Black and white or colour?

Although there are some black and white shots on this site, most are in colour.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate black and white photography, and some images seem to cry out for a monochrome treatment. I don’t think the shot above, for example, works as well in colour.

I sometimes think, though, that we’re conditioned to appreciate black and white photography because of the history of the medium. For a long time I’ve thought that if colour photography had been invented first, black and white wouldn’t have the same standing in the photographic world, if it had even been invented at all. Let me explain…

We see in colour, and almost all visual art is in colour. Go to any art gallery and the vast majority of paintings use colour, from medieval illustrated manuscripts, through the old masters of the renaissance, and on to modern art. Exceptions are relatively rare and deliberate, in works such as Picasso’s Guernica.

Where black and white is used outside of photography it’s often down to technical limitations of the medium, such as woodcuts and plates used for book illustrations, and newspapers prior to the introduction of cheap colour printing. I believe that the same was true of photography. Black and white was developed first, and for a long time was the only option. As soon as colour became viable, it dominated popular use of photography. When did you last see a new mainstream black and white movie? Newspapers also switched to colour as soon as the technology allowed, and of course the majority of snapshots were taken on colour film as soon as it was widely available.

I think it’s largely through the historical accident of the development of film that black and white photography came to be seen as somehow more artistic than colour. Even as colour became mainstream, it took the art world a long time to accept colour photography and there was some resistance to colour amongst the art establishment. Gradually that began to change, through pioneers such as William Eggleston, but black and white photography never really disappeared.

For a long time, probably until the advent of digital photography, black and white had some technical advantages. The dynamic range of black and white film was greater, as was the ability to control the image through techniques such as dodging and burning. The control that Ansel Adams had over the final images that he created was simply not possible with the colour film of the time, although he did occasionally use colour. Modern digital processing allows the kind of control over colour images that was once the preserve of black and white, and I can’t help thinking that many great photographers of the pre-digital era would have used colour if they’d had access to modern technology.

And yet black and white photography still exists. Most cameras have monochrome modes that let you take black and white pictures without post processing, and it’s still a popular choice for certain genres. Landscape, sports and wildlife photography is now largely done in colour, but black and white is still widely used for portraits and street photography.

It’s certainly true that colours can be distracting, and elements in a shot that might detract from the image can work better when rendered in shades of grey. In that sense, black and white is doing the same job that it always did, in removing a limitation. It’s not a technical limitation, but rather a limitation in what the photographer has to work with. A painter has full control over the composition and colour palette, and can choose what to include in every painting. Photographers can only work with what’s in front of them, and sometimes it’s impossible to exclude elements from a shot that would be distracting in colour.

Equally, of course, there are some images that only work in colour:

The colours in that image are deliberately muted, but the image is still about colours and the contrast between them.

I think personally, for my photography, I prefer to use colour. Even when I see an image that I think would work in black and white, I often end up using a colour version. Somehow I always end up feeling that the images lose too much in a black and white rendition, and the exceptions are rare. I don’t always aim for colour accuracy, as I like using stylised colours to create a mood. There are examples in my Out of Season gallery, where I picked a colour treatment and used it for all of the images.

As I continue with my renewed interest in photography, I will try to experiment with black and white. The beauty of digital is that I can use a monochrome mode on my camera to help me to visualise a scene without colour, while still having a colour raw image should I need it. Perhaps, with practice, I’ll change my mind and come to appreciate the world without colour.