Seeing in Black and White: How Colors Reflect Light

Seeing in Black and White: How Colors Reflect Light

Last Updated on February 6, 2023

Seeing in Black and White: How Colors Reflect Light

Call me a purist. 

Once I shoot in color (film or digital) it’s hard for me to desaturate or convert to grayscale. Losing all that visual information after being recorded first mentally and then on film, just seems like a waste of color.

But don’t get me wrong, shooting in black and white has its benefits. 

I learned photography using Ilford black and white film on a used Pentax K1000. The light meter was broken, so there was a lot of trial and error with the exposure settings at the time! But eventually, I developed a better understanding of lighting conditions and sensitivity to contrast in the environment, recognizing when the lighting either worked well or didn’t work out at all when images were developed as black and white photographs. I began to see when shadows were too deep, too many shades away from neutral, and when highlights teetered on the edge of detail. This temporary color blindness opened up, however, new dimensions of tonal nuance. 

how colors reflect light

With time, I started to see in black and white: my eyes began to ‘erase’ color when scouting a scene or landscape. However, colored areas obviously didn’t magically disappear, instead, the light reflected by certain colors became more apparent. 

Most people know or have heard that black ‘absorbs’ color, meaning that the light rays which bounce off black or dark surfaces are less reflected into the eyes of the viewer or lens of a camera.

how certain colors reflect light

This is because white reflects all the color rays and with it all the energy in those wavelengths. Contrastingly, black reflects the least amount of color, giving off also little energy in the image. But have you really ever taken the time to observe this? 

A light meter will measure this instantly. If you point your light meter, with a spot reading function, on a black object and then point it at a white object in the same scene with the same lighting, you will get two different exposure readings even though all the other conditions are the same. 

Similarly, colors of different hues and intensities can translate into varying shades of gray in a scene. Try taking a picture of a color swatch in black and white or try converting the image to black and white and notice how different colors translate to different shades of gray.

color swatch
color swatch bw

Notice how the yellow seems to reflect almost as strongly as the white. Likewise, check out how close the cyan and green are to pure gray.

Removing color here shows the play of light which is happening beneath the surface. Knowing, seeing, and utilizing this observation will not only boost your black and white photography but deepen your appreciation of light even when shooting in color!

To learn more about the nuts and bolts of digital photography and What is a Pixel check out this article.

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