The Psychology and Aesthetics of a Toned Monochrome Print

Color affects our emotions. Whole volumes have been written describing these effects, and how artists and advertisers use color to best induce specific emotions. Color also has profound effects on the perceived depth of any two-dimensional representation of our three-dimensional world.

To make the point, look at the three squares below. Which color, blue or red, seems ‘closer’ to you? This example is a good way to show how our eyes play tricks on us when it comes to color alone. If you see the red square appear to be in front of the blue squares, that is the typical response.  There is a biological explanation for this effect, but the result is that “warm (e.g., red) colors project” and “cool (e.g., blue) colors recede.”


How does this relate to the psychology of B&W (so called, “monochrome”) prints?

I’ve been creating B&W prints for years, but the truth is, I don’t really care for “black and white” prints. I much prefer “purple and white” or “eggplant and white,” and for some subjects, “brown and white.”

The 20th Century masters of landscape photography touted the physical and emotional effects of toning their B&W prints. There were dozens of techniques and materials used to impart colors selectively to silver gelatin prints. Among the most widely used was a selenium chloride solution. Depending on the paper and developer used to print the image, bathing the print in a weak solution of selenium chloride for a few minutes materially changed the color of the print to what Ansel Adams called an “eggplant” color, most noticeable in the darker shadow areas.

I loved the aesthetic effect selenium toning had on my prints, so it became a standard part of my darkroom workflow, and now continues in my hybrid workflow.

What was that effect?

Take a look at the two images below. The first is a straight “monochrome” depiction of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia. It’s a beautiful image, full of light and excitement and depth. These characteristics are imparted solely by the subjects, which are entirely shades of neutral gray (you may see color, but it’s because your monitor is not neutral–most are not). This depiction represents what comes out of the standard B&W developer or when you convert an image to B&W in a digital workflow.

Now look at the second image. It was given a treatment that selectively toned the shadow areas as if the print was toned in my darkroom method for selenium toning. The mid tones and shadow areas now have this deep purple (so called “eggplant”) tone.

Blackwater Falls at Full Force

Blackwater Falls at Full Force
“Blackwater Falls at Full Force” – Limited edition archival pigment print, up to 40×32 inches


There are many other tones besides the ‘eggplant’ of selenium toner that artists can choose to use. For some images, I like a warmer tone that mimics Kodak Brown Toner I used to use on wet prints made in the darkroom. Brown toner is very effective in giving a more nostalgic aesthetic to some subjects, such as those in my Virginia Grist Project and other old architectural subjects, like “Dappled Shadows” below.

example of a warm-toned print
“Dappled Shadows on a Store Front” – warmer brown tones gives a nostalgic aesthetic to old architectural subjects.

How do you feel about the two different presentations? If the second image appears to have more depth in the shadows, it’s because the cooler purple color appears to recede behind the screen surface; the comparatively warmer whites appear to be in front of the shadows. This therefore tends to push the highlights in the water forward and causes the trees and other shadows to fall back into the image, much like the red and blue squares above, creating a greater sense of depth in the image.  Depth in a two-dimensional picture encourages the viewer to want to engage in the picture, something all visual artists want from our audience.

There is also an emotional aspect to the image I think is important. Hues in the purple range are known to induce a sense of calm and creativity, of wonder and exploration. Purple is a very emotional color to most humans.  The toned image of this enormous waterfall therefore creates an internal conflict that is very subtle, but still there. First, you stand before this potentially dangerous, powerful, noisy waterfall that most of us react to with a bit of anxiety, red flags goes up in your consciousness: beware!  But surrounding the waterfall on all aspects is this calming tone that encourages exploration of the shoreline, the trees, the flowers and rocks along the river’s banks. This is a conceptual contrast, and one I think adds drama and excitement in the toned print that isn’t so apparent in the untoned print.

