I think there is probably a sense of ‘import’ or ‘weight’ which [black and white] gets, sometimes intended, sometimes unintended. But much of that is cultural. We ‘expect’ it to be important because so many of the important images of our time have been only in [black and white].
We see the world in color and thus reality is connected with the presence of color. Consequently, a black and white image tends to distance us from the accurate depiction of reality and transfer the viewer to a kingdom of abstraction, reducing the image to pure tones, lines and forms.
Photography, in order to be successful, must reduce the scene to its essentials, discarding part of the information. This can be done with the frame selection, the composition, but also, and to a significant extent, in my opinion, by the way of removing the color information.
Unlike painting, classic photography was born and grew in Black and White. The days of Henri Cartier-Bresson and other masters of photography that we admire today, are associated with black and white images and quality photography.
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But black and white has a practical function of creating visual cohesion for a set of images – particularly when a set of images is taken in vastly different lighting conditions and white balance temperatures. Strazzante points out that, “Most times, color is a distraction and keeps the viewer from examining other elements of a frame.”
As Bresson wrote about color photography: “I am half afraid that this complex new element may tend to prejudice the achievement of the life and movement which is often caught by black and white.”
Light is the essence of photography, thus every tool that stresses it and his opposite – shadows – helps to make a better image.
Florida-based Chip Litherland suggests that there is a nostalgia around black and white:
You can read more articles about B&W Photography on my blog: “Inspirations”
But is black and white a gimmick? Given that humans see in color, is converting a photo to black and white an act of self-importance? A way to make an image appear to be more significant than it otherwise might be in color?
This is the thing which makes certain scenes/sounds appealing. It derives from what we now see/hear in nature or is buried deep within our primal instincts through DNA. Regarding shapes, it is things such as the arrangement of petals in a flower, leaves on a branch, branches on a tree, seeds in a sunflower, chambers on the nautilus, the pine cone, etc. In short, the Fibonacci series and the golden mean.
But some scenes do look better in color than B&W but feel free to experiment.
Maybe because of the influence of classic (film) black and white photography we tend to react emotionally more when we see an image in black and white. Even the chromatic noise in black and white contribute to the creation of a mood.
I think there is a certain nostalgia to it that people long for as we’re bombarded with color and chaos every day in our lives. Something about it just mellows me out and gives me a different experience when reading a photo. Anything that gives the viewer a that experience will always be popular.
As a minimalist photographer, I use every tool that promotes my pursuit. There is no doubt that the absence of color alone gives the work a more minimalist feel. But there is another feature that moves the B&W image to the same direction and this is the accentuation of the negative space.
4. Reducing photography to its essentials – shape, form and pattern
Black and White helps to show off the compositional elements without the distraction of color. The elements of the frame and their interrelation pop up and occupy the position they deserve.
This ingrained response is what led Strazzante to stop converting his work in post a few years ago.
Finally, there is another strong reason for choosing black and white and this is the opportunity to increase the viewer’s experience. We are used to see in color and presenting the world in B&W pushes spectators to pause and explore the essential ingredients of the image – composition, forms, texture and the main object, without the bias that the color vision adds to the perception of the world.
I’ll start with a quote by Ted Grant: “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” Removing the color from a portrait, allows the viewer to concentrate on the facial features and decode the person’s emotions. This quote introduces our first argument.
Color film went mainstream in the 1930s with the introduction of Kodachrome, but black and white has stubbornly persisted not only in newspapers, but also as an expressive outlet for many photographers who choose to shoot photojournalism, weddings, portraits and more by converting color digital files to black and white.Even Leica jumped on the (retro) black and white train by releasing the Leica M Monochrom in 2013 to a collective shrug of the Internet.
“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity” Alberto Giacometti.
In a black and white image we may miss the color information of a beautiful sunset, but on the other hand we can enjoy light better. Light and shadows are accentuated by the lack of color. Think about the strong impression of the long intense shadows or the strong silhouette of a backlit subject, greatly highlighted in monochrome images.
Intense colors have their one dynamic, creating emotions, contrast and visual intensity that are extraneous to the essence of our object. Distancing ourselves from the colors, we remove such distractions and concentrate on the substance, allowing us to “see” and understand what we’re shooting. We start considering things like contrasting light, negative space, lines and shapes – the essential ingredients of photography.
