Guest Post: What Makes a Great Black and White Photograph?

There’s no denying that artist Keith Dotson is passionate about black and white photography. In his work, he strives to capture the essence and spirit of his subject, the basis of which is the landscape.

Says Keith, “I’m drawn to black and white because I enjoy the drama and emotion, the texture and power that only black and white images can portray.”

In this exclusive guest post for Global Gallery, Keith shares his perspective on the most important elements of a great black and white photograph, reminding us that art is about more than equipment and technical aptitude. It’s about heart.

Click here to check out the full Keith Dotson collection.


What Makes a Great Black and White Photograph?
By Keith Dotson

Art is a very subjective topic of course, but since I specialize in black and white photographs, I thought I’d describe the qualities I believe make a great black and white image. For me, it comes down to four elements: Emotion, Unique Vision, Story, and The Print.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about focus, composition, or the type of camera used to make the image. Those things matter, but they’re basics that fall secondary to the artist’s unique vision.

I believe B&W photography is particularly well-suited to portraying emotion in the subject, as well as provoking emotion in a viewer. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the art of black and white photography is its combination of both raw power and subtlety, its grain and texture… the way it cuts away the superficial stuff and gets us to the essence of a subject. I believe that while a color photograph may show us reality, a black and white photograph shows us truth. Author Ted Grant said it well: “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” Grant’s statement applies to landscape photos as well, and yes, I believe landscapes often have “soul.” Regardless of the subject — whether it’s a stranger on a city sidewalk in the 1950s Chicago street photographs of the late Vivian Maier, or a foggy mountaintop in China in the singular landscapes of Michael Kenna — a great B&W photograph conveys emotion.

Unique Vision
The unique vision of the artist is what gives all art its power. In photography, this involves many choices, not only of subject matter and themes, but also of lighting, equipment, and techniques. In the hands of an artist, a beautiful photograph may be too dark or too light, it may be blurry, or it may be oddly composed. The photograph may be created in a wooden box camera on a glass plate negative using antique lenses, or it may be created in a pinhole box with no lens at all. It may be a digital file processed on a computer, or a salt print processed the same way it was done 150 years ago. The process serves the vision of the artist and over time becomes a signature style. An Ansel Adams landscape is unmistakable, just as a fashion photograph by Richard Avedon is uniquely his own.

I’ve found that minimalist compositions often result in my most effective and evocative B&W images: a single blackbird in flight, contrasted against a snow-covered field; a barren winter tree separated from the background by a dense, mysterious fog; a few droplets of dew slowly running down a thread of spider silk on a damp morning. One of my most popular photographs features nothing more than abstracted ripple patterns in a languid stream.

A good photograph usually tells (at least a piece of) a story, and is often part of a continuum of the artist’s work that expands on a theme. Of course, this is unique to each photographer and connects directly back to their vision. For some it might be family issues, for others it might be exploration of a certain culture or subculture, and for others it might be nature. My work tends to include two running themes:

1) My belief that all art springs from nature and that the natural world is an endless source of inspiration and beauty; and

2) The idea that most landscapes are more than just landscapes, having been shaped by their histories and the people who lived, worked, or died there. What happened there? Who walked that ground long before we did? I can almost literally feel the voices of those people from the past trying to speak through my images. B&W photography is perfectly suited for communicating this kind of story.

A High-Quality Print
For B&W photography in particular, the final goal should still be a high-quality print. Photography is ubiquitous these days, and most people experience photos on the Internet. But a B&W photograph must be seen in print. Prints come in a wide variety of formats, from pigment prints on watercolor paper or canvas, to traditional silver gelatin photographic prints, and even old-fashioned tintypes. But regardless of the format, a beautifully framed B&W photograph should take your breath away.

It should serve as a conversation piece or as an enhancement to your interior design. I receive amazing feedback from collectors, who often say that my work has touched them in a profound or meaningful way. I love hearing that because I want to create photographs that move people. But I also want to create images that people are proud to frame and display in their homes or offices. That’s how I know I’ve created a successful black and white photograph.

Those are my thoughts. What do you look for in a great photograph?


New Artist: Keith Dotson

“The landscape is the basis of my art. My studio is the outdoors, in all its forms, with subjects ranging from abstractions and patterns to bold, sweeping vistas. Much of the satisfaction I derive from photography is the sense of exploration and discovery; the visceral process of venturing out to make images; the silence of fog broken only by the sound of the camera shutter; the soft crunch of snow underfoot on a frosty winter morning; the fluttering colors of descending leaves in the forest on a Fall afternoon.”

Click here to check out the full Keith Dotson collection.

Q: What 3 words best describe your art?
A: Haunting. Quiet. Textural.

Q: How did you learn photography?
A: I started learning photography in junior high and got my first darkroom experience in high school. I also grew up drawing and painting, and eventually went to art school, becoming a professional art director. Only later did I come back around to rediscovering my love for photography. Since then I’ve been passionate about black and white photography and have spent every single day learning and growing as a photographer.

Q: Are there any current art trends that you love or hate?
A: I’m enjoying the photographic trend back to film, or even more archaic photographic techniques. More and more artists are creating cyanotypes, tintypes, and collodion prints to great effect.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece of yours? If so, which is it and why?
A: Currently, my own favorite photograph is the Avenue of the Oaks, shot near Savannah, Georgia. It combines all the things I hope for in an image… It’s based on a beautiful landscape with a long history and a strong sense of place; it features dramatic light and atmosphere; and it’s a powerfully simple composition. I think about the generations of people who lived on this land, and the people who planted these 400 massive oaks, and all the people who’ve passed beneath this majestic corridor of branches since before the Civil War.

Q: What inspires you?
A: I’m inspired by the wonderful light, patterns, and textures of nature. I’m inspired by travel and experiencing new places and cultures. I’m inspired by landscapes with a palpable spirit and atmosphere, especially if there’s also a rich or interesting history. And of course, I’m inspired by the art and photographs created by other talented artists, especially the woodcuts and paintings of Edo period Japan.


Interested in having your work licensed for fine art reproductions? Email us at curator [at] for submission guidelines!

Art Giveaway: Ocean Jewel III

Congrats to Peggy C. of West Virginia, winner of our June giveaway! We’ve given away almost $1000.00 worth of free art this year, and there are no signs of stopping.

What image could be more perfect for the summer season than our July art giveaway?

Ocean Jewel III, Suzanne Goodwin

retails for: $130.00
image size: 18 x 18 in.
finish style: gallery wrap

Click here to enter our July giveaway! Free art is good for you.

Want Ocean Jewel III in another size? Click here to view additional size and finishing options.