I always tone my B&W prints, varying between a cooler (more bluish) to a warmer (more reddish) selenium tone, depending on the subject of the photograph. It’s always a very subtle tone, not even as much as I’ve shown you in the second image above, which I exaggerated for purposes of this article.

If you make B&W prints (or even web images), experiment with toning to emphasize the feelings you want to compel in viewers. There is a infinite number of possibilities.  In Lightroom, use the Split Toning feature to do this. For the toned image above, I set the Highlight toning saturation to 0 and the Shadow saturation to 9, hue 354. I set Balance to +50, favoring toning to the shadows.

To my heart, monochrome images should be way more than black and white!

Do you already tone your B&W images? What are your experiences? Let me hear your thoughts.




In image-making, you need to know the story before you can tell it.

Every picture tells a story. Sometimes it’s a story well-told, and sometimes not.

Just as a writer carefully maps out the setting, the plot, and cast of characters long before he/she begins typing a novel, visual story-tellers–those who make images instead of books–also will previsualize the story they want an image to tell.  Previsualization begins when we find or stage a subject that we believe has inherent artistic potential–i.e., has a story to tell–and leads to a point in time when we actually act on that belief by taking its picture or beginning to sketch on canvas.

In photography, previsualization is no less important than it is to any method of image-making. Often our eye will catch something we think has promise, but then we must exercise thoughtful previsualization to make the most of the story in front of us. In fact, previsualization must start with the story we want to tell, and all other compositional decisions we make should support that story.

One of the most important compositional decisions a photographer makes during previsualization is whether the final image will be in color or in B&W.

One good reason to decide on B&W film capture is the creative flexibility that B&W film lends to the photographer. If I can exploit this flexibility, I want to do that. Use of color subtraction filters and the ability to adjust film development to increase or decrease the contrast of the captured image are both good reasons to select B&W film over color film. Color film offers far fewer, if any, creative controls.

But first and foremost, the choice to use either color or B&W film should be based on the scene in front of the camera and what the photographer wants to say about that scene. In other words, does the presence of color support, or does it detract, from the story you want this scene to communicate? This is a question that is just as applicable to digital capture as it is to film capture, and it should be asked during previsualization.

It is so easy to defer the question of “color or B&W?” when shooting in color only, such as when shooting with a digital camera. Since the digital camera always captures the full color spectrum, the tendency is to just capture the scene and worry about converting to B&W later and see which, color or B&W, “looks best.”

This could be a mistake, regardless of whether you’re capturing to a digital sensor or onto film. The reason it’s a mistake is because you’ve also deferred the critical question: “Does my concept for this scene–i.e., the story I want to tell– require color? Does the color in the scene support or does it detract from that story?”  When shooting film specifically, deferring this question until later also means that by choosing to use color film, you have removed any opportunity to exploit the creative advantages that B&W film offers.

I follow the advice of the greats who came before me and try to nail down the story for every photograph I take long before I load the film into my camera and click the shutter. Nailing down the story is the first, and perhaps the most important, part of previsualization. The story not only affects the choice of color vs B&W, but also where to point the camera, choice of lens, and every other aspect of composition. I repeat, being in color or being in B&W is one of the strongest compositional decisions to make: it should be made during previsualization. You should know before you take the picture whether it should be B&W or color.

Deciding on color or B&W is an intuitive decision, and I admit that sometimes, I don’t trust my intuition and will capture the same scene onto both color film and B&W film. Most of the time, I learn that I should trust my intuition more.

Here’s a case in point:

Being Obvious (color)I came upon this massive mushroom this week while out walking on a local farm. It was more than 2 feet in diameter and rested in a bed of clover just at the base of an old dead tree stump.

What was immediately obvious was just how obvious this old mushroom was. It’s size and texture of course made it stand out from everything around it, but it’s color was intense as well. The yellow and orange hues really made it ‘different’ from the cooler greens of the surrounding grass and ivy, and from the old monochromatic stump.  The impression I had, and this became my concept for this scene, was “Being Obvious.”