If such a picture is rendered in B&W (or any monotone), the discord of color disappears and we judge the image on geometry alone thus improving the image. For this reason, an image of just one flower almost always looks better in color due to the matching natural palette, (as our brains and instincts expect it to), but a picture of mixed items in an unnatural arrangement, such as random items on a desk, (except for Martha Stewart’s desk 😉 ), may look better in monotone due to the likelihood that each item has a color palette which is in discord with the other items.
The use of black and white by professionals and serious amateurs is a way to cause viewers to pause momentarily while they are exposed to an endless stream of images on a daily basis….Once a photographer has caught the attention of a viewer, their monochromatic image must be content rich to keep their eye. The photographer can’t incorporate a red shirt or a yellow car to make up for a lack of interesting elements, so, the moment is that much more important.
Sometimes color detracts from an image. If it has a lot of texture or shadows or a lot of busy, colorful patterns, a B&W version of that image might make the subject stand out more prominently.
Indeed, certain scenes may look better in sepia, cyanotype, selenium or other toning than B&W since it may be closer to the expected color palette of the majority of the scene. Where earth tones are expected, such as a desert scene, may look better in sepia than B&W and may even look odd in cyanotype. On the other hand, where sky tones are expected, such as a waterway, cyanotype may improve a B&W image but sepia may possibly ruin it.
Portrait photographer Drew Gurian also thinks color can divert attention from what’s truly important in a photo:
Recently, the “black and white challenge” has emerged on Facebook. Photographers call each other out to shoot and publish a black and white image for 30 days. For some, it’s a constraint meant to creatively inspire. To others, it’s a way to flex their past of shooting in black and white. Tintype studios and DIY kits are abound – a segment of consumers seems to believe in a certain authenticity that older methods and processes confer.
“… the value of art lies at least largely in the value of its expression of emotion.” (Alex Neill, The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics).
When the color component of an image has been removed, the viewer can undistractedly observe the elements in the frame, the relation between them and the effect of the compositional elements – lines, shapes and forms, but also the lighting and the tones.There is a whole new world to explore – a world of forms and interconnections.
A photo posted by Scott Strazzante (@scottstrazzante) on Nov 11, 2014 at 4:47pm PST
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This is every photo I made in the 1980s combined into one. #sanfrancisco
Pulitzer Prize winner Deanne Fitzmaurice suggests a certain rawness about black and white.
It is quite easy, via framing and composition, to create an image which has the fibonacci geometry. If we take a picture of just one flower or just one plant or maybe even a collection of plants from the same native geographic area, we may even hit the natural palette in colour. Chances are that most colour pictures we take will not have the natural palette.
A wide range of tones is essential for a successful photograph and Black and White allows for a tonality that ranges from absolute black to pure white. The same cannot be achieved in color photography, due to the resulting oversaturation and color burning.
As Robert Adams wrote “Form is beautiful … because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life maybe chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”
Color can be a distraction, and take away from the root of the story the photographer is trying to tell. Black and white photography draws the viewer in more quickly, and can tell a more compelling story because of this.
In other words, B&W conversion gives a timeless quality to the images and,for reasons connected to the roots and traditions of classic photography, offers a greater visual delight.
There is definitely something elemental in [black and white] which eliminates so many of the potential distractions (and wonders, alike) that color is all about. [Black and white] can reduce a scene to something more easily and quickly absorbed. It retains a kind of purity which we respond to without so much study. It will be interesting to see in 30 years if the people growing up with the ubiquitous color everywhere have the same feelings.
Some photo judges can be manipulated by a portfolio, story or single image converted to black and white. Black and white photos look more important. They feed on the collective memory of people who remember fantastic images from the past and, definitely, play on that nostalgia. If top notch professionals can be swayed by an image converted to black and white, just imagine the effect on the less savvy.
For the documentary photographer, communication of the story is the key success criteria. The selection of black and white vs color is a tool that either advances or detracts from this success. Fitzmaurice says, “If I feel that the color is distracting or interfering with what I am trying to communicate, I may make the decision to go black and white. I try to choose the right tool to tell each story as effectively as possible.”
We have all fallen in love with the beauty and power of black and white photography where everything is stripped down to the core; light, textures, contrast, tonality, mood and raw emotion.
Think Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Joe Rosenthal, Eddie Adams, John Filo – even recent Pulizer Prize winners like Barbara Davidson, Deanne Fitzmaurice, and Renée C. Byer have relied on black and white photography as the palette of choice.
I hope you’ll find useful the following article from my blog”
About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.
