Why Do We Still Love Black and White Photography?

Why Do We Still Love Black and White Photography?

At first, black and white photography was a necessity due to limitations with technology, but even now in our digital age, we still enjoy creating without color. So, what really gives the relevancy, intrigue, and desire for black and white photographs? 

Black and white imagery has always been a part of photography in all formats since the medium was first created. Back when it was the only option, whether shooting on metal plates, glass, or film, images without color were the norm. Then came color film and digital cameras, and now, there's a whole slew of amazing devices out there to capture our world in the most vibrant of colors. But black and white photography hasn't and probably won't ever die out. I think there are several reasons why many of us enjoy the art form and why people see it as a fine art. 

Keep in mind, each person who creates without color likely does so for their very own personal reasons. The reasons I share below are simply what I have observed in my own work and in that of other photographers who have been more vocal about their works in black and white. But if you have further insights into why you shoot without color or why you think people should, please make sure to comment below, because I'd love to hear your thoughts. Of course, there is no shortage of opinions on any given topic, particularly online, particularly concerning the subject of photography. However, I really do want to take an analytical approach to asking my original question. In essence, why do we still like black and white photography?

Image used with permission from Scott Hallenberg.
Artist's information found at the bottom of this article.

Image used with permission from Matt Bowen.
Artist's information found at the bottom of this article.

Quite frankly, I think a lot of it has to do with how our human brains work. We are some incredibly imaginative and creative creatures. An image presented in full color tells a very complete story, whereas an image that is stripped of color leaves a completely different set of ways that we can interpret what we see. Take, for example, the two shots shared above. Both images are of objects without faces; there isn't any obvious emotion to draw from either shot, not directly. Perhaps you see other things in these pieces of black and white art, but I do find emotionality in both works. The sailboat shot, for instance, communicates a very interesting emotion to me. I have experiences where I have spent time in such foggy environments. I have never been on a sailboat, but I can imagine quite clearly what the temperature might be, what sounds (if any) I might be hearing, what sort of smells might be present, and from those slight ripples in the water, I can imagine a slight breeze blowing in my face. The scene I am experiencing through my own projection based on my own life experience is probably different than the one that you experienced. Maybe not, but that's the beauty of it all: our imaginations can take it any direction we feel.

Similarly for the shot of the airliner flying straight through the frame, I find that I interpret emotions such as progress, innovation, and other similar feelings simply because the inherent forward motion in the shot is such a strong focal point. I honestly don't know, but I doubt a color rendering of this image would have nearly the emotional connection simply because the stark contrasts in the image place my focus very quickly on the subject and in a very concentrated manner. It's not just about the plane, nor is it just about the stream behind it, or the emptiness around it, but all of those things play very significant parts in the image as a whole, and I honestly believe that color would reduce some of the overall impact of it.

We really could spend all day talking about all the fun emotions that can be conveyed through black and white imagery, even if there isn't a single person in the frame. I mean, all we have to do really is initiate a conversation about the works of either Ansel Adams or Nick Brandt, and there's a whole slew of absolutely gorgeous photography from either artist that can be studied and admired for expansive amounts of time. Both photographers chose to shoot in black and white instead of using color film. Even today, Brandt still uses black and white as his format of choice, even though there is a multiplicity of options for capturing in color. I've never met him, as much as I wish I could, but I would not be even remotely surprised if he had several powerful reasons as to why he captures his subjects devoid of color.

Image used with permission from Sabrina Tomlinson.
Artist's information found at the bottom of this article.

Image used with permission from Craig Pickup.
Artist's information found at the bottom of this article.

But speaking about emotions and how much power can be conveyed in a single black and white image, we simply must talk about how powerful a colorless portrait can be. As photographers, we are artists, whether you like that title or not, and the images we create will have one impact or another. The choices we make behind the lens and in the darkroom, whether that is actual or digital, can take a raw negative image of something or someone and turn it into an artistic piece that can literally change someone's life. There are countless examples of when a photographer will take their gallery of color images and simply turn them grayscale. All due respect to those out there who do that, I think there is an inherent difference between doing that and processing an image specifically for a black and white display. The conscious choice to remove color, particularly with portraits, seems to have an astounding affect.

Take these two very different portraits above and just look at the eyes of the person within the frame. I can't speak for you, but I know that I feel some very strong emotions when taking the time to study, to appreciate, and find interest in the faces before me. The one of the woman conveys a powerful sense of elegance, quietude, and purpose. The second portrait is of a homeless man, part of an ongoing project that the artist is creating, and it conveys a much different set of emotions. I feel sorrow, listlessness, understated chaos, and many other similar feelings. All of that from a single image of a person I will likely never meet. But it gets my brain thinking about things, about how grateful I am for what I have, wishing I could do something to help this poor man stop feeling the way my brain thinks he is feeling. It's a very intriguing place to be, to find yourself feeling empathy for a total stranger, but that is the power of such images. I absolutely love it, and I think a large portion of the rest of the world does too.

In essence, not only does black and white photography seem to have a very relevant place in our world today, but perhaps even a necessary place. We are emotional creatures; there's no point in even attempting to deny that, and those emotions can help us connect to each other in more powerful and more meaningful ways. Photography is one of those realms where very strong connections can be made, and the purposeful use of black and white images can facilitate such connections. Sure, this article has been me simply spouting off all these observations about things I've noticed in both the works of others and even in my own work, but I think it really comes from a place to which most of us can relate. One of the things that I love about this Fstoppers community is the massive array of insights and ideas that come from you, so I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts about black and white photography and what it means or doesn't mean to you. So please, make sure to comment below and let us know what you think. 

A very special thanks to each of the following photographers for allowing the inclusion of their works in this article.

