Why Photograph in Black and White?

The real world exists in color. We see and touch in color. When we open our eyes in the morning everything is in color. People love to take tours to see the fall color of the leaves. I’m old enough to remember the first time I saw a color TV. Color, color everywhere!

So why would anyone photograph in black and white?

Not long ago I posted on Facebook the same photo in color and in black and white. I asked readers to tell me which they preferred. Check out these two images.

The comments were interesting. Several readers said they liked the color photo better because, “I love the colors.” Stop. Think. What happened? Many who preferred the color photo didn’t say they loved the color PHOTO. No. They loved the COLORS in the photo.

Now check out the black and white version. What catches your eye? Do you notice the look on her face? Do you wonder what SHE is looking at? What does the position of her hands suggest? For me, as I linger over these details, I wonder how early she rolled out of bed to get to the market with her goods. Your experience may be different than mine but when I looked at the color version all I thought was, “Wow, look at all the colors!”

Stay with me. Do you see what this suggests? It suggests color can be a distraction to the photo. If a good photo tells a story then sometimes color obscures the story. Brains tend to fixate on colors and how they interact with each other. We say to ourselves, “That’s a cool shade of green” or “I love how the colors of the wall interact with the color of her headpiece.” But when color is absent so are distractions. Shapes and content are the only things we can focus on to determine the meaning or story of the photo. Black and white photography forces the viewer to search for meaning in the details.

Did you know Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell took the first color photograph in 1861? But the color development process proved to be unstable. That’s why color photography didn’t become prominent until the early 1970s. This means early photographers had no choice but to use black and white. And they learned how to do it well. They became masters at capturing light and shadows. Their work has stood the test of time, even when judged next to color photos. That’s remarkable. Can you imagine the work of Rembrandt if he had only black and white to work with?

You get the idea. Black and white draws the viewer deeper in the photo. It forces a longer look and the asking of important questions about the photo. If done correctly, a black and white approach to photography can produce a better result than color. You should give it a try. If you photograph with your phone it’s easy to convert the photo to black and white. (Feel free to post your black and white photo in the comment section!)

I’m still learning. There are times when a color photo stands on its own merits. In other instances, black and white is the clear choice. Sometimes I struggle to know which to choose. In those times of struggle I invoke the Serenity Prayer. The opening line to that prayer is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Yes, God grant me, and you, the wisdom to know the difference!

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