makes visible. It can’t really be described literally—certainly not in the mathematics of optics, the physics of sensors, or the physiology of the eye—but only metaphorically. No doubt we can agree that a certain cast of light has a peculiar vivacity, and we usually nod our heads in agreement when certain terms are deployed: everyone knows what “golden light” is, having experienced it, though “golden” hardly does justice to the infinitely-varied gentle tones and hues of twilight. But we really can’t pin it down in words.

Living light, like lived light, must be experienced to be known.

At Sunnyside Run December 5 I encountered this arresting arrangement (or, rather, jumble) of concrete blocks.

Fourth, there is photographic light, not the light that causes photographic images nor that which a photograph tries to image, but the light in a photograph. Imaging introduces further complications to the first three senses of light. Photography is made possible by physical, lived and living light, but its light is not actually any of these, only the appearance of these in a different medium. It is a “drawing” of light, an image of an appearance.

At some level photographers make their drawings in, by and of physical light, albeit extensively cultured and curated physical light—now digitally processed to the nines by cameras and post-processing programs, even before entering our eyes again to be processed as images of the original light. (The intricacy of this whole process gives me vertigo!) Such images rely essentially upon a photographer’s keen and cultivated sense of lived light, and if gifted or spiritual a photographer may also dwell in living light.

Still, we all recognize that the light in light drawings is not the same as the light they draw, although both are infinitely complex and subtle. It’s not clear to me that reproduction of lived light or living light should even be a goal of photography.

Perhaps creation of photographic light for its own sake is worthy all on its own?

This natural rock bridge, a National Historic Landmark, is impressive in any light, but we were fortunate to have clear crisp skies on December 6. Note the visitor at the bottom providing scale. I thought black and white mirrored some historic photographs I’ve seen, perhaps calling to mind that this natural feature gives my county its name (“Rockbridge”).

One way of sorting photographic light is to distinguish between monochrome [which I’ll confine to black and white in this post, although I recognize there could be monochromatic variants in various hues] and polychrome [here confined to visual color].

Monochromatic vision or images are inherently less rich in physical information than polychromatic ones, just as the visible spectrum is less rich than larger regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Polychrome contains monochrome, as digital desaturation will show, although this subtraction isn’t a simple one. So in this sense monochrome is less than polychrome. But on some occasions less can be more—e.g. by isolating and highlighting the essential, by bringing to the fore shades and degrees of tonality, by emphasizing patterns and textures.

On Boxing Day I got up before a frigid dawn (18F) and walked down Sunrise Ridge to look more closely at the edges of the detention ponds. Here shards of a larger sheet of ice, left stranded and shattered by water draining out below, produce an interesting composition. I have included monochrome and polychrome versions to show how hue shifts the point of interest and how a given “capture” need not become a single image.

Here’s an analogy (it has its limits, I know): polychrome is to monochrome as painting is to drawing. Painting (at least representational painting) incorporates drawing, but drawing is an independent and exacting art. In a sense, I think polychrome and monochrome give life to somewhat different worlds. Each kind of imagery is rich enough to contain all kinds of properties and relations and to be populated by different kinds of beings.

You can live in each, or both, of these worlds of appearance, even though both are somewhat truncated. And this suggests that monochrome and polychrome are different ways of seeing because they somehow draw us into two different ways of being—two distinct yet overlapping worlds of appearance.

Now, the second part, where I descend from the stratosphere of abstraction to where the air is easier to breathe: my personal experience with monochrome. I don’t have a specialty camera with a dedicated monochrome sensor, like the Leica M-10R. My mostly trusty Sony RX10 “captures” color as well as black and white information. I don’t very often set out to make a monochrome image, though I may sense intuitively that the light is right for one. Usually a given image strikes me as suitable for monochrome—indeed, almost as predestined for monochrome—only in post-processing. I make a copy in ON1, which I find very versatile for this process, and then as in the darkroom of old, I “see what develops!”

