My lovely husband Bill and I often have this debate, the conundrum of the apparent prestige that black and white photography has over colour. Both Bill and I have written extensively about this subject here, being that we, as you may well be aware by now are fairly prolific photographers.
Although we have been known to shoot in black and white, we both favour colour photography more. There is a distinct difference between shooting in colour as opposed to shooting in monochrome. The difference being in the way that each style changes the composition. Let me state clearly at this point that the basic structure of the composition, i.e. how you frame your subject remains the same in either version, and in and of itself you should aim to capture something that fits your objective as a photographer and artist. Neither colour nor black and white will fix a poor composition, and by poor I refer to a composition that fails to engage your desired audience. Not all compositions will appeal to all, even if it’s a killer shot. That much is very subjective on both the part of the photographer and viewer alike.
Colour adds a dimension to a photographic composition that elicits a direct emotional response with the audience. Most of us are used to perceiving the world in colour. It’s familiar. Through its familiarity we associate and make strong emotional connections that further reinforce our sense of belonging and acceptance, based both on cultural upbringing and personal preference. These are hugely important factors when appealing to the sensitivities of others and getting them to like what we do.
There is also much to be said about the way in which we are each built genetically, which invariably alters and makes unique the way in which we perceive colour and the world around us. Again, it’s another hugely significant factor when it comes to presenting colour images for the entertainment and pleasure of others. As such, colour images have a higher truth value than an image presented in black and white. Grey-scale monochromatic images are devoid of colour, and therefore the range of tonal nuances that colour invariably affords. Removing the colour also minimises the ability of your audience to engage with the image on a personal, familiar level, and thus the potential impact is altered. This is perfectly acceptable if your aim is to create a sense of aloofness, or objectivity between the image and the viewer, if it is part of the aesthetic of the work.
Due to the lack of tonal range in a black and white shot, the parts of your composition that then become emphasised are the tonal contrasts. Both Bill and I recognise that shooting in black and white is great for emphasising structure, if that is your aim. The stronger the contrasts, the more impact the image will have therefore in the absence of colour, as grey-scale photography relies on the juxtaposition of light and shadow. Your emotional response, therefore the way in which you engage with an image will vary depending on the tonal format it is presented, as illustrated below.
Another important factor in creating a photographic image that will have an impact with your audience and encourage them to engage with it in some meaningful, emotive way, which I believe is our goal as photographers/artists, is to create a sense of depth in what is essentially a flat image. We are creating illusions. We are attempting to capture a moment of everyday three-dimensional life in a two dimensional format.
Our eyes gauge depth of field in our surroundings by measuring colour and contrast, in simple terms. Colours with longer, wider light waves seem closer to us, for example, warm tones. Cooler colours, those light waves that are shorter and narrower will seem further away. The human eye will automatically foreground and be attracted to bright, warm colours, whilst cooler colours will be perceived as being further away, and less interesting, even if neither is necessarily true. Optical illusions often play on these factors, and as such it is a technique that has been used in classical art for centuries, successfully creating an illusion of depth in a two dimensional image. No mean feat.
Using grey-scale in creating an image informs our brains that what we perceive is not in our immediate vicinity and thus further away, so we are less likely to engage with it as it falls into the mid to background of our visual awareness. In using grey-scale then, we have to play on other factors in order to directly engage our audience. Take for example the two following images, originally shot in colour but later altered, producing a stark black and white version that I feel illustrates the points made above (click on the images below to enlarge):
Of course, there are other factors involved in creating a sense of depth in a two dimensional image, such as perspective and contrast, i.e. the way light and shadow are used to enhance the perspective, and thus the illusory way in which the viewer is then drawn into the image and encouraged to engage with it. Luckily, photographic equipment does most of the hard work for you. No need to work out tricky things like perspective or light and shadow, unlike the poor classical artist who spends years learning and applying artistic theory to his or her work in order to achieve what takes milliseconds for a camera. Photography should be easy in that case. Right?
Working a camera to achieve a certain result, not to mention the darkroom work that proceeds it takes skill, and a lot of dedicated practice. Having at least a basic understanding of how tonal values work in producing our own art, our own photographic works, is relatively important if we hope to be in control of how our images are perceived and enjoyed by others. It changes the way we shoot, and the things we shoot in that it stops the shots we produce being based on pot-luck. What we shoot becomes a definite intent to present our work in a desired way.
Both colour and black and white images can be impactful in their own right, however neither is always mutually translatable. Colour shots focus on the contrast of colours, the juxtaposition of warm and cool tones in creating that desired sense of depth and thus emotive connection with the audience. Black and white shots focus on tonal structure, the effect can be very dramatic, simplifying our subjects to their most prominent features, whether you’re shooting architecture, a landscape or a portrait. The amount of visual clutter within a shot is also affected by tonal shooting preference. Colour is best for shooting busy scenes as the extended tonal range versus black and white allows for more visual variation, and thus stops many potentially interesting points of focus within an image from being drowned out. Black and white copes less well with busy images, again simplifying it to the starkest tonal contrasts, which is great if that is the effect you are trying to create, but just be aware that many potentially interesting details will be lost.
Colour images are just more interesting to look at, for all the reasons stated above. The neural centres within the brain will respond more favourably to colour, producing more endorphins and increasing our sense of pleasure than would an image of lesser tonal value. Black and white images, if done well will appear to be more striking as they focus on structure, thus directing our focus to specific points within the image.
Once again, there are other factors involved in creating an effective composition that have little to do with tonal values. However, in this post I have focussed on the difference between shooting in colour and mono. Whichever one we prefer to shoot with is an artistic decision that we as photographers make, but that ultimately makes a definitive statement about who we are as artists and the work we produce.