Why Not Everything Looks Good In Black And White

Because, despite a few recent experiments, I’ve all but given up colour photography, black and white has become my default palette.

In the past, when I’ve chosen to shoot b/w over colour for a particular photowalk, I’ve then been able to seek out the kinds of compositions and scenes that feel better suited to b/w.

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But something I’ve noticed recently is when I see what I think is an interesting composition, it just gets captured in b/w, just because that’s my default (non) colour setting.

Not necessarily because it’s a composition and set of tones that particularly works well in b/w.

So, I’d like to get back to being more discerning and looking for the elements that can make b/w more powerful and memorable – such as light and shadow, shapes and textures.

To move away from “I think this is a great composition, and it’s ended up black and white because I don’t shoot in colour”, and back towards “I think this is a great b/w composition”.

How about you? How do you decide whether to shoot in b/w or colour, and then how does this influence the kind of subjects and compositions you seek out?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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10 thoughts on “Why Not Everything Looks Good In Black And White”

  1. I repeatedly recommend shooting in colour and then taking it out later to see if it works better as B&W. Why? Because you can do that easily. Putting colour back in is not so easy.
    We know what you like about monochrome, but I’m curious; what don’t you like about colour?

    1. Marc, very interesting question, thanks for asking.

      The main aspect of colour I don’t like is its sheer diversity. Black and white reduces the world to tones between black and white (and even then I usually favour higher contrast which further simplifies, or some might say ruins, some of the subtleties between those tones of grey). With colour, this feels like it’s multiplied infinitely, every colour then has its own range of tones, with all the interplay and relationships between different colours, not just different tones of grey.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love colour, especially in nature, and there’s little more pleasing to the eye for example than fresh green leaves against a blue summer sky, or the bloom of a pale pink rose. But I too easily get seduced by the colour of the subject alone and will capture an otherwise bland composition of, say, green leaves against a blue sky, just because I love the colours. It’s like I lose a big chunk of my compositional skill, if I have much in the first place.

      Also, and this is a big part too, with b/w because it’s a step away from reality in the first place (because we see in colour), then I feel I have free reign to process or alter the b/w images further. Like adding contrast, shooting at higher ISO to add more noise/grain etc. There’s no need to make them 100% true to reality, because they never can be, as there’s no colour in them. So it gives me permission almost to do what I want with them.

      So with colour, I have this endless power struggle between capturing colours that are genuine and realistic to what my eyes saw, and colours that I like even more than reality in some cases, as they have more or less saturation or contrast or make an image shot at midday look like it was made in the golden hour, and so on.

      So in short, I find colour too complex, get distracted by it so composition suffers, and can rarely decide how authentic I want the final colours of the image to look…

      I expect you’re glad you asked… !

      1. Yes I am. I can see where colour sometimes ‘gets in the way’ of the picture rather than adding to it, which is why I will desaturate either to B&W or just a lower level of intensity. As you know, some films were heavy on saturation on purpose. Think of Paul Simon’s song about Kodachrome; very telling!
        I’ve got some further B&W experiments coming up, but I’m waiting on receiving my most recent ‘toy’ order. 😉

  2. The environment is so saturated with technically excellent color images on television, on billboards, in magazines, in junk mail, etc., that color photographs just don’t interest me. And I have been making monochrome photographs for so long that I don’t how much my choice of subjects is influenced by the medium or vice versa. My favorite subjects are man-made things like vehicles, machinery, tools and signs. My favorite lighting is a bright overcast.

    1. Doug, yes I think we’ve talked about this before, we’re so surrounded by high quality colour we’re literally saturated, like you say. Interesting to consider where the influences for different colour palettes originate. For example I’ve been through phases where I’ve experimented with very muted colour, but more than that, deliberately desaturated colours that look like the life has been sucked out of them. I’m aware that a good many movies in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, as well as many TV dramas, share a similarly gloomy palette. The later Harry Potter films are a prime example, if you’re at all aware of those. Often there’s a strong green/grey hue, and in fact it’s not too far removed sometimes from sepia images of days gone by, with a green base, rather than a brown base. I even have cameras with colour settings or filters called things like “bleach bypass” which give this kind of look. One wonders who first pioneered this kind of look, and who followed it…

      I’ve read a number of times that bright overcast is the kindest kind of lighting for photographs. You have the brightness, but it’s evenly diffused across the scene so there are no extremes of contrast to contend with, or overly challenge the dynamic range of your film/sensor.

  3. There are lots of variables that determine whether I’ll shoot specifically, intentionally for monochrome or colour. There’s always a bit of mental checklisting (conditions, subject matter, current inspirations) going on when I head out the door that gives me a feel for my mood at any given time. But while I enjoy having goals to pursue, surprises are nice and I’m a pretty flexible photographer and not above “happy accidents”. I need all the luck I can get. Lots and lots of luck. If a colour exposure turns out to be a wonderful monochrome later on, it’s not as though I feel the need to confess my thought processes at the time (like the imagery there? haha). Colour is tougher for me. I reject a lot more out of hand. There’s a certain versatility and simplicity with b/w I love that opens up avenues for exposures. But conversely I place the bar a lot higher for myself when it comes to monochrome because I’ve always been a little afraid of exposing myself with bad b/w. Bad b/w is pretty transparent for me, like good chocolate versus bad chocolate. Not that you haven’t seen bad b/w in my journal, because you probably have. Not probably, most definitely. Because sometimes we get desperate and throw something to the wall to see what sticks.

    1. Yes I love stumbling across a happy accident now and then too, and we need to experiment a little to allow the possibility in.

      I also find b/w easier, and yes I think I set my bar higher too. Often in the past a colour shot would make the grade simply because I liked the colour of the object in the photograph, almost regardless of everything else. With b/w, more boxes have to be ticked for it to be kept, and then shared.

      Regarding throwing against the wall, there have been times when I’ve shared a photo I was very unsure about sharing, thinking it wouldn’t gain much interest, only to find it enjoyed by a number of people.

      Then though the danger is trying to second guess what might be more popular, rather than what you like best yourself, and before you know it you’re in the whole social media “please like me and be my friend” superficial circus…

      But sometimes trying something a bit different whilst shooting can result in a surprisingly pleasing outcome.

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