It Doesn't Matter if You're Black or White

I was inspired to write this post after talking to a friend tonight. So thank you friend.

No clue what this was about.
   My friend messaged me out of the blue tonight and after a bit of talking she told me she had seen my blog and some of my photos. I have encouraged her for a long time to pick up a used cheap dslr and learn some photography basics. She is always taking photos any ways, might as well be learning something other than a camera phone along the way.
   Anyways she mentioned that she likes black and white photography and said that I use black and white a lot. I never really noticed but I suppose I do. After thinking a little bit about it, I would like to share why I personally like black and white photography. You are free to disagree with me, and that is good, different strokes for different folks right? Photography is subjective.
   First off, for any beginners, never put your camera into black and white mode. I guess that's what it is called, I have no idea because I never use it. Instead take the photo in normal color and convert it to black and white when you process it. I say this for a few reasons, but one major and simply put reason is that, what if you end up liking it in color more than black and white? It happens and if you didn't capture it in color in the first place....oops.
Kodak B&W film.
   So here I will go through the reasons most people choose black and white over a full color image. Some of these I agree with and some I don't but here they are.

Nostalgia: Many of us photographers started with film. Even many younger photographers, like myself, began with a film camera. If you have never shot a roll of black and white film, I really feel for you. It is something that is very very hard to replicate with digital photography. Many people come close, but there is always something missing. When you see a well shot roll of black and white film it just pulls on your heartstrings in a way that digital just cannot do.

Noise: Something that has always been prevalent in photography is noise. In film it was called grain. At high ISOs (future "Photography Basics" post) there is something called digital noise that shows up in your image. This is when small little dots that look purple, red, pink, and all sorts of colors show up in your image. Digital noise is very complicated to explain and I could write a whole boring post on how electricity, heat, and so on introduces Gaussian noise and the like but I will spare you the dissertation. All you need to know is that some people convert a colored photo with a lot of noise in it to black and white to make the noise instead look like film grain. To some extent this is effective and looks sort of convincing sometimes. However, film grain in certain amounts was very nice and added a sort of gritty feel to a black and white image.

Poor Exposure: This goes along with high noise but doesn't necessarily need to. Sometimes people convert to black and white to "cheat." Basically if the photo needs a lot of editing, converting it to black and white first will hide some of your edits because you won't see crazy color shifts.

Poor Colored Lights: Sometimes, especially in concerts, lights are awfully colored for cameras. Think of a concert, there are often red, blue, purple, and yellow lights flashing on and off. For our eyes this is spectacular, but our eyes are amazing things that we have been trying to reproduce synthetically for a long time. Because we have failed to do so, cameras cannot handle these odd colors as well as we do. Besides, even if cameras could, who wants to see a blue faced red bodied singer? Unless you are at the concert, a still image when viewed in that way for the first time can look very odd. Converting to black and white gets rid of this issue which is why you will see many live band photos in black and white.

Photo taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson NOT by me.
Art: Some of this goes with nostalgia. For some people the look of black and white is simply an artistic choice. It also reminds us of a great era of photography as art and photojournalism. One of my favorite photographers, for instance, is Henri Cartier-Bresson who shot in an era of black and white film. The 50's 60's and 70's also brought us some of the most memorable music photography and much of that was black and white.


Contrast: Contrast is the relationship between highlights and shadows. The further they are from each other, or, the brighter a highlight is and darker a shadow is, the more contrast a photo has. Black and white photography shows contrast in a very pure way since our brain does not have to process complex colors. Simply black and white (and gray if you want to be specific) and the relationship between them. I love photos with heavy contrast and this is one of the main reasons I arrive at black and white more often than not.

Simplicity: Sometimes simplicity is what we need more of in our life. Black and white can draw attention to a subject sometimes when nothing else can. Suppose for a moment that you are taking a photo of someone and right behind them is the brightest blue wall in the history of bright blue walls. In certain situations this would cause our eyes to focus less on the person and more on the bright blue wall. Subtract the color and all of a sudden your eyes no longer have ADD.
There were tons of crazy distracting lights and I wanted the focus to be the little girl looking at her father.
   I suppose there are more reasons for choosing black and white over color, or vice versa, but it all comes down to what you like as the photographer. Just keep in mind that, as with all things, black and white is good in moderation. Not every photo looks best in black and white. Likewise, not every photo looks good in color. Really take a look at the photo and figure out what is important. Sometimes the color is what really makes a photo stand out, sometimes not.


Whip out your camera and make a black and white scene!

Article on Henri Cartier-Bresson.