What Makes Black & White So Special

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By Steve Russell

When I look around, I see everything in color and never in black & white. Unlike before the 1970s movies are rarely produced in black & white (Schindler’s List is the last one I’m aware of) and even with two or three hundred available TV channels, they’re all in color. So if the world around us is in color, why do we like black & white photos. Many, maybe even most, photographers never or rarely produce black & white images. Yes, there are others that work with black & white more than they do with color, but the question comes to me, what makes black & white so special?

The truth is that sometimes black & white just tells the story better. Maybe it’s the mood it conveys or maybe it allows the viewer to see the photo instead of seeing all the colors. For example, street photography is a genre where black & white seems to work especially well but why is that?

Big citylife
I think that the use of B&W in street photography and photojournalism accomplishes two things. First, it really does remove the distraction of color from the image. Your eye is not drawn away from the main subject by the presence of bright colors. Second, it allows us to separate ourselves from the realities of our surroundings. In a B&W image you can see hunger, pain and suffering but because the image is in black & white and not in color, we are able to disassociate ourselves from the image and only see the art. “The world we live in is in color so something in black & white isn’t real.”

You could argue that black & white works really well with street photography and photojournalism images because until the last twenty or thirty years almost all street images we saw were in B&W and we became conditioned to see them that way. Until relatively recently, the only color photos in newspapers were on Sunday. Printing in color was an expensive proposition and newspapers weren’t interested in spending the money to purchase expensive color printing presses for something that once it was read was going to be used to wrap the morning coffee grounds. Therefore, those of us over 30 subconsciously expect some images to be photographed in black & white and as a result we rarely question the use of black & white.

A Walk Through Paradise Garden by W. Eugene Smith
There are times when a photo just works better in black & white. This image by W. Eugene Smith entitled “A Walk Through Paradise Garden” couldn’t possibly have the same impact had it been in color.

Return to Paradise Garden AReturn to Paradise Garden-2
I don’t pretend to possess an iota of the talent that Smith had, but this image above, shown in both color and black & white reminded me of his photo. I call it “Return to Paradise Garden.” To me, in color it’s just another photo but converting it to black & white gives it a measure of interest.

Egret with fishEgret with fish BW
This image in color is already monochromatic (or bi-chromatic if you want to be picky) so converting it to black & white, at a minimum, doesn’t detract from it.

This image is enhanced by the use of black & white. It’s not just the gathering storm that comes through in the photo, it’s the mood. The absence of color gives it a sense of darkness and brooding.

Old House
I like to use black & white for subjects that are old. For example, an old building that looks like it’s going to collapse at any minute, paint faded, windows broken or missing. I think it accentuates the age and gives it a meaning beyond it being just an old, dilapidated building.

One of the beauties of digital photography is that you can capture an image in color and, in Photoshop or some other image processing software, convert it to black & white like the images above. Back when film was the only option you either used color film or black & white film. Unless you carried more than one camera body, you were limited to whatever film you had loaded in your camera.

Try looking at some of your images both ways and see how often a black & white rendering actually improves the image.

Photo Credits:
Big City Life by Ahorcado on Flickr Commons
A Walk Through Paradise Garden by W. Eugene Smith on Creative Commons
Rolling by random letters on Flickr Commons
All other photos by Steve Russell

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  • http://twitter.com/shotslot Saul Molloy

    The illustrative images you use in this article make the point particularly well for me, and I’m intruiged by your reasoning for why we like/expect to see black and white – I’d be interested to know how the under-30s perceive it. I have an article on the decision-making process for making a conversion running over here http://bit.ly/j1DmCR I wonder whether the reason we like to convert to B&W is because our brains are hard-wired to look for contrast.

  • Steve Russell

    First, excellent article by you about black & white.  I also think you make an excellent point about being hard-wired to look for contrast.  One reason I find your comment interesting is because I’m really into contrast from my photography to the clothes I wear.  Dark slacks-light colored shirt, light colored slacks-dark shirt.  Yet, I really have to force myself at times to consider an image in B&W.  Thanks for your comment.

  • http://www.janibphotography.co.za Cape Town Wedding Photographer

    I’ve always been in love with B&W – it strips all the distraction colour brings to a image