One of the best ways to learn from your own photography is to look at most of your images in both color and black-and-white. Even pictures that you took explicitly because of their color content can teach you something useful about relative light and dark values and abstract elements of composition when viewed in black-and-white.
On my last visit to Harper’s Ferry, I took a passel of pictures in the old town cemetery, which is exceedingly lovely. It sits at the top of the headlands above the juncture of the Shenandoah and the Potomac. It is ancient but well-tended, and not at all crowded (either with the dead or the living). None of the photographs showing the water gave any sense of the grandeur and depth of the scene, so I’m sparing you those.
This was my favorite shot from the cemetery (I recommend clicking through to the large view):
Why? Well, I like the division of the image into sky and ground. I like the zig-zag of the headstones into the foreground and the filigree of trees on the horizon. I like the half-hidden house. And I like the raking shadows of the gravestones on the undulating grass.
As I inventoried those compositional qualities, I realized that they would all be present in a black-and-white version. In fact, they might even be enhanced if the distracting, seductive color were removed.
Okay then, let’s see the image in black-and-white (again, click through for the bigger version):
So, which do you prefer?
I like both of them. But if forced to keep one and burn the other, I think I’d hold on to the color version. And here’s why…
The blue of the sky and the green of the grass emphasize the graphic bisection of the composition (the counterintuitive lushness of the land of the dead below, contrasting with the stark land of the living above). The trees are more visually distinct because of their colored haze of new leaves. I find that the green of the grass makes the toothy headstone shadows more visible, and shows the undulations of the hillside more clearly. And lastly, I believe that the black-and-white graveyard photo runs the risk of being trite or cliché; in any case we’ve certainly seen a lot more of them.
I’d be very curious to know whether others agree with this assessment. What do you think? Which one would you keep, and why?