PERSPECTIVES : Black and White Imaging

Woman's hands kneading the dough. In black and white style on dark background.

Welcome to Perspectives. This time I want to share some thoughts on black and white imaging.

I hear and read pretty regularly photographers saying that "it didn't work out in colour, so I made it black and white" as if this was actually a good thing.

Let me be clear up front. Shooting in black and white and producing good images is much harder than shooting in colour. Real artists have understood this for a long time and do so because they understand the impact that colour has is a distraction.

An image that fails in colour is guaranteed to fail in black and white. Believing otherwise is not creative, but is an potent exercise in self delusion. Getting a decent and acceptable colour image is much much easier than getting a decent and acceptable black and white image.

Black and white is an exercise in tone. It can only use dynamic range, texture, form and tonality. It has no colour to fall back on to make it interesting. A great teaching technique for colour that has fallen by the wayside is to flip colour to black and white to see if the image remains interesting. If not, it's not a solid image. 

Let me say that again. If you want to be a better colour imager, shoot in black and white. You are going to quickly learn your personal level of dependency on colour in your images.

Look again at the header image to this article. What do you see? What can you learn about the subject, the environment, the mood and the context of the image? If all you see is a pair of hands kneading dough, you are looking but not seeing. The two are very different, but this error is one of the primary reasons why so many people think that a failed colour image makes a good black and white image.

The human mind responds to colour. We see in colour and optics are our most dominant of senses. When we remove colour, we are forced to look more closely. There are genetic and psychological reasons for this that don't necessarily fit here, so if you doubt me, go do your own scientific research. Scientific research is not that shite delivered by pop and entertainment stars just to be clear.

Without colour, we only have shape, tone, texture and range to tell our story. We've removed over 70% of what catches the eye before even starting. Colour is powerful, and so in its absence, we must therefore be much more powerful as storytellers.

We have wonderful technology that helps us capture what we see, presuming of course that we are actually seeing. That technology exists in the camera and also in the digital darkroom. Clicking a button to flip an image to black and white is not creative, because we are depending on an algorithm, a preset if you will, that has no contextual integration with the image. Calling it creative is bullshit. Doing great black and white is the combination of capturing what you see and then rendering what you got from the camera into delivering what you saw. Without colour to fall back on, that task gets harder. 

We no longer have to spend hours in the chemical darkroom, experimenting with different temperatures, different mixtures and then dodging and burning in the printing process. Those impediments are gone, but that doesn't mean that we can be lazy.

If black and white is something that you want to be good at, it will be harder, take more time and be more demanding than colour work. The personal rewards can be marvellous. If you only want to do black and white because it is trendy, I cannot help you, you're already lost.

Until next time, peace.