Black and White Photography

Why are most photographs shared today in color?  And to follow up – Is that a good thing?

Once upon a time, the choice of color or black and white depended on factors beyond aesthetics.  Certainly, the look and feel of an image was important to those photographers but they also had to deal with challenges that played a role in whether or not they created color prints or slides.  Today digital photography has all but eliminated the need for those practical considerations leaving us largely to make our decisions based on what we are trying to convey in an image.

Would this iconic photo have the same impact if it had been in color?

Would this iconic photo have the same impact if it had been in color? Photographed on Sept. 20, 1932. These men were photographed on their lunch break during the construction of the Rockefeller Center.

One of the earliest photography classes I took was called Visualizations.  That class was primarily about helping us develop a cohesive vision for our photography by pre-visualizing what we wanted to accomplish.  Our instructor required us to submit all  but one of our assignments in B&W and let me tell you, I felt constrained.  When color week rolled around I was excited to present myself without any limitation but at the end of the semester, those photos stood out from the portfolio  for all the wrong reasons.  That isn’t to say that those photographs were necessarily lacking (one from the series was actually one of my first art show entries) but it became clear that sometimes color can be a distraction from the subject itself.  That was an excellent lesson.  And of course, if color can be a distraction, the opposite is also true in that it can be the subject of an image.  Most color photographs fall somewhere in between those two points on the spectrum.

The pink background is so bright in this image that it becomes a secondary subject taking the viewer's focus away from the dog.

The pink background is so bright in this image that it becomes a secondary subject taking the viewer’s focus away from the dog.

“One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.” – Paul Outerbridge

For the most part, we tend not to think about the color in our lives aside from noticing exceptionally bright or vibrant colors in the same way that we tune out most sounds.  Color fades away to the background of our perception – we know it’s there but we don’t focus on it.  Yet even if color isn’t something that we tend to focus on, it is integral to the way that we perceive life.  Scientists believe that the way we perceive color is hardwired into our brains during our earliest life experiences.  A recent study found that when people look at black and white imagery, our brains automatically associate the subject in the photo with its normal color.  Given the relative importance of color to the way we experience our world, one might think that sharing our photos in color would always be ideal but I’d argue the opposite – B&W photos stand out precisely because they are different from our normal visual experiences.

A study mapping the brain's response to viewing the B&W version of this image showed stimulation at the portion of the brain that responds to colors.

A study mapping the brain’s response to viewing the B&W version of this image showed stimulation at the portion of the brain that responds to colors. The researchers concluded that when participants thought ‘banana’ the brain automatically associated the concept of banana with its typical color regardless of whether or not the image was presented in color.

While standing out in a crowded field is a worthwhile pursuit for a photographer, there are additional reasons to consider B&W imagery.  Historically B&W was the standard for fine art photography.  That was due in part to the fact that fine art photography was ‘born’ during a time when color photography wasn’t widely available; however, that trend lasted well beyond the advent of color film for a reason.  Paul Outerbridge’s sentiment on B&W photography offers one explanation.  When we present our photos in (natural) color, we offer a more literal interpretation of the scene to the point where viewers tend to accept what they see without further consideration.  B&W photographs, on the other hand, require a bit more involvement on the viewer’s part even if that just means filling in the color detail in our minds.  That mental aspect allows viewers to incorporate their own experiences into the scene in a deeper way than if the image were presented in color.

Black and white photographs also allow additional creative freedom precisely because they are already a step removed from reality.  B&W images are very often well suited for high contrast imagery.  Contrast is one of the ways that photographers can emphasize important elements in an image and contrast adds drama.  High contrast images tend to look great in a black and white image (think just about any Ansel Adams National Park photograph as the perfect example) but tend not to be compatible with color photography.  The difficulty with high contrast and color is that it pushes colors to unnatural places giving those photographs a sense of wrongness that can give the viewers a predisposition to dismiss the photograph.

I am going to leave the discussion here for the week.  Next week I’ll wrap up the discussion by sharing some tips to help you make your own dramatic black and white photos.

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