When and why would you choose B&W over colour?
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When and why would you choose B&W over colour?
Nowadays, with modern camera technology, you can shoot in colour and make the decision in post production, but the choice between B&W or colour remains a crucial one in photography. How you choose to display the final image will influence the style, mood and the story you are telling through the image...among other things.
David Yarrow shoots almost exclusively in B&W, believing that it's more "reductive" and that "B&W photography works better as art". Our other Masters of Photography, Joel Meyerowitz and Albert Watson, use it more sparingly but still to great effect. Steve McCurry shoots exclusively in colour.
Albert Watson calls it "the gigantic question". But what are your views on this great debate? And how do you choose whether an image should be displayed in colour or B&W?
(Note: Please do post links that promote commercial products or websites.)
For me it is a very personal thing. I very often find that through a B&W picture I can convey my emotions, which I felt at the time of shooting, in a much more direct, natural and sincere way. I also believe that B&W is less distracting on the viewer, and that having to work with a very reduced palette of colours you can instead concentrate on the light, the shadows and the contrast of the subject in the frame. I dare say, there might be a link with having grown up with B&W television, where the magic of the moving pictures in the TV set had to be enhanced, through your imagination, with the colours you knew they represented. Like many things in life though, I guess there is no wrong or right. Some pictures just don't work in B&W, while others take on a completely different meaning (btw - I find that cropping is also a powerful tool to turn your pictures into something you did not envision at shooting time). Finally, I must admit that, as a keen amateur photographer, I certainly lack enough technical knowledge into the subject - so this is very much straight from the heart! Thanks for a great website. G.
P.S. Shameless plug - I just self published a short book of some of my best B&W Monochromos - the essence of light. As they say, pictures should be circulating out there and not only live on your hard drive 🙂
I shoot predominantly film these days. If the light is bad, overcast day, not enough light, then I choose BW because I can push to 1600 to 3200ISO. If the light is good, I want to emphasise the color then I choose between negative and positive films, depends on the scene and subject. Sometimes o shoot the same subject with both films. As Ralph Gibson said once, you took color away, you get drama
I think the first question is are you shooting reality or are you making an image that steps away from reality. The use of B&W is always one step away from reality. Whether you mix colour and B&w is always controversial in a project. B&W always simplifys the image.
I have never really thought about a photograph being better in color or as a B/W. When I'm trying to create a photograph that has lasting beauty, the first thing I look for is a subject matter that has a powerful presents and really screams to be photographed. Often I find these things purely by accident. Then, I start looking for the unique qualities of the subject and what drew me to it. After that, I simply explore the subject from many angles until I have satisfied myself. It's like eating your favorite food. You eat until you are filled. Finally, choosing B/W over color is a process for me. I'll try various things to see what works best for the image, it may or may not alway be one over the other. What I will say is, B/W for me is truly my favorite because I love drama! I appreciate the richness and the contrast of B/W in a very personal way.
Excellent topic for this forum. I always prefer B&W for most of the reasons already mentioned here: drama, you have to think about the image you are composing more carefully, it feels more artistic, and so on. And yes, for those of us shooting digital (me included) you should always be able to decide colour or B&W post-production. However, the big question for me is that deciding post-production seldom delivers the best results. I think you have to think differently from the beginning if you want to have a monochrome image that you would be proud of, and this, for me, is the biggest challenge.
What do you think about that ? I would love to hear other perspectives on this issue.
I shoot B&W film most of the time, even though I'm trying to go digital a bit more. I come from the time when we didn't have the choice so I'm comfortable with film cameras - therefore it's B&W often by default. B&W, as someone mentioned, reduces the composition to a subject, an action, etc. however sometimes the subject is color. I've attached a film photograph I took in 2017 that had to be in color.
I love B&W because of the drama element and the fine art quality. It was very hard for me to look through the camera as a very young girl and see B&W. I was not able to translate the color into shades of grey....I drove my photographer father crazy trying to understand how to train my eyes!! But somehow, about 20 years ago it all clicked; I suddenly was able to see the effects of black and white when I got better at understanding light, and the effects on photography subjects. The digital world helped me discover these things too. We now can see instantly the difference color and B&W have on a photograph. I still love taking color shots and I tend to gravitate towards rich color, texture and nature in full color bloom.
I echo all the comments made so far. For me it is all down to subject and the look I’m after. Colour can be very distracting in some circumstances, but an essential component in others.
I come from a BFA program in the 1980s and didn't take photography academically. My major was drawing and printmaking (intaglio primarily). I shot film and worked in a homemade darkroom on my own. One thing that improves the translation of color to B&W in your brain is drawing. Drawing still life, people, landscapes, whatever. You spend more time with your subject; become more aware of the effects of light and the absence of light as well as value scale variations. It's just a good exercise, if nothing else, but something else happens that isn't so apparent at first.