Craig Pickup, on Instagram as @craigpickupphotography and @homelessofutah.

Matt Bowen, found on Instagram as @mrmattbowen.

Sabrina Tomlinson, found on Instagram as @steelandgraceportraits.

Scott Hallenberg, found on Instagram as @scotthallenberg.photographer.

Cover photo by Gabe Mejia, on Instagram as @gabemejia.

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17 Comments

Tim Ericsson's picture

Great article and topic. Thanks.

Black and white photography is more foundational than color. Because there is no color in the image, the viewer is forced to review the baser components of the photograph. Composition and shapes can be far more effective and evocative because of this. Which in turn can make the image more powerful.

My two cents

John Cliff's picture

this whole article's argument could have been said just with this comment...well spoken!

Michael Jin's picture

Reality sucks and color photographs are too real. Besides, black and white is pretty... and I can develop it at home cheaply and easily without worrying about whether my chemical temperature is swinging this way or that by a few degrees.

But yeah... What Tim Ericsson said. We'll go with that.

Tim Ericsson's picture

A second the addendum regarding at-home developing! I always screw up color developing, but rarely mess up black and white.

I think black & white is especially preferable to colour for portraits. I find colour is a distraction, B&W allows the subject's character to come through.

Crystal Johnson's picture

Shooting in color for me is about everything, the colors, textures, feel/emotion of it. BW is beautiful when done right. It has a sense of frailty, and realness to it. When you remove color, it's all about light and light for us is dynamic, it tells a story stripped bare because you're not hiding behind colors of the world.

Rex Jones's picture

I love this. I couldn't agree more with you!

Justin Sharp's picture

To add to the historical context of the discussion, it should also be noted that hand coloring photos existed from the mid to late 1800s throughout the mid 1900s. In a sense, photos that included color have been around for almost as long as b&w. As pictorialism faded, the popularity of hand coloring also faded.
Black and white photography, especially shooting with film, can lead to a deeper understanding of light and how that translates to various b&w tonalities. When shooting in color, the temperatures of different colors can have a huge impact in the perception of the tonal values of the object being photographed. (and b&w film is cheaper and a lot easier for me to process at home)

Gilberto Torres's picture

Long ago I read a book that talked about the visual elements in b/w photography: line, texture and form. When you photograph in b/w the absence of color lets you concentrate in those elements and it's somehow easier to read the image you are seeing. I believe that's why there are genres that benefit from that, like nude photography where all that matters is mostly the form and lines formed by the body, also architecture is a clear example where you can read more effectively the structures and perspectives (not saying that it should be taken in b/w). I wouldn't say b/w is more powerful than color photography nor the other way around. There are really powerful color portraits (Dan Winters one of my favorites).
When you look at a color photograph there's a context attached to it by the color itself. You can tell the difference in color between a David Alan Harvey's photos from the 90's from a photo taken in 2018, and it's logical since the medium has changed. But I don't know it it happens to you but there's a quality in the color that even if there's no proper context in the photograph the color itself make me like it more than contemporary photographs. So it's somehow chained to the color it contains.
I love b/w because at some degree it's atemporal. Since it doesn't have that extra information that color brings you can look at it from a more neutral point. It happened to me when I saw Cartier Bresson's portrait of Truman Capote. I thought it was a recent photograph, it really looked as something taken not long ago, there wasn't this color guide to send it back to the past. And I think that's an extraordinary think.
When we take b/w photographs we are in a more even ground to view and take photographs without this predisposition of color (whatever meaning you attach to it).
It's something I recently was thinking about. Thank you for the article!

Craig Pickup's picture

I was honored to have an images from my Homeless of Utah series included in the article. When I started developing this series I consciously chose to do it in black and white. There were a number of reasons for this. The primary reason was because I wanted the viewer to see person in the image, to really see them. That is not to say that a color portrait doesn't portray the person, but color can be a distraction. Color itself portrays an emotion and I wanted the images to be free of that.

Another reason is that I found black and white proved easier to highlight every imperfection. In beauty portraiture we concentrate on removing imperfections. But there is a beauty in imperfection and I wanted to highlight that. After all, homelessness itself is an imperfection. I wanted the viewer to to linger and to notice the detail, to see the imperfections, to be drawn in by the detail and to really explore the face.

One of the biggest things you find in talking to homeless people is a feeling of being invisible. The series is all about helping people see the homeless, not as something in the background, not as someone to walk past, but as a person, someone to see, to know, to linger with and to explore as a fellow human being. Black and white enables that in a way color often just can't.

Chad D's picture

pizza

its all good but some prefer thin some prefer thick :) a few think pan is a type :) hahahhaha

more sauce less cheese toppings ?

we all have our reasons and that is good enough for me ;)

My opinion may be controversial, but 90% of the B&W shots I see leave an impression that the one who shot them could not or did not want to spend time and/or effort to make the colors right. It's easy to take an image with bad colors, click B&W in Lightroom, pop contrast and call it good. I'm not saying that B&W is not viable, but it has to be a specific shot with certain simplicity in mind to make stripping it of colors justifiable.

Tim Ericsson's picture

The same could be said for people who knock up the saturation and vibrancy on a color photo, or throw a filter on it and call it a day. Laziness isn’t a symptom of black and white photography, although there certainly are those who think a shot can be “artsy” if they just make it monochrome.

Jim Payne's picture

I somewhat agree with Sergey. I believe that a good black and white photo is envisioned prior to clicking the shutter, not an afterthought to save a poor capture.

Patricia Skeete's picture

Black and white photos have soul. They are just perfect.

For the same reason we love other kind of artwork. Because it's the interpretation of reality by an artist. It's like impressionism vs ultra realism in painting.