Sometimes I merely de-saturate a file and then fiddle with various sliders, especially whites, blacks, shadows, highlights, haze, contrast and structure until I satisfice. Other times I resort to a number of useful black and white ON1 pre-sets as starting points, depending on my inclination, and then fiddle. I usually don’t have a preconceived idea of how a given image should look in monochrome, so this fiddling can involve comparing alternative looks—as much a matter of creating and discovering as of satisficing. Sometimes, in fact, I’m a bit surprised by the outcome—I didn’t know this image could look like this. It follows, of course, that I don’t think there is only one way to process an image in monochrome (just as in olychrome, or both, I should add).

I just can’t resist taking pictures of mushrooms, including these hoary but hearty beauties December 19 on the Blue Ridge Trail at Natural Bridge State Park. The colorful version is just as interesting, but the monochromatic one calls more attention to the frosty conditions.

So there is as much rambling in my processing of black and white images as in my “capturing” the original files. Even so, there must be features of a scene, or kinds of scene, that make it more interesting to me in monochrome than in polychrome. I don’t have an exhaustive list, but here are some initial thoughts about what I have found interesting for black and white; they are generalizations and so of course there will be exceptions, and you will have additional categories to add.

  • Certain subjects just look better to me in monochrome: especially bare tree limbs, vines or entire defoliated trees (which I think of as tree skeletons—a decent metaphor for monochrome itself, getting down to the “bare bones” of living things)
In a ramble around the Kendal grounds December 5, I came upon this tree with its complicated branching against a darkly clouded sky—a skeleton and its shroud.
  • But also rocks.
This rock, which we encountered on our ramble up Roaring Run January 2, is equally resplendent in color, the green lichen glistening after a rain the day before. But I like the way the rock emerges from the leaf litter in monochrome.
  • Also suitable are moving liquids such as streams and waterfalls.
Black and white conveys the rush, if not the roar, of Roaring Run January 2.
This is part of the falls at the top of Roaring Run January 2. Hand-held slow shutter accentuates the stream’s tumult.
  • I think portraits in monochrome can be stunning, bringing out the depths of persons that can get obscured when light-drawing flesh-tones. Here less can indeed be more. The tones, patterns, textures of faces glow in monochrome. But not here.
  • Another kind of subject is non-representational abstraction, whether patterns, tones, contrasts, textures, or all of these. Monochrome allows us to concentrate on these aspects of light without the distraction of hue. (Sometimes, of course, hue is not distracting but almost the whole point.)
It’s tempting to “see” something representational in this monochromatic rendering of ice bubbles December 26 at Kendal—a recumbent alien perhaps, or an Egyptian mummy—but you could also just contemplate the intriguing abstraction.

Connectedly, removing hue is well-fitted to minimalism, images that have few objects situated in wider expanses, perhaps in snow or on placid water or sheets of ice.

On a frigid dawn Boxing Day I looked at the edges of the detention ponds at Kendal. This crack in the ice provides a glimpse below, or, alternatively, a minimalist abstraction, although it’s not very minimal given the intricacies of frost and the graininess of high ISO.

Certain kinds of light seem more conductive to monochrome: often back-lit, or with strong oblique or undiffused light, though fogs and mists and twilights of all kinds are always eligible, as are low-key and high-key looks.

A streetlamp glows from the light of the sun and makes the icy limbs glisten. December 17 at Kendal.
  • Contrast is often (but not always!) a major factor: the contrast of light against dark, certainly, but also of light alongside or within or surrounding dark. Gradations from one to the other usually are not as striking. Often it is okay to lose detail in shadows or highlights, where fine structure isn’t needed.
The week before Christmas, December 17, sneet brightened the Kendal roofs, in contrast with the darker hills and skies. “Sneet” is my neologism for the wintry mix of precipitation that is all-too-common in this area, a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain.
  • Strong lines, especially diagonals but also verticals, horizontals, grids and concentric circles, are always arresting in any image, and they are even more prominent in monochrome.
We found these flooded trees December 19 at Natural Bridge State Park. Sky blends into pond, and the trees are crooked pillars between earth and sky. It could just as well be an abstraction.
  • Snow and ice (and less often rain), with their sparkling reflections and refractions, dazzle the eye and also the digital sensor. Getting exposure right can be difficult, but also rewarding, though sometimes the best snow and ice pictures are studies in minimalism.
This portrait of ice and rock reveals an interesting kind of balance and even symmetry, December 26 at Kendal.

