Why choose to make black and white photographs?

November 18, 2015
The Imperial Palace

Years ago there really wasn’t any choice: photography meant making black and white, or monochrome, pictures. Photography in the 21st century, however, is now predominantly colour: the vast majority of photographs are captured on the sensor of a digital camera, most probably on a mobile phone. Photography is about light: some people rather romantically, refer to photography as painting with light; without light you don’t have a photograph. You could argue that a solid black rectangle capturing a pitch black scene is still a photograph, but alas no light has been recorded. You could save yourself the trouble of going through the photographic process, and just place a piece of black paper in a frame, or turn your computer monitor off to get the same effect! The word photography means a recording made with light: black and white photography, simply, is recording different levels of light with a camera to produce a picture. If there is no light in part of a scene you get black; areas of intense light produce white. Pointing a camera at a subject records the light coming from that subject: the black and white photograph does not care what colour the light is, only how intense that light is, recording the various intensities as shades of grey.

Some argue that colour simply confuses everything: when we look at a scene with our eyes, we tend to filter out all the irrelevant details around the edges, and focus on what is in front of us. When you take a colour photograph, unless you compose it very mindfully, these details, that were unnoticed previously, become super obvious, to even the most untrained eye, when looking at the reproduced image: this distracts the viewer from the main subject. Although I love colour photography, removing the colour can really help sometimes: often once we remove the colour we can actually see more in the image, or we perceive the balance of the scene very differently.

Another thing to consider is that colour photographs taken during the middle of the day on bright summer days can be quite problematic, due to very harsh contrasts. This is sometimes down to the fact that our eye can record the scene far better than a camera, which can’t deal with the range of light values: this can make the colours and contrast just look harsh on a print, or on the screen of your mobile device or computer. Some of these photos may work much better when converted into black and white, where the high contrasts can often be regarded as an asset. I have put some images below that I have taken in colour, and then converted to black and white: some of them I think, possibly, look better in colour; some in black and white; some I can’t decide or I like both equally. What do you think?

Inquisitive pony in mono

Inquisitive pony in colour

Across the fields mono

Across the fields colour

Nordkette Alps in mono

Nordkette Alps in colour

High on the Adlerweg above Innsbruck

Mandlspitze Summit in colour

Rally ready mono

Rally ready colour

Getting ready mono

Getting ready colour

If you want to see more colour vs. monochrome comparisons you can click through to my colour vs. black and white album on flickr.

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  • Reply Diane Watson November 19, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Great article. Someone’s Instagram post recently commented that “…the magic really happens when you stop photographing objects and start capturing light.”
    I love B&W images and think that pretty much any decent image can look great as B&W if careful attention is given to the tones, as all your examples show. As a former colour photographic printer (in those pre-digital days), I also appreciate that a well printed (colour-corrected) colour image can be equally stunning. I knew of a photographer who was able to train his eye to view a scene in B&W when shooting B&W film, then get something of a shock when he allowed himself to register the colour scene before him.
    Ansell Adams’ work sets a pretty high standard for B&W photography: timeless, classic, artistic monochrome images.

  • Reply Eugene Erdozain November 19, 2015 at 10:15 am

    Thanks Di for your comment. I really enjoy Ansell Adams’ photographs too. I recently bought a book called ‘400 Photographs’ that features a lot of his work including a photo diary he made as a child.

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