Why Photograph In Black And White?

One of the fundamental choices we make as photographers is whether to shoot in colour or black and white.

In the film days of course, this was determined by the film loaded in the camera. We couldn’t simply switch between colour and b/w, shot by shot.

With digital, we can make this choice every time we press the shutter button, though personally I prefer to stick to either colour or b/w for each particular photowalk.

Why?

Well, my headspace is different for each, and what my eyes tune into and look for changes too.

With colour, whilst the overall composition is important in any shot, a particular colour or combination of colours can almost be the composition.

Also, with colour there is no single colour setting, which for me makes it far more challenging.

Most cameras I’ve used, I don’t particularly love the default colour output.

Which is why after some years of searching I was delighted to find older CCD sensor cameras like the Pentax K100D and Samsung GX-1S give me warm, natural colours I do love, straight out of camera.

It saves me from almost endless fiddling about with different combinations in something light LightRoom, something I never enjoyed.

Despite finding these camera colour champions, I still enjoy shooting b/w at least as often, albeit generally only in the late autumn through to early spring.

Why?

Because – especially during seasons where there is naturally less colour around – I love how b/w simplifies photography further, and reduces the number of decisions we need to make.

Aspects such as light and shadows and texture come to the fore, and help me focus more on the basics necessary for any memorable photograph.

Yes, as with colour, there are of course many possible variations of b/w, depending on how you set up your camera and how much (if any) you process the images afterwards.

But I have a pretty consistent look, whichever camera I use, either via the camera’s on board settings (I love those with high contrast mono settings like some of the Lumix cameras and the Ricoh GRD III) or via Snapseed with preset favourites.

So I rarely have any kind of indecision over how my b/w images looks in terms of tones.

We’re into autumn now here, and with shorter days and that strong low sun, it invites the beginning of another era of b/w photography for me, always an exciting time.

But how about you? Why do you photograph in black and white?

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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31 thoughts on “Why Photograph In Black And White?”

  1. I agree with you Dan about the simplification of monochrome image. It shows you the raw power and the soul of a subject. The colour can be distracting therefore more difficult to contain however if you know how to and use it well it works great.
    Black n white is another world for me. It also works well in documentary or journalistic work. For some photographers it works as a nostalgic element.

  2. I used to shoot a hundred or so rolls of 35mm in Asia every year. I’m a color guy, but there were always a few rolls of b/w in my bag for emergencies. I hate grainy color, so in handheld, low light situations, a few rolls of ISO 1600 b/w could save the day. I also carried b/w for situations where color film wasn’t technically appropriate, such as mixed lighting. I shot the entire terracotta warriors site with ISO 400 b/w for this reason.

    Nowadays, whether to actually shoot in color or b/w is a decision I never have to confront. I always capture images in RAW, so the issue of color is a processing decision only. And again, I’m a color guy, so very little of my output is b/w. I do enjoy seeing the work of others in this mode, though. Maybe someday, I’ll dig down a little deeper and find the artistic sensitivity necessary to pull it off for myself. 🙂

    1. Jack, I think I just like making the decision before hand, whether I feel like shooting colour or b/w. Then that influences the shots I seek, the light and shadow, texture etc.

      1. Can’t argue with that, Dan. Setting out with a purpose usually yields better results than simply meandering around the countryside. There was a time when I found the challenge of b/w more worthwhile, and I have a large collection of various size filters to prove it. However, they don’t produce satisfactory results with digital. Red, green, yellow, orange, etc. – they only muddy the images, with none of the benefit derived when used with film. I guess others have discovered the same thing; I tried to sell them some time back, and didn’t even get a nibble. I don’t understand the physics behind this, but it has caused me to nearly abandon the concept of shooting for b/w output. Now I compose knowing the image can be processed into either mode later, and if b/w seems more appropriate, I manipulate the color channels later, prior to conversion. Maybe I’ll move toward your camp one of these days. It might be interesting to shoot an entire day targeting only form and texture.

  3. Yes, sometimes color can be a distraction. The tones of an image are as important as the colors. When processing my color images I adjust the tones first then take a careful look at the colors and sometimes eliminate or tone down distraction tones and colors that interfere with the composition. It isn’t easy to make a good black and white. Keeping the color in the file broadens the processing capabilities in B&W. Mood has a huge part to play. Many times B&W can come off as gloomy which may not be what I want.

    1. I find it fascinating taking a shot of something like, say, multi-coloured flowers in b/w, and seeing which look near identical in the final image, because although the colours might different, the tones were very close.

