On Black and White Photos

A regular reader of this site posted a comment today to one of the black and white photos I posted recently:

Some years ago, a semi-professional photographer friend sent me some of his black and white photos. I casually dismissed them as being uninteresting because of the lack of color. However, slowly I’ve learned to appreciate when black and white brings out characteristics that are hidden by color. These two shots of the same scene are to me a great example of this. My reaction to the color photo is “interesting tree, nice scenery.” But with the black and white, I can admire the contrast between the bright white of the clouds and the dark shades of the foreground tree and the background greenery, and the contrasts in the foreground grass…

I recall Jean-Luc Godard being interviewed about one of his films many years ago. He was asked why he had shot it in black and white. He replied (to the best of my recollection): “Life is in color. But reality is in black and white.” (La vie est en couleur. Mais la réalité est en noir et blanc.”)

Black and white photography has a long history, mainly due to the fact that black and white film was invented long before color film. You would have thought that when color film became the norm that everyone would have abandoned the more limited black and white; but they didn’t. In fact, black and white photos are immensely popular. Can you imagine Ansel Adams’ contrast-rich pictures of the great American landscapes in color? Or Robert Capa’s war photos in Kodachrome?

It’s an acquired taste, to be sure, and I fully respect anyone who approaches black and white photos in the manner that my reader did at first. But when you take the time to look closely at a good black and white photo, you may actually see more than you would in color. As the comment says, the color shot looks “interesting” and “nice,” whereas the black and white brings out things he didn’t expect to see.

Look at this photo that I shot in the seaside town of Bournemouth in early May. In color, this would be drab, boring, almost like a faded snapshot. (In fact, that’s what the original looks like.) But in black and white, it brings out the starkness of the off-season period, and the strong lines in the picture leading from the pier to the ferris wheel. The leaden sky muted all the colors in the landscape, and as I look at the color original now, it looks incredibly uninteresting.

Black and white photos work well for certain types of scenes: those with strong lines, sharp contrasts, geometric figures. Look at this photo that I shot yesterday, which, in my opinion, only works in black and white, because of the high contrast and strong lines. But black and white also works very well for shots with subtle palettes of grays. It all depends on what you want a photo to express.

Black and white is a form of trickery; but any photo is trickery. You’re reducing a view of the world to what fits within the four corners you’ve selected, removing all its context, highlighting something you have chosen above the rest of what you have seen. It’s a choice, like every other photographic choice. Sometimes it’s the right choice, sometimes it’s not.

If you’re interested, you can see a selection of my black and white photos on 500px.