A few weeks back, I posted a poll asking what I should write about. One of the more popular questions was “What’s the attraction of B/W and how do you pick which photos to process that way?” asked by Neil Creek.

Capital of the World

That’s a really great question, but its one that I hadn’t thought about prior to being asked. I suppose I am a little heavy on the black & white stuff on my Flickr Stream, and it’s not unusual for me to post long stretches of grayscales. In fact, my “Black & White” set is one of my largest sets with over 225 photos. Its not that I’m trying to force all those black and white photos… they just happen. So Neil’s question got me thinking about why I hold such a preference.

MY ATTRACTION TO BLACK & WHITE

Ice Cold

Describing my own attraction to black & white photos is probably somewhat pointless. Many of the things that attract me to the medium I haven’t found the words to describe. Even so, I’ll do my best to tell you what I know.

Black and white photos are timeless and classic. So many “Masters of Photography” before us have laid down such a huge array of great work in black & white. These grayscale classics have been burned into our minds as representations of great work. And without a doubt, many of these works will live on for quite some time.

Black and white photos are simple and elegant. The lack of color forces the eye to concentrate on the core of the photo – composition, textures, patterns, and subjects. The utter simplicity of black on white or white on black has no match. Not only that, but a black and white photo can be placed on almost any wall in any home and not look completely out of place.

Zig Zag

Black and white photos allow for greater artistic flexibility. Those of you who follow my photography will know that I’ve been toying with high contrast black & white photos, both film and digital. The great thing about a grayscale image versus a color image is that the reality of the photo can be stretched much further. Take one of my high contrast b/w photos and bring the color back – it looks like crap. Most color photos have to adhere to a higher level of realness or they just come off as being over-processed by an under-skilled photographer.

DECIDING WHEN TO GET RID OF COLOR

For me, this decision is usually pretty easy. If you flip through my photostream on Flickr, you’ll mainly notice three type of photos: black and white, bright colors, and cross processed (which I won’t get into right now).

Hostile Takeover

The color photos you see rolling out of my Flickr account are typically focused on the color as the main subject. The colors are bright, bold, brilliant, and a major part of the photo. If I’m deciding how to process a photo and I don’t see some amazing colors popping out of the screen, it’s off to black and white. So basically, if the color isn’t providing a strong benefit to the image, it’s probably just distracting from the other elements. The Online Photographer had a good article on b/w versus color too.

Of course, there are exceptions to my “rules” of deciding these things. Some photos just don’t work as black and white because they actually become less simplistic. And some photos won’t look good no matter what you do to them.

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Oh I love that first picture !
I love B&W too but I still struggle with the conversion most of the time

May 16, 2008 2:39 pm

Thanks Antoine! I hear ya about struggling with the conversions — sometimes there are too many options. I guess that’s one nice thing about shooting black & white film — you get what you get when you press the shutter.

May 16, 2008 2:42 pm

Thanks for explaining how you decide which photos to turn into Black and White. Like you I love the timeless qualities of black and white, but I’m often afraid to convert to greyscale for fear of losing something. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the colour photos I love most pop with colour. I think from now on, if the colour isn’t instantly appealing, I’ll be making the decision more often to convert to Black and White.

May 16, 2008 2:54 pm

Mia, I know what you mean by possibly “losing something” when dropping the color — but you also stand to gain some things. Textures, patterns, underlying shapes, etc. Many times, color will mask those things because it’s the dominant feature for our eyes.

May 16, 2008 2:58 pm

I never saw it that simple Brian, but you made the point. If the color is not the essential information of the pic might be a good candidate for b&w. Guess this very simple rule will help me for the future. As we germans say: sometimes you don’t see the forest cause of all the trees…

May 16, 2008 3:00 pm

LOL Boris! That’s a great saying! So I guess likewise, sometimes you don’t see the photo because of all the color.

May 16, 2008 3:16 pm

Although I have a deep appreciation for B&W photography I am polar opposite in that I love color photography. I’m going to have to reread this post later and pull together my thoughts on why I like color more than B&W. Nice work on posting this informative and though provoking post Brian.

May 16, 2008 4:49 pm

Sounds like a good counterpost Jim! I do love your color work.

May 16, 2008 7:04 pm

Brian, did you start out shooting film or digital? I know for me a great love of black and white came from being able to process my own film. I checked out your flickr stream and the black and whites all have a very “film” feel. And, as a film lover, I mean that as a true compliment. Great stuff.