This is a really good forum. I like all the comments and feel that everyone has a very good understanding of B/W. As an architectural photographer I'm faced constantly with shooting color for my clients. Occasionally, I will mention how impressive an image might look as a B/W photo. No client has ever changed their mind as of this post and I don't really expect any one of them to do so. However, I often ask a client why don't you consider some of the work I shoot for them to be show in B/W? "Well, it's a marketing thing they say". Their competitors don't show B/W so why should they? I generally respond in this manner. You could be a trend setter and really define your company in a new and refreshing way. I share one example of such a photo. The photo was shot on 4x5 color film. As a color image it is just OK. Unfortunately, it was shot on an overcast day which did nothing for the structure but, it accomplished what the architect wanted and he was very happy with the color version. I converted this photo to B/W a few years later and presented him with a nice 11x14 print. Well, he immediately acknowledged the powerful look that the B/W had over the color version. I never saw the color photo used again after that. BTW, I did take a little creative licenses with the sky in the B/W version which I have no problem doing in a commercial situation especially if the original was shot on film. I have since learned how to accomplish the look in camera so no more pretending.
I know this is going to sound elementary to most of the people I'm reading here but maybe there are some lurkers. I was an art educator for 25 years; I taught all grades from k-12. When I was in a middle school I started teaching value on a simple level but by the time I taught in high school, I had my students paint value scales - seven equal steps from white to black. Try it; it's not easy. It helped them understand how to control value with watercolor paint but their pencil drawings improved, too. I also had them take pictures with their phones of fields of medium value colors and convert to B&W so they could see that color and value are two different things. They saw there was barely any difference between the grays. Someone mentioned that they see in B&W but I'd say, you're seeing value and being able to anticipate that a conversion may or may not succeed.
I am very happy to share my images in this forum because your appreciation for B/W is so strong. If any of you have every shot film did you also attempt to learn the Zone System? This is of course the system that Ansel Adam's perfected for capturing a full tonal gray scale on film, then processing that film to match up to a specific paper that was capable of reproducing the entire scale. I never truly mastered this process but I understand the system and what a photograph should look like. I have been able to work with digital images in Photoshop and reproduce the entire scale in the manner that the Zone System was meant to work or at least I think I can. It is truly amazing to see just how wonderful a full scale B/W photograph can look when handled properly. The key however is and always will be the lighting. B/W requires a little more sensitivity to this than color. Color is color and the contrast of the colors seem to make or break most photo. In either case lighting and composition will always be king.
I started out doing color photography only, using a huge amount of postprocessing in photoshop and doing (very bad) HDRs. I mainly oversaturated everything trying to emulate “that look” people tend to appreciate when clicking through endless feeds... and suddenly I grea wary of this..
For the last ten years I have moved on and exclusively shoot bnw, to that point that I “see” in bnw and know what will work and what will not work. To me it is more seeing light, shadow, contrasts, and of course the subject...
whenever I try to go back to colour I feel like something is missing.
i do appreciate color photography, i like the use of color as a subject and I am well aware that some shots just don’t work in bnw, but nevertheless I stick to bnw.
I think to me it is very personal, I strongly identify with bnw 🙂
Here's a question for anyone. I'm not happy with the way my photos appear on this site. When I click on the link to view, way to contrasty and simply does not show the image very well. When I look at the same link on my iPhone in Safari they look a whole lot better! Thoughts???
For a long time I rejected the concept of b/w using a modern camera when excellent colour film and now digital are available, and I still only find it acceptable in very limited applications. The reasons? First, all the iconic b/w photos we are familiar with up to the mid 20c were made because that was the only option available so to me have an authenticity, but where there is a choice it seems perverse and pretentious to try and emulate the earlier style, and especially so converting a digital file. Second, a b/w image of a flower or landscape for instance is drained of life, we are fortunate to be able to see in colour so we should celebrate that; in painting artists very rarely use black paint on its own, preferring to mix a dark shade and the classical renaissance painters would build up dark shadow areas in multiple layers to gain depth. However I now recognise that sometimes a b/w can work best, especially when colour is almost non-existent or distracts but my question is always, why is that not in colour? (And before you ask, yes there were technical reasons for my mugshot to be b/w!)
I'd love your thoughts and opinions on this shot. This was a tough shot to get because we were fishing at the time and the boat capital was favoring one of the guys fishing on our boat so I was at a slight disadvantage.
Shooting predominantly 135mm and MF film, the choice between color and b/w always causes a problem: You need two cameras (or camera backs) to be prepared! For me the choice is dictated by the message I want to convey. If I am shooting a project, I decide beforehand and stick to it for the sake of consistency. The level of abstraction an image has in b/w helps to emphasize certain characters of the subject. This is especially true for portraits and nature photography. I am a biologist and the color vs. b/w debate in photography in a way reminds me of the discussion about whether to use photographic images or drawings in a scientific paper. Here, drawings are much better to highlight certain characters of a given subject, whereas photographs give you the "real" impression of it. E.g. abstract photographs which by definition are not intended to show reality often work better in b/w (except color is the main subject, of course). I always let the subject matter "decide" whether color or monochrome is best and while composing the shot I rarely have the situation that I cannot decide between the two options.
I think b&w is about light and shapes, color is about same but with a third feature. So color photography is in my opinion more complex as you have to play with 3 elements versus 2 in b&w. So I feel it is easier to make nice image in b&w than it is in color, and that does not mean that b&w images are easy to do or not interesting, please don’t get me wrong. Sometimes when I am unhappy with my shots I turn them into b&w and find it easier to « save » them, especially when shooting in difficult light conditions. This said there are lots of b&w images that I find fantastic and would not work as well in color.
Also, « color » covers a lot of different realities (so does b&w), there are lots of film simulations and ways to work your color in post, which opens the door to a lot of creativity.
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