From that point on, my single goal in taking its portrait was to support the concept of ‘being obvious.’ My intuition told me that it should be a B&W portrait, and by using a pale yellow filter I could enhance separation of the main subject from its surrounding cooler tones quite well. But its mushroom’s color was so intense that I began an inner argument with myself (i.e., with my intuition) that then caused me to take the portrait in both color and in B&W. Both portraits were taken in similar, flat overcast light.

The color portrait is interesting because of the subject, but I think it lacks balance, and the colors present in the scene seem to detract from the story of the mushroom “being obvious. The intense yellow/orange of the mushroom tends to share the space almost equally with the other two major colors: the blue green ivy and the brown stump.  In other words, the natural colors didn’t support my concept very well, even though intense.

I was glad I followed my first inclination and also took the mushroom’s portrait using B&W film. I chose to use a light yellow filter to deepen the tones of the cool green clover and lighten the tones of the fungus, thus exploiting the creative controls possible with B&W film.

Being Obvious
“Being Obvious” copyright 2015, J. Riley Stewart

The B&W portrait better segregates the mushroom from all other elements in the image; the ivy and stump are no longer competing for attention with the mushroom, and this change better supports my ‘being obvious’ story.  The B&W image also is better balanced than the color portrait, as I was easily able to lighten the tones on the far right of the frame to create that balance.  Brightening the same green ivy in the color photograph would not have accomplished the same result.

Had I not previsualized this scene and just took the pretty picture of the mushroom without thinking, I might not have  even thought to “see” this in monochromatic B&W, and would have failed to tell the best story for this fantastic, and worthy, subject.

Which do you prefer? Does this picture say something different to you? Would you have captured this portrait in color or B&W?

Leave a comment below! 

Are there limits to artistic freedom in photography?

Most people who take pictures use them just as they come out of the camera. But this is rarely the case with photographic artists.  Artists may spend hours on the best images to transform the image provided by the camera into an image that meets their own artistic vision of the scene: this is the creative phase in photography. In this regard,  the photographic artist differs from artists who use paints or charcoal only in the medium used to fix the subject within a defined frame.

The creative approaches used by photographers during the creative phase–that phase in which the artists exercises the most artistic freedom– vary greatly. While one artist might limit his/her manipulation of the image to adjusting the lighting to create a more dramatic effect, another might take that same scene and compile it with several other images to create a ‘scene’ that departs drastically from what the camera saw; in fact drastically departing from reality. Jerry Uelsman was among those who exaggerated that definition by merging various photographs to create composite images. He became quite famous doing this (see

Photography has been traditionally a documentary technology used to capture on film an image produced by light waves emanating from a scene in front of a lens.   Because of this documentary aspect of photography, most people today still believe, and  expect, that a photographic image is essentially a factual representation of an actual scene, setting, subject, or incident.  When you ask the the man on the street  whether a picture is “real,” they will tell you that it is unless it obviously isn’t (such as the proverbial rabbit head on the body of a moose or the beautiful but fantastical composites by Uelsmann).

In the digital camera age using photo editing software, it’s a simple matter to overlay 2, 3, or 16 different camera shots into one “photograph.” Whether it’s Uelsman’s merging of several negatives or a modern digital photographer’s merging several digital files, the essence of fact that distinguishes photography as a documentary technology can be completely lost. So my question is.. “When does artistic freedom begin to contradict the fundamental definition of photography?” If compositing multiple images isn’t photography, then what is it?

When it comes to artistic freedom in general, I say “to each his/her own.” But that’s not my opinion when it comes to defining photographs. Photographs should be kept a pure art form. I think that every pixel (or grain of silver) should represent a wave of light that entered the camera and struck the sensor/film at the time of capture of the subject or scene.

Artists who paint or draw can put whatever feature(s) they want on the pallet before them and no one questions it because no one accepts a painting as representing reality: we all know it’s the artist’s imagination that we see on the canvas. I believe those who do the same using photographic images aren’t photographers, but they are artists, still. But what do we call this if not photography? Perhaps it’s more precisely an illustration.

