Behind the Lens: Autumn Color in Black and White?

by | Photography

Autumn Color in Black and White?

Exposure Data:
1/15 second, F/16, ISO 400
Nikon D610 Camera, Nikkor 24-70mm lens at 24mm

With a wide variety of trees, the Adirondack autumn features some of the most colorful foliage in the country. Sprinkled amongst the primary yellows, oranges and flaming reds are tangerine, bubble gum, black cherry and magentas. Naturally, the vibrant colors command our attention and make irresistible photographic subjects. However, I’ve also discovered colorful fall foliage can render well in monotone. Why turn all that beautiful color black and white? Several reasons. The colors are often so dominant they get in the way of our seeing the trees’ intricate forms, textures and patterns. By removing color it’s easier to see and compose these artistic elements. The lyrical lines of limbs, for instance, are more easily recognized. The repetitive forms of leaves stand out better. To aid in composition, some photographers even set their LCD screen to show the image in black and white (though the capture remains in color).

On an overcast morning at Wakely Pond, in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest, rain had painted the forest with color and the soft light set it aglow. It was an ideal situation in which to work. In the unchanging light, I could take my time looking and composing. Peak colors hugged the shoreline evergreens. With the lack of a breeze, all were reflected in the pond with precision. I stepped back from the shore to frame the scene with these two maple saplings—one still green, the other in full autumn regalia—and an overhanging pine. This also reduced the visual space of blah-gray water. The colors, lines and forms were all impressive, but while processing the image I wondered how it would all register in black and white. Much to my delight, I found the black and white version all the more striking! The lines of the tree trunks and limbs jump out. The forms of trees, hillsides, sky and water better separate into distinct sections. Maybe most impressive of all, the luminance or brightness values of the multi-colored leaves vary across the spectrum; upon converting to black-and-white, they reflect a wide range of luminance values. In Adobe Lightroom, I adjusted the Luminance and Saturation sliders of the various color channels, trying to orchestrate the mix of tones to allow the brightest leaves to seemingly glow from within, while others recede into medium and dark grays, adding depth and dimension.

The result is a symphony of monochromatic tones, born of classic, colorful Adirondack foliage!


Mark Bowie is a frequent contributor to Adirondack Life magazine and a much sought-after public speaker, offering presentations for conferences, camera clubs and other groups. He is a staff instructor for the Adirondack Photography Institute. API is already posting their 2020 workshop schedule, and more workshops will be added soon. The program descriptions for Mark’s popular winter workshop and night photography summer workshops are now available. For more information and to register, see API’s website: For more on Mark’s work, visit

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