19 February 2011

Color or Black and White? (Part 1)

Shoot in color or black and white?

It used to be — and still is for some photographers — you had to choose whether to shoot in black and white or in color. The photographer exercised the choice in one of two ways. Either 1) shoot up a roll of color or b/w film, then load a roll b/w or color film to change; or 2) shoot with more than one camera, each loaded with different film. When I started out in the early 1980s, I mostly went with option one, which for some reason had the effect of making me shoot predominantly in one or the other mode for long periods. For a brief time when I had only myself to spend my money on, I had two cameras: a Pentax K-1000 and a Canon AE-1, each with its own lenses.* I felt like a National Geographic pro, with two cameras dangling from my neck as I shot my way around the lovely Monterey Peninsula, camping under cypresses in the rain.

Digital changed that either/or situation. Now, you can choose a setting in the camera, and you just start shooting in b/w or color. Or, and this is what I do,
shoot everything in color and then process it on the computer as black and white or color.** The benefits of this approach are that, even if you finalize it as a b/w image, you always have the original, full-color image, and you can even play around in Photoshop to make a hybrid image.

But you still have to choose what the final image will be, and that’s what this 3-part series is about.

I’m no pro. Though I’m working on it, I’m unschooled on most of the history and practitioners of photography. But for now I’ve concluded three things. For me: 1) some images just work better in black and white; 2) some in color; and 3) some work well in both. (I know! Who needs to study this stuff?)

This series considers each of those momentous conclusions above, using before-and-after examples from my own photography, and considers why I made the decisions I did. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. One person could easily prefer the color version where I prefer the b/w, or the other way around. I hope not, but I admit it’s possible not everyone shares my impeccable sense of taste. But I hope in this series to at least convince you of the logic for the choices I’ve made.

Part 1 of 3: Better in Black and White

How do I decide? What are the factors I consider? There are a number of answers. The most obvious one is that when I look around, there are some things I simply “see” as b/w images. I’ve tried to analyze how that happens, and I think it mostly has to do with mood — whether my own at the time of shooting or more often the location or image subject. Unsurprisingly, black and white accentuates contrasts, creating a stark mood. In that vein, the following image works for me better in b/w.

What I'm looking for from the image above is a cold, skeletal feeling, like paring back the flesh of the summer and autumn to make way for coming winter. The color image is nice, but the transparency of the leaves on top of each other, their veins, and the structural delicacy come through better in b/w.

The following image doesn’t work for me at all in color. It’s an example of “seeing” it in black and white in my head as I was looking around during a country walk. The reason I crouched in the mud to get this shot was specifically the contrast of the foreground blades in shadow with the bright background. My vision of it was confirmed when I got the image big on my computer. If you click on the image, you’ll see better what I mean. In the color version, the green nearly drowns out the contrast, as well as introducing a distracting brown from the mud in the middle ground. In b/w, you get contrast. (I should have cropped the left edge a bit, and will likely do so if I turn it into a print.)

Field Edge
Some images look good in both, for whatever reasons, but one or the other doesn’t convey what I was aiming for with a shot. The following image is an example of such a situation. In the color version, the fading sunlight provides a dramatic speckling of blue sky amid the evening clouds. I opted for the b/w version, however, since my intention was to show an imposing, imperious government building. The title of this image is “Ministry of Intimidation”, and the color version just doesn’t get that across like the b/w.

Ministry of Intimidation

Finally, as noted, a particular strength of black and white is the accentuation of contrasts. Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in patterns and decontextualization of shapes. I was fortunate in the following image while playing around with framing and the choice of color or b/w. I really liked the color version. It had three of the magic ingredients I look for (see this post). But when I started looking at it on the computer in black and white, those ingredients jumped out and grabbed my face. Returning to the color version, I found it weak, with the earthy colors kind of nullifying each other and dragging the whole thing down, as compared with the stark emphasis on pattern and shape that jumps out of the b/w version.

Stuttgart Train Station

Part 2 will look at why certain images work better in color than in b/w. You can probably imagine some of the reasons. But seeing the difference will show you how big a deal it can be.

* Still have that K-1000. Bought it used in 1984 for 50 bucks. It’s traveled all around with me, been banana juiced, beach sanded, and internationally banged around — and still takes great shots.

** Note: I’m not qualified to enter the debate of the benefits of “wet-film” black and white versus digital black and white photography.


  1. While all your photos are always amazing, it's usually the bw's that speak to me the most! You have a great eye for knowing when to use which.

  2. Kelly: Thanks! And you have great taste in photography. :-)