      I don’t generally aim to shoot anything red in b/w, as I don’t really like how it comes out. But with colour film I used to hunt out red, it always looked fantastic, like post boxes and telephone boxes.

  4. I think, for me, the criteria I use is fairly simple. If a shot isn’t ABOUT the colour–i.e. compositionally important or informationally integral (sports team colours etc)–shoot it in B/W. As said above, if you shoot RAW, you can decide on the process treatment yourself. Yes, by comparison to out of the camera JPEG, already processed and ready to share, it’s relatively a fiddle (I find that fiddle as absorbing as the shooting in the first place), but I would rather have the image I can make endless variations of than be stuck with the already processed files with fewer possibilities for them.
    Have you ever thought Dan, about how many cameras you’ve tried, with all their preset JPEG output modes to find what suits you for ‘simplicity’, when it could have always been just one camera in RAW mode and a preferred custom preset saved in your processing software from the start! 😉

    1. Bear, you said “I would rather have the image I can make endless variations of”. This is the exact opposite of me! I hate that infinite possibility, I like the picture finished once I release the shutter, with all of my decisions made before that point.

      I used to do the preset thing with LightRoom, and I was just endlessly tweaking and ending up with 17 fractionally different versions. I just can’t do that. Photography is about getting out exploring and roaming and finding images, not being slave to processing software.

      That said, one of my steps towards simplification and now almost entirely shooting in camera, was using Snapseed and just having a couple of saved looks, one for high contrast b/w, another for slightly less high contrast b/w. Then I found it easy to choose between the two. This was/is for cameras that don’t allow me enough contrast and tone adjustment in camera, like more basic point and shoots. And my phone.

      1. I don’t think I’d be confident enough to state ‘photography is about…’ with that same certainty! I’m sure you probably meant a ‘to me..’ in there somewhere.

        Thankfully, the clever people in camera designing departments seem to cope with pleasing as many of all us different photographers with our different philosophies and workflows pretty well.

      2. Yes, I assumed it was a given that anything I write here is my opinion, my perspective on what photography is to me. Of course photography is many different things to many different people, as you say, which is why so many of us love it – and talking about it!

        I wonder if sometimes the manufacturers might be better off having a more diverse range of cameras that each cater for a more niche kind of photography/photographer, rather than have half a dozen very similar models just with marginally different spec.

        A bit like Leica with their Monochrom model.

        So many features seem superfluous with many cameras, the money would better invested perhaps in optimising just the core ones.

        But I guess there’s more money in making cameras that are virtually similar, rather than designing and producing significantly different ones from scratch. Especially when it comes to the next upgrade six months down the line, they just want to tweak a few things that make the numbers bigger and more impressive, rather than create a whole new camera.

        Actually Ricoh also had an interesting idea with their GXR model, where there was a basic body, then the lens and sensor combination was interchangeable.

        Someone could design a camera even with the same basic sensor and body, then different lenses and electronic “brains” plug in, depending in the user’s needs.

        A street photographer might want a fast wide prime and the minimum of options, keep it point and shoot simple.

        A wildlife photographer might want a very long zoom, high level of image stabilisation, and high ISO capability to keep the shutter speeds up.

        And so on. But the basic body and sensor could be the same.

        Anyway, I think I’ve rather digressed!

  5. Dan, I started out a little more than a year ago doing only color. After a few months, I decided to go deeper into photography and took a darkroom class for black and white. Shooting black and white, I became enamored of shadows. Mood, tone, and feeling are influenced so much by shadows—I shoot blacks and white for the shadows.

    1. I think shadows are one of those aspects that come to the fore when shooting b/w. They’re also there in colour photograph of course, but usually we’re drawn more to the dominant colour in the scene. With b/w, it’s often the darkest parts we’re attracted to. I love photographs with 50% or more in complete black shadow.

  6. When I started with film photography in the mid 50’s black and white was the only affordable choice. A schoolboy’s allowance would not cover the cost of sending rolls of color film to Kodak for processing. Even the cost of developing and prints at Walgreens pretty much emptied my piggy bank every month. By the time I was in high school I was developing and printing my own film and, again, black and white was the only practical choice. So for the first dozen or so years of my photographic life photography and black and white were synonymous.

    In college I played around a little with color photography, both negatives and slides, along with the black and white that I was back to sending out for processing because I no longer had access to a darkroom. I still have those negatives and slides but the only prints from that time on our walls now are black and white, even though I have the ability to scan, process and print in color too.