“In Defense of Black and White Photography”, by Joel Tjintjelaar, in “B&W Minimalism” magazine
San Francisco Chronicle photographer Scott Strazzante suggests that the eye-catching nature of black and white must still contain a good photograph, or it is just a gimmick:
Robert Adams wrote: “Art like philosophy it abstracts. Art simplifies. It is never exactly equal to life. In the visual arts, this careful sorting out in favor of order is called composition, and most artists know its primacy. Art takes liberties, then, to reveal shape.”
In the strictest definition (“a trick or device to attract attention”), black and white is a gimmick for many photographers. But unlike a tilt shift effect that might as well be a grease pencil circling a subject, the best photographers use black and white so that color doesn’t unnecessarily detract.
B&W images are actually grey scale images. So, Jesse is correct in some situations; when the contrast adds interest to the image or you want to emphasize negative space. There are other situations where the gradation, shadows and other features add more interest than color.
Multicolor areas become interesting patterns without color.You have to set your mind to thinking in B&W and look for shots where the scene has features that take advantage of B&W. It takes practice to shift your thinking and seeing the opportunities.
And even if we are aware of the nostalgia surrounding black and white, there is still something aethestically pleasing in a well-composed, properly exposed black and white image. Litherland sums it up, “For as much as I love color, there’s just something about looking at a black-and-white fiber print hanging in a gallery somewhere and taking in all the details of a photo grain-by-grain (or pixel-by-pixel) that make my soul happy and my eyes seeing differently.”
Maybe this is the first time in history, when despite the invention of a new technology more than a century ago, people insist on doing things the old way, at least in artistic photography. If you google “Fine art photography” you’ll find that more than 50% of the images displayed are Monochromatic. Why?
With the numerous mobile photography apps such as Instagram, Hipstamatic, Camera+, etc…it is easier than ever to quickly convert your photos to black and white.
For the generations alive before the digital revolution, black and white photography has an interesting place in our collective consciousness. So many of the most widely circulated historical images taken by titans of photography have been shot in black and white.
Looking at a person’s face and especially the eyes, without the distraction of the color, the viewer can connect easier with the emotional status of that person.
Renown photographer Sebastian Salgado only photographs in black and white nowadays. In an interview with Bryan Appleyard from the Sunday Times, Salgado exclaims that he never trusted the color in color film.
With the term negative space we mean the areas in the frame that lack recognizable objects, ensuring there are no distractions to deflect our attention from the main object. Black and White highlights these areas, a property that can be further emphasized with the use of strong contrast.
Salt Lake Tribune photographer Chris Detrick also points to convenience factor that helps make black and white stubbornly resilient:
There is a credibility and authenticity in the classic documentary black and white photography we all know from the FSA and Life Magazine photographers. I think it is ingrained in our psyche to trust and believe in these photographs.
Regarding colour, it is what we see on the orchid, the hibiscus, the gladiolus, the leaves of the croton, the mango, etc. These are “normal” colour palettes for us or natural palettes. When taking pictures, if the image does not fit the golden mean or the natural palettes, it does not appear aesthetically pleasing.
In an age where digital photography is ubiquitous, and post processing allows everyman to bump saturation levels and create hyper-real images, black and white photography seems like a curious anachronism.
“I never see this red in my life.” Colour itself was a kind of lie. “It was a huge exaggeration — when I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality or dignity of the person. How can I go to a person and make them my story, and I don’t feel the story in my photographs? Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.”
Strazzante’s Instagram feed is filled with black and white street photography, and he suggests, “photographing in black and white, like shooting with a tilt shift lens or with a camera phone, can be just another gimmick in a photographer’s bag of tricks.”
An image from Deanne Fitzmaurice’s Pulitzer Prize winning essay for the San Francisco Chronicle
Have you ever wondered why black and white photography still exists? People, fascinated with the advances in technology and the will to present the world as we see it, have started experimenting with color photography back in the 19th century. The first commercially successful color process, the Lumière autochrome invented by the French Lumière brothers, reached the market in 1907. So why are there photographers presenting their images in Black and White, when color photography is so widely available?
Additionally, b&w is subconsciously associated with certain moods like melancholy, loneliness, fear, sadness, isolation etc, while the ability to push the tones to absolutely black or white helps create atmosphere and drama.
“Colour is everything – Black and White is More”, by Yvette Depaepe, on 1x – Curated photography, presenting a video and some beautiful Black and White images