Both simplicity and intricacy can be effective in monochrome, the former because it isolates elements (minimalism), the latter because it highlights details (maximalism). Some will prefer one kind to the other, but I like both.

Looking east from our house December 17, the morning light glinting through ice-glazed trees.
  • Moods: Stark monochrome can reflect heightened alertness, while subtle grays can reflect a more pensive mood.
This image December 26 at Kendal seems to show some strange fungus ominously engulfing dry land—or perhaps it’s an interesting contrast in textures, or just a view of ice and mulch.

What doesn’t look good in monochrome? Well, often the reverse or absence of the points made above. But also sometimes color is essential: to make certain elements stand out, where monochrome just can’t do it all; when color conveys an unmistakable sense of time or place; when chlorophyll must be given its due in plants, or blues in sky or sea, or browns in logs or mushrooms, or reds and yellows in fall foliage, or flesh in humans, or distinctive bird plumages.

Besides, some of us have an intrinsic attraction to vivid hues, though others prefer pastels.

Perhaps this is a weakness on my part, but I think it is perfectly harmless, in moderation at least.

Return with me to the late fall days at Kendal, November 12, for this final burst of color, an array of newly-fallen Japanese maple leaves punctuated by greenery.

I conclude with a brief note on evaluation: I do not think monochrome is inherently superior to polychrome, despite the competing claims of purists, though I do think it is harder to produce a satisfactory black and white image than it is to make a colorful one. Both are thoroughly capable of expressing a great variety of moods and associations, often different but with some overlap, quite apart from their suitability to subject matter. To my mind, in the end they are just different, and I delight in both.

You can find all episodes in this series here :


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    I am thoroughly lost – do you mean this is part 5? But even before you answer that, Lad, this stuff is way over my head. “I knows what I likes, and I likes what I knows!” I have enough trouble with 6,000 odd pages of text that I have to plow through, to “get to know my cameras”.

    I mentioned here B4 that I am eternally grateful to Australia’s indigenous people, for teaching me how to “see”. Transferred from their needs for this, to mine, it provided me with a massive upgrade in seeing photographic opportunities.

    And then – following a comment from your Othello figure – I started pursuing a study of light.

    Those two combine. And so I’m able to keep up with some of what you say. The indigenous people concerned are hunters – but their skill in “seeing” makes a seamless transition to photography. Light is another matter altogether. And obviously with my limited brainpower, I can only relate to what I see. But re-jigging that, during this phase of my life, has been quite fascinating.

    While I was playing all those games, I also did a study of “bark” – taking about a hundred shots, all different types of tree, bark, light, whatever. They do get a bit monochromatic, even when shot in colour, when you spread them out on a table top. The endless variety is fascinating.

    I’m afraid I left B&W behind, as a conscious decision, when I went digital. As I’ve said B4, it’s given me the opportunity for the first time in my life to process and print my own colour photos, myself. I thought half a century or more dedicated to B&W was enough and it was time for a change, before I reach the end and run out of time altogether.

    So instead, I sit here and enjoy the B&W photos other member of DS produce for my enjoyment. Thanks for sharing these photos, and all the rest of your thoughts, Lad.

    • Lad Sessions says:


      Thanks as always for your comments—and interest. I don’t imagine my conceptual ramblings are going to interest everyone, or maybe even most. We think about what we need to in order to do what we do. Still, what harm can there be to think a bit about the “theoretical” things I mentioned?