    When I bought a digital camera I was initially struck by how easy it was to make prints that looked a lot like the color postcards that my wife and I buy in lieu of taking pictures when we are vacationing in new places. But that turned out to be problem too. Inundated as we are with picture perfect color images in the environment I found I had no interest in taking color pictures myself. I switched to taking black and white pictures with my digital cameras but eventually realized that I could do the same thing with film which offers much more of an immersion in the process. So here I am today, taking black and white pictures with the self same film cameras my father and I used 65+ years ago.

    1. Doug, do you scan the negatives in preparation for printing, or do you have a full darkroom? I still have a few older Nikon bodies and could see myself conceivably shooting b/w film. However, I have no time for a darkroom, and I fear this is one of the necessary ingredients for optimizing the output.

      1. Hi Jack, I scan the negatives and make inkjet prints. Inkjet printing has reached the point that many people, me included, find they can surpass their own darkroom results. Even if I had the space, I no longer have the attention span for darkroom work. I find hybrid film photography – shooting film and making digital prints – very satisfying.

    2. Interesting Doug. I think we are so saturated with hi-res colour imagery today, that shooting b/w for me also feels like something of a retreat to simpler times.

  7. Black & white film was the film with which I started in photography. It was cheaper than colour. I was also a novice, and in my mind, B&W was cool and artsy. 🤪

    These days, I photograph in black & white (digital) mostly during the winter months when shades of grey are all I can see. I also use black and white when I want to be moody. Yeah, I deal with seasonal affective disorder.

    1. I think I still see b/w as cool and artsy!

      Is it a long winter in your part of the world Khurt? We recently passed the Autumn Equinox where the amount of light and dark is equal, so now it’s more dark each day than light, and of course getting darker.

    1. Thanks Frank, you mean you have it set to a b/w mode in camera? And I’mm assuming then you mean an EVF rather than an optical viewfinder. This is one shortcoming of the latter, whatever film or colour set up you have in camera, you don’t see it when you’re composing through an optical VF.

  8. Absolutely! I was inspired by my father’s black & white photos taken in the early 1970s, and once I got into the darkroom myself, that was it, I was completely sold. Colour does have it’s place, I guess. I thought flowers should be in colour, for example, until very recently when I put some of my own macro flower images into black & white – there’s no comparison. You can see all the texture and tones in the flowers that one misses when it’s in colour. There’s nothing to distract a person from the essence of whatever the subject of the photograph is, when it’s in black & white. And it’s also perfect for abstract photography, which I love.

    1. I know what you mean about flowers Tania, I also used to think that the main attraction of flowers was their colour, why would you not want to capture that?

      But once you look past that, and shooting in b/w helps with this immensely, you see details and textures you might usually missed when you’re blinded by the colour only.

      Yes, also agree about abstract photography. Though I have found that some of the more abstract and minimal photos I’ve made in colour have featured only one colour, so they’re monochrome in a different way.

      I wrote about this earlier in the year –

      https://35hunter.blog/2020/05/26/shooting-colour-monochromes/

  9. It took me a while to understand black and white.
    For a while, if a shot was distracting with its colors and/or had a bit too much purple fringing that was hard to fix, I would convert to black and white to see if I could “save” that shot…
    It all changed once I created a preset for black and white that I really liked (and I’ve shared it here in the comments before…) and went out with my camera shooting in JPEG only, with the B&W preset – once the image was captured, no way to go back to color!
    The first outings were not great, but it really helped me to start seeing luminance and contrast in a different way – and to visualize in my mind what was going to look good in black and white. Compositions also felt different and were a bit more challenging to work with. But the results were very rewarding because there are things in a picture that we can only see – in my opinion – in black and white. Colors, while revealing some things, also hide others. It’s a bit hard to explain but I really feel like I can see things in a different way because of it.
    So in short, shooting in black and white in my opinion has to be a decision, and that decision to be made upon a full commitment to it, in order for one to really “get” black and white photography.

    1. I think we’ve all done that thing with a colour shot not coming out like we’d hoped, but still being compositionally good, so we convert to b/w to salvage it.

      But I do far prefer to have that b/w mindset engaged before I start out on a photowalk.

      And yes I agree colour can hide some things, or at least distract us from them. You might have a very colourful object with interesting texture for example, but you only see the colour. Switch to b/w and the texture comes alive.

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