Why should this matter to the fine art community and to photographers specifically? Because if we continue to merge multiple photographs into one image and still call it a photograph, then the art form we know as photography will revert to a tool no different than the paintbrush, spatula, or pencil in the hands of a skilled realist. Photography will have no distinction as an art form itself because it will not longer have a distinctive “form.” In fact, fine art photography may cease to exist. Beautiful vistas of the Grand Canyon will no longer be credible (“was that ridge really in the scene or did the photographer merely put it there?”). We’ll know this has happened when our viewing public expects that an image has been “photoshopped,” whether it has or hasn’t.

Where should photography draw the line regarding artistic freedom in image manipulation?

My opinion is that as long as the image doesn’t contain a physical entity that wasn’t there when the shutter was clicked, it’s a photograph. So putting a boat into a picture of a mountain lake, when that boat wasn’t there at the time the mountain lake was captured is not photography. But enhancing lighting by dodging and burning or setting levels, cropping, or enhancing colors, none of these change the content of the photograph as it was captured, and thus remains a valid documentation of light hitting the film (or sensor) when the shutter was clicked.

I’m certain this opinion will be hotly debated..I’m not the first to raise it as an issue for our times. What do you think… are then ANY bounds is how we define photography today?  When does a photographer stop being a photographer and start being an illustrator? Do we owe it to our art public to keep photography ‘real?”


Using film in a digital world…not such a strange thing.

My mother-in-law, a wonderful person, has always enjoyed taking pictures. Her first camera was a Kodak Box Camera when she was a little girl. She’ll turn 89 this October. I’ve rarely seen her without a camera since I’ve known her these past 39 years.

Today she owns two cameras, one a digital and the other a film 35mm. She’s had the film camera for many years; the digital was a recent gift. So guess which one she uses the most: Her favorite is the film camera. She’s hardly used the digital.

Most of us take the differences between digital and film workflow (meaning the procedures necessary to generate a picture for viewing) for granted. We’ve either grown up with computers or have been using them long enough that the use of computers to capture digital images, print them, mail them, etc is no big deal. But to someone in my mother-in-law’s generation, accepting that the picture you just snapped now resides on a small “chip” in the camera that you then have to somehow get into another device that can print it….well, that can be a big hurdle. Especially when they know how easy it is to snap the picture and take film to the drug store for processing and printing. Her biggest problem today is finding a place that sells film. So I recently hooked her up with my preferred film supplier, B&H Photo in NYC ( Now she can just call them when she needs refills on film.

Wait. Did he say “his preferred film supplier??” Yes, I did. You see, I shoot more film than digital, even though I have a perfectly capable digital camera (a Nikon D200) and I know digital workflow inside and out. Nor am I an octogenarian like my mother-in-law. I’m a mere quintagenarian (is that what they call “50 somethings?”).

So why am I using film in this digital age?

I get that question alot from my photography friends, usually it comes with that “what a dinosaur” look to their faces. To be honest, sometimes even I wonder why I’m hanging onto this 20 Century technology, and am tempted many times by the simplicity and ease of using a fully digital workflow. Yet, I haven’t, and likely never will, give in to these temptations. Why not? Here’s my top six reasons:

1. I get higher quality images using film. With film, I get better resolution than my 10mp digital camera when I need bigger prints. Film lets me capture a much longer scale with film- I strive to capture in my images both deep shadow details and sunlit cloud details, a look that I adore in photographs. There are technical reasons why, but digital sensors aren’t as sensitive at both shadow and highlight ends of the light scale to create the same tonal range as film.

2. I never have to worry about electronic failures that cause me to lose my images forever. Erased files, hard drive crashes, card failures–not a worry to me with film. Once I get the film developed I have it forever to rescan.