      But I do want to defend the exploration of monochrome even while defending your right to polychrome (and my taste too, actually). I think neither are superior to the other; they are just different. I’m glad you can enjoy if not produce black and white! And you might think about returning to B&W in digital; the looks will differ, but there’s a fascinating world of prints awaiting you!

      I share your fascination with bark (though perhaps you don’t share mine with roots and mushrooms!), and think any of these would be worth a separate project. I’ll have more to say about long-term projects in my last post when the current “Covid Ramblings” one ends in March. This one is indeed the fourth in the series, and I’m very grateful to Pascal for providing links to all four “episodes” so far. Stay tuned for more.


      • jean pierre guaron says:

        Oh dear me, no. I don’t have a problem with B&W – it’s just that after taking B&W for half a century, and with the walls starting to close in as I near the finishing line, I wanted to explore colour instead – not as well as, because I’d taken tens of thousands of B&W already. Ended up giving practically all of those negatives to a friend in London – his wife is thinking of moving into the greenhouse in the back garden, he’s acquired or been given so many collections now that his library of negatives runs to around 250,000 or more – and then come the prints – and the slides – and the books . . . .

        And I shoot mushrooms and roots as well, too. And bees – skinks – flowers – panos (inc. a super tele giant pano I’ve been working on for a year or more). All sorts of weird stuff. I suspect Pascal will love it when I let him see “cars in my street” – everything from a rickshaw to half a million dollars worth!

        • Lad Sessions says:

          I can hardly wait to see some of your images on DS. I too feel closer to the finishing line at 77, especially as my body has had almost as many problems this last year as the previous ten. Sigh. Do you know “The One Horse Shay” by Oliver Wendell Holmes? It may happen here!

          • jean pierre guaron says:

            ?? – yes I rather think I do.

            When people politely say “Hi, how are you today”, I find myself stricken with horror at the thought of actually answering the question.

            Once upon a time I used to see someone from the medical profession once every 5 or 10 years. Maybe! Now it’s pretty constant. What I don’t understand is how come I’ve managed to outlive at least a dozen or more of them, when they’re supposed to be the people keeping me alive – it doesn’t make any sense!

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        PS – you might like this – having gotten into colour from B&W, one thing I notice in some colour shots is that they might have “nice colours” but they are tonally flat. in B&W you’re dead, if the photo is tonally flat. Why don’t these people see that there must be not only colour, but also tonal range, to provide contrast and brighten up their photos? (Not talking about people on DS – but it is something I do see in other people’s photos, from time to time)

  • Yummy yummy photos, m’Lad.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Thanks, Leonard, but you should view them, not eat them! 🙂

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Kudos on another excellent post, Lad! I must say that I’ve never given much thought to the various kinds of light, so thank you for laying it out in such an interesting way. I especially liked your ice photos. Keep rambling and shooting!

  • Sean says:

    Hi Lad,
    I appreciate the originality and quality of content, of this article of yours. You’ve given a point of view that helps ‘wrap one’s head’ around the various aspects of light and their importance to photography.

    The four areas you discuss, go into helping understand, both individually and collectively, how they impact, illuminate and reveal, for example, a subject, person, object, scene, for either simple visual appreciation, or in a progression to the crafting of a personal and meaningful subjective image.

    That is, these areas you discuss, may help in the understanding of why a photographer’s senses are stimulated to a point that drives subjectivity in photography. A process that crafts images that gives off light representing ‘what was seen’ over and above ‘what was looked at’ by the photographer – however elusive that endeavour proves to be.

    Over time, experiencing failure and success in such an endeavour helps develop competencies in getting to know and understand, describe and discuss light – as you’ve done in your article. Well done.

    • Lad Sessions says:


      I very much appreciate your comments. I was worried that my theoretical ruminations wouldn’t speak to anyone, but they appear to have resonated with you! I do think light is much more complex than we often think, at least as complicated as the workings of our eyes and brains, and anything that can help us to understand the complexities can be useful. Carry on!


  • >