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Color or Black and White

What’s your preference? I often ask my students whether they prefer color or black and white photos. I also ask whether they prefer gloss or matte prints. Actually, both these questions are loaded. The fact is that there are a range of things that determine our preference. It may be that we associate black and white with many of those classic images by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh. Conversely we might associate color images with the billions of 6’x4″ gloss prints made from snap shots. We may associate black and white photos with notions of nostalgia, while identifying color photos with the relative hardships of our own contemporary lives. And does that flow through to your view of fashion photography? Do you associate black and white images with classic, romantic beauty and color images with sleaze? Does black and white suggest