3. Film is extremely flexible since it’s a Write-Once-Read-Many format. For a single negative, I can scan it into digital form an unlimited number of times. I can scan it to 10mpixels for routine web or small print presentation, then later rescan them to 35mp (35mm negatives) or 75mp (120 medium format and 4×5 large format films) in true 16bit color. Thus, I can create huge prints (40″ x 60″ or more) this way, and those prints are high quality prints comparatively free of pixelation or other “overenlargement” artifacts that we get with 35mm digital cameras. You can buy the larger format digital cameras, but the cost compares to buying a car. No thanks.

4. Shooting film slows me down when shooting and speeds me up when processing my images. When shooting, I take more time composing each shot and shoot far fewer pictures of the same scene. By slowing down when shooting, I realize a greater appreciation for the scene; I’ve taken more time to analyze what’s before me and what inspired me to stop in the first place. I enjoy shooting more because of this. When I shoot digital, I know I have space on my memory cards for over 700 pictures. So like most digital photographers, I just snap away, taking perhaps dozens of pictures of one subject. It can be argued that this is an advantage, and in some ways it is. But–and here’s where film speeds me up– when I get home my job of culling my film shots is quicker than it is with digital. After all, I have far fewer (but better) images to deal with. I throw away alot more of my digital shots. And when I throw them away, I mean I delete them from my camera and computer, never to be seen again (see #2 above).

5. I love working with film. After thousands of times doing it, I still get a thrill seeing the negatives (both B&W and color) when I take them from the wash and hang them to dry. I get another thrill when I scan (i.e., digitize) them. And I always have the thrill when printing, which is my preferred way to present my final images. Yes, developing and scanning film is more work (actually I consider it play), and it takes experience to develop a reliable workflow for developing and scanning, and a bit of cost. But to me the thrills are worth the effort of working with film. I agree such hands-on approach is not for everyone. But, you don’t have to do it this way to use film (keep reading).

Like many professional fine art photographers, I use both film and digital cameras. While I prefer film for most of my professional work, I will use my digital camera when:
– it’s the only camera I have with me (this is ALWAYS the best camera available: the one you have with you!)
– when I don’t trust myself to make the right exposure. I sometimes need immediate feedback after I shoot the frame (we call it ‘chimping’). Sometimes it’s difficult to meter sunrise/sunset conditions or when shooting into the sun, so rather than miss the shot I will shoot it with digital, making adjustments and multiple shots until I get it just right. One day I hope to learn a better way.
– related to the point just above, I use my digital camera like photographers-of-old used polaroids, to evaluate a shot before investing the time to set up the big cameras.
– when I am shooting subjects for which I don’t expect to need large, high quality prints. These include corporate work, family shots, social events, and such.
– when I want (or need) a quick product– this doesn’t happen very often and it’s usually a matter of preference rather than need. Sometimes I just want to post a pretty picture on my Facebook page to say “look what I saw today!”

A digital camera is a great invention for many of our picture-taking situations. But it’s a mere rumor that “film is dead.” In many ways, film is superior. In a few ways, digital is superior. If quality and flexibility is important to you, film is the way to go.

I use 35mm, 6×7 medium format, and 4×5 large format film cameras in my work. You can still take rolls of 35mm to your local Costco or CVS Store and pay about $1 per roll for them to develop. They will scan it  at 2400 ppi for about $3 per roll of 36.

So try this. Chances are good that you have a 35mm film camera sitting in a drawer somewhere. Dig it out and shoot a few rolls of film. When you get the prints back (or have your developer scan them to CD for you), compare the pictures with your more recent digital camera shots. I think you’ll be amazed at how much better film captures the essence of your experience. We’re so accustomed to seeing blocked out whites in our digital pictures today that I think we’ve lost appreciation for those delicate soft wispy whites and very fine tonal changes that our eyes actually see. Film is much more capable of capturing those attributes.

Let me know if you’re happy with the result. If you are, keep the film camera handy, chances are you’ll be using it more and more.

Happy shooting.