I’ve just read a comment from a photographer who said it’s time to stop shooting in black and white. He claimed we don’t see the world in black and white and it was something only done in the past due to the limitations at the time and it’s time to move on. Here’s a number of reasons why I think it’s critical to shoot black and white from time to time, and how it can help nurture your photographic eye.
Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson, David Bailey, Karsh, Sebastio Salgado, Albert Watson, Peter Lindbergh, Herb Ritts, Irving Penn, Daidō Moriyama, Sally Mann, Avedon – the list of master photographers, alive or dead, who saw black and white not simply as a technical limitation but as a creative choice, could be an entire article in itself. But why did they choose it?
We Shoot Differently When Choosing Black And White
Most photographers ask when should a photograph be converted to black and white. Rarely is the discussion around why a photograph should be black and white from the outset, and that’s fascinating.
While the “when” and “why” are related, shooting in color and then wondering whether to convert the image employs a very different mindset from setting out and seeing the world in black and white, and then working within those confines. Parameters of a world without color forces you to see things differently, to stretch and work out your photographic eye muscles, and that in turn pushes you creatively (at least in my experience it has).
Shooting with black and white film predominantly for the last 6 months has been one of the single most important aspects of my photographic development this last year. It has helped push not only my digital stills work, but I’ve seen the video work I do be shaped by shooting black and white stills. If you look at my Instagram feed or work going onto my Facebook page, you’ll see most of it is in black and white nowadays, with commercial work or video work creeping in from time to time.
I almost guarantee that if you spend some time shooting in black and white, you’ll start to notice some changes in what and how you shoot too. These have been the key reasons I’ve seen the change in my own work:
1. Color No Longer Distracts
Clothing, color temperature differences in ambient light sources, cars and colorful background distractions have stopped being an issue. I still focus on my backgrounds, but I care more about the relationship between my subject and background, rather than a distracting color. It’s freed up that part of my brain. Black and white allows you to begin to think about these key elements (lighting, composition, elements in and out of the frame) that you might otherwise not focus on as much when you’re thinking about making colors work together, or pop.
2. You’ll See Light Differently
What you lose from not being able to capture beautiful golden hour light, you’ll gain back in focusing more on the direction, quantity and quality of light around you. Learning how to read and play with different elements of light in this way is a fantastic skill that parlays directly into shooting video or studio strobes too, trust me.
3. It Helps Emphasize Emotion
Looking at someone’s face, or into their eyes, without the distraction of color can provide a stronger emotional connection to your subject. It’s not necessarily always the case, but if like me, you often feel more connected to a person in a black and white image over a color image, this could be the reason why. With color gone, it’s purely about the connection you have with the subject.
4. The Timeless / Classic Quality From Black And White
One of the most common reasons people want to shoot in black and white today is because it lends a certain timeless quality to the images. This is because we still think of black and white as being a throwback to the photographic past. Of course, it is in terms of black and white was much more prevalent before color, but this is still a great reason to shoot black and white.
5. It Amplifies How You Use Negative Space
Negative space – the areas of the frame that have nothing in them, are easier to showcase and highlight when shooting black and white. This relates back to minimizing distractions from not shooting in color. You tend to focus on light and dark areas of the frame – and their inter-relationship. Playing with negative space is also useful in separating your subject nicely from the background and give added depth to the image.
6. It Highlights Shape, Form and Pattern In The Image
I tend to focus a lot more than I used to on the elements in the frame, both in terms of their shape and form, but also how they relate to one another. You feel like there is a world to explore when you see connecting elements in the foreground and background). Again, color would be distracting here – black and white simplifies the ability to see these elements and play with them.
7. To Highlight Beauty and Skin Tones
It doesn’t matter what race, color or background you happen to be – black and white photography provides wonderful tonal range between the deepest blacks and the whitest whites. Garishly colorful makeup is no longer distracting. Pigments, discoloration and distracting elements of the skin can become less obvious. It’s not hard to see why fashion photographers like Peter Lindbergh have built their entire careers shooting almost exclusively in black and white.
8. It Helps Focus On Composition
This reason (and focusing on lighting), are the two strongest reasons for me to shoot in black and white. Of course, composition is not color-dependent. A strong composition is a strong composition. The reason this is important is because – like the others points in this list – black and white compositional elements do away with the distraction of color. Suddenly elements within the frame can relate in a way that might otherwise have been throw off because of jarring color.
So What About Color?
The argument of not shooting black and white because it’s a thing of the past is a little odd to me, especially given that color photography is not necessarily a modern invention. Kodachrome for 35mm cameras has been around since the 1930s. The far more interesting (and possibly meaningful question) may be:“Why is black and white still so prevalent today, given we've been able to shoot color for so long?”.
I still shoot color and love playing with it, but I certainly enjoy the challenge and creative push from shooting in black and white.
There are very good reasons black and white stills exists today. I challenge anyone not shooting much in black and white to at least shoot RAW and change the setting on your camera LCD to display those JPEGs in ‘monochrome’. See whether or not it yields any change in how – or why – you shoot what you do. The results might surprise you. And if you are shooting black and white, tag me and let me know so I can check out your work, and feel free to post up a link to something you've shot that worked in black and white in the comments below to share with the community.