Color vs. Black and White: The Winner is You

Color vs. Black and White: The Winner is You


If you know me and my work you know that I’m a fan of black and white photography. Simply put, black and white is awesome.

But I think I forget about the power of black and white photography and I should know better.

I have spent thousands of hours in darkrooms breathing in toxic chemicals just so I could communicate what I saw in beautiful tones of gray. Great landscapes take on a surreal majesty minus the color and with documentary work, black and white cuts straight through to the content. Then there is the timeless quality that black and white communicates and since the vast majority of photographers are shooting color these days, it’s less common and sometimes for that reason alone b&w can be more evocative.

But whether you choose to shoot black and white or color is a personal preference. I have always remembered the simple yet sage words of the former director of photography for National Geographic and now ASMP Executive Director Tom Kennedy who said, good color “amplifies the content”.

But color can be challenging because it can also distract from the message of the image. Different colors have different visual weights that can tug the viewer’s eye toward certain places within the frame that distract from the photograph’s message. This is why golden hour shooting is arguably more important for color. A warm bath of light covers the scene so attention-demanding distracting colors are subdued by the golden glow.

And sometimes the conversion to black and white is a practical compromise, when color casts or noise problems cannot be fixed but the image works well in black and white.

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I find the colors distracting in this image of a woman on a Havana bus. The purple demands a lot of attention as does the green tint in the windows but in the black and white version below, we cut to the content and the viewer sees more clearly what I want them to see…the not always fun life of a big city commuter.

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Photographers are often perfectionists and I remember stories of the great Eugene Smith, spending days on one print–bleaching the eyes of a subject to get it just right. The digital darkroom allows a precision I could never have imagined when I jiggled my hands under the enlarger lens, dodging and burning a print back in the day… (ask your Grandparents).

Add the precision of post processing with the vast array of photo quality printers out there and it’s an exciting world for those like me who love to view and create black and white prints. Paper options mimic the great fiber-based papers of old–many with archival characteristics that outlast the best-made silver prints. All this and no chemical smell!

With my Nikon’s I like to “commit” by setting “Monochrome”  under picture controls in the Shooting Menu so even when shooting RAW as I do, the image pops up in back and white on the review screen. This is because every RAW file has a built-in JPEG which is what you see on the back of the camera. Since Picture Controls only effect the JPEG (and video) you can see their effect on the back of the camera. When I’m “thinking black and white” it’s nice to see how color translates into gray tones; it helps me interpret the scene better and leads to stronger work.

I sometimes find the default Monochrome picture control a bit flat, so I bump up the sharpness, contrast and brightness to my liking. You can  even approximate traditional black and white color filters (yellow, orange, red & green) to deepen blue skies and increase contrast or lighten foliage and alter skin tones as with the green filter. This is the Nikon system but most camera manufacturers offer similar feature sets.

Seeing my results in gray tones helps me to gage how well the image works in black and white; which I find to be a powerful tool. What are your thoughts on black and white? Love to hear them in the comments section.

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Here the black and white is fine but the color below is much stronger in my opinion providing a realism that is much more evocative and captures the sense of place better. In other words the color has amplified the content.

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8 Comments

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  1. 1
    Donna

    Steve, I love the drama of B&W Photography! Sometimes I know right away that I want to make the image B&W or color, other times I will be doing post-production and try both ways to see which one I like the best. If it is a great image, I might like both versions, but each convey a different story. To me, it is all about the story I want to tell.

    • 2
      Steve Simon

      Hi Donna, glad to hear you’re thinking about B&W and still trying it. For me it’s usually a series of images I’m thinking about doing one way or the other.

  2. 3
    Edward L. Linde II

    Steve-

    Very nice analysis and I can completely relate to everything that you stated. Over the last 45 years, I have preferred working in monochrome but there are times that color is more appropriate.

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay here.

    – Ed

  3. 4
    Carolyn Karsten

    Hello Steve. I admire your work and thank you for your persoective on black and white vs. color. I too find that b&w can be very powerful. To me, it more often evokes emotion and feels artistic. With that said, I gravitate towards color. Perhaps I find it harder to capture a black and white moment. I love challenges but not all the time 🙂

    • 5
      Steve Simon

      Thanks Carolyn…I think that when black and white is something you don’t do often,it’s harder to understand when it works best. I find a good exercise is to go out with black and white in mind and just shoot. Like anything, the more you do it the better you understand it and the better it gets.

  4. 8
    Russ Beinder

    Some scenes just feel black and white to me when I am taking the shot. I have a healthy mix of color and black and white in my portfolio and everything you say about black and white is true. Sometimes color helps get the message across and other times it is a distraction. I was recently a guest at a friend’s wedding and inevitably had my Nikon D810, which produces beautiful color, by my side, but when I was processing the shots about 30% were just meant to be in black and white. https://www.facebook.com/eclecticair/photos/a.1549711205085421.1073741859.402450153144871/1549711371752071/?type=3&theater

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