May 16, 2008 8:56 pm

Thanks for the compliments on my b/w work Jim. I’ve been purely a digital shooter until very recently. Now I’m using an old manual SLR and running some b/w film through it. I’m hoping to not only fall in love with film, but get a better feel for b/w photos so I can hone my digital post processing.

May 16, 2008 9:15 pm

I think for me, beyond the timeless attraction of black and white work, I love how the composition is emphasised.

As an example, “‘eliat” on flick always posts amazing work (on film) that works in both colour and the black and white sense, though with the example I’ve linked below I think the composition makes for a much stronger impact in b/w.

http://flickr.com/photos/eliat/2496658678/

I guess that’s a variation on the conversion factor. If the colour isn’t the strongest element but the composition is the reason for the impact, it will most likely be emphasised in b/w.

May 16, 2008 9:28 pm

Oh man, I totally agree with that statement on the photo you’ve linked to. The color just wouldn’t add anything to it — in fact, it would probably distract.

May 16, 2008 9:37 pm

I agree with the_wolf_brigade. Black and white images will take away distractions and really focus on the composition and other aesthetically pleasing aspects of an image. I use b&w to do two things. First, I use it to check my overall composition. It takes away most distractions and allows the depth and tone to really shine. I may leave the image black and white or delete that layer and leave it in color. I then use b&w to draw emotion. I think the desaturation of an image allows the viewer to input their own emotional interpretation into the image. Colors are known to add emotion: red=passion, blue=calming, etc. If you take away these emotions, then people have a viewing slate that may be a little more clean. I think black and white images are more personal to both the photographer and the viewer.

May 16, 2008 9:38 pm

I agree Damien, there’s always something very emotional and attracting about a good b/w photo. The really good ones you don’t even notice that they’re lacking color, because the other aspects of the photo are bigger than life. Black & whites of people, in particular, are most emotional for me — especially the really grainy and dark stuff (just my pref though).

May 16, 2008 11:20 pm

Another tip to judging if a photo will work in black and white is to look at the tones and tonal contrast, which is what you are left with after stripping away the colour. This photo by Cody Redmon is a great example. Look at the tones – a block of white tones with a dark S snaking through, topped by another block of dark tones. This is a very ‘pure’ black and white image.

For me, photographing in black and white works best when I set out with the intention of shooting in monochrome (even if I’m working digitally and taking the photos in colour in the first instance for conversion later). A good exercise is to go out with one camera, one lens (prime if possible) and just concentrate on looking for tones, textures, shapes and lighting etc. Shooting this way has taught me a lot about photography.

May 17, 2008 4:38 am

Hey Andrew, thanks for the great example from Cody! And when you mentioned going out with the intent of capturing b/w, I instantly started thinking about how that usually goes when working with digital and when working with b/w film. I find it a LOT easier to “see without color” when I have a roll of b/w film in the camera, because unlike the digital camera you have no choice — you’re going to get a b/w image. With digital you can cheat and it somehow makes it harder to envision certain scenes in black and white… well, for me anyways.

May 17, 2008 8:45 am

Hello,

Brilliant post, I submit to newspapers and periodicals all the time, they always want colour images. However I have got into the habit of sending a colour copy and a BW copy. I very rarely do this and always do a follow up call to the picture editor with a “hey by the way there is a moody BW copy for you there” . Nine times out of ten they always go with the BW version.

People see colour all the time BW gives the brain time to relax and to see the detail in a shot. However it needs to be seen in the right context. The reason why I send two copies to the picture editor is to prove I got the original shot correct technically. There has been occaisons that images have been submitted BW because the photographer mucked up his colour balance . As pro photographer that has been also a picture editor I always ask the phot what did you do wrong.

On my private work I love BW panoramas, on the computer screen they are flat but properly printed they become spellbinding.

My last point is that on the internet your target audience do not have calibrated monitors and BW is the simplest way to show an image.

I look forward to more of your posts

Rich

May 17, 2008 9:31 am

That’s really awesome Rich! Thanks for the comments from a pro’s perspective. Oh, and you make a really great point about the calibrated monitor thing. B/W photos are going to look pretty much the same (except for maybe slight temperature and contrast differences). Color, on the other hand, can be wildly different between hardware.

May 17, 2008 11:52 am

Great post Brian. I too love black and white, and agree that it can help to focus the viewer on elements besides color. You really did a good job explaining both the attraction to black and white and the benefits some photos gain from black and white.

May 17, 2008 9:38 pm


Great post and comments!

May 29, 2008 6:06 am


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