Earlier this year I wrote what I felt was quite a personal article about what it is like to be a colourblind photographer. In the coming weeks and months after writing and publishing it (and having it widely re-shared across some very big photography blogs) I had contact with so many other colourblind photographers who reached out to me to thank me for putting into words something many of us struggle to explain to others. One particular email was from a mother whose young son is also colourblind thanking me for giving her hope and opening up her eyes to not treating it as a physical disability. But on the flip side to the incredible conversations that I had with people who either understood what I was explaining, or who knew someone who was colourblind, there were also several rather negative conversations and comments from the typical anonymous trolls urging me to quit photography, or questioning my ability to be able to sell my work or offer the professional workshops I do.
One particular conversation which stuck with me was a person giving their very educated and thoughtful advice that I should only do black and white photography, and should never publish any images that have colour in them. In the article that led to those conversations I was quite clear in saying that I very often get colours wrong, and that I find it to be an achievement when I do get images that have a lot of colour variations in them right.
I also say this about black and white images in the original article – “So why don’t you just shoot in black and white you may ask? Well good black and white images are not just colour images that have been desaturated or turned into monochrome in your editing suite of choice. Good B+W images are just as hard to produce as good colour images as the reliance on such a limited set of shades in your images is a skill set of its own. And, where would the fun be in only trying to produce images with a lack of colour? Apparently the world is a very colourful place so thats what I still like to achieve in the images I produce.”
But after those conversations it got me thinking about why I have never given black and white photography a good try. I mean, if I can produce colourful images while only seeing 5%-10% of the colour spectrum surely producing black and white images can’t be that hard, right? I am the type of person who likes to be challenged to achieve things. Some people just see those online comments and negative conversations as trolling by anonymous keyboard warriors and can take that sort of stuff to heart. I see them as a challenge laid down by people who more often than not have no idea what they are talking about. A challenge that will only help me to grow as a photographer and to continually learn and improve my skills.
As my post processing knowledge has improved and the range of techniques I use in Adobe Photoshop has expanded, the challenges of colour adjustments in some of the more complex tools have also become a lot harder for me. Sometimes it’s quite embarrassing for me when I get my partner or friends to check my images after an initial edit to find that I have completely messed up the colours! Seriously, my Project RAWcast co-host Kieran Stone will vouch for this. I cannot even begin to count the times he has saved me from public embarrassment.
To now step back and think about adding black and white images to my repertoire has given a new outlook on the creative path. It has also made me appreciate many other elements of photography including the impact of strong compositions, interesting shapes and textures, solid leading lines, the subtleties of tonal variations and contrast adjustments. Removing colour has made me appreciate the complex balance of light and dark, the direction of light and how it casts shadows, the fact you can work with flat light and produce high quality landscape images outside of that small window of time around sunrise and sunset we all like to shoot in.
Without the complexity of colour that confuses my simple brain, I have been able to master the curves, levels and luminosity masking tools in Photoshop and truly understand what they achieve in the tonal and luminous values of images. I am a huge fan of long exposure photography and as a NiSi Ambassador (and even prior to this) extensively use and also teach the use of neutral density filters to produce the style of images I love. Black and white images are especially suited to dramatic long exposures and the simplicity of the tones produced in elements like clouds and water from stretching time works extremely well.
Understanding how changes to the blacks in any images can help to make whites brighter seems so simple. But this has also helped me to understand this in my colour images as well. This may seem strange to some, but I believe converting my images to black and white and making white balance adjustments from there to what will ultimately become a colour image has also helped me to get one of the most confusing parts of image processing to a colourblind person correct.
I have a huge thirst for knowledge when it comes to photography and I firmly believe that learning as much about all styles of photography can help your overall skillset. Over the years I have resisted going down the path of producing black and white images because I didn’t see it as a challenge I really wanted to take. One of the things I need to explain to people extremely often about being colourblind is that I do not see the world in black and white. So until recently producing black and white images just seemed counter-intuitive to everything that I have been explaining to people since I was a young child!
Writing that article earlier this year not only helped many other people understand and be able to explain what they experience themselves through being colour challenged, but it has also completely changed my outlook on my own photography and creativity. Having people tell me I shouldn’t be doing photography because I am colourblind, or that I should only be producing black and white images set me down a path that has now given me an even bigger appreciation for an art form I truly love. So to those people, I thank you. I saw your comments as a challenge rather than as something negative. A challenge that helped me get a greater understanding of how to produce another form of imagery I now feel comfortable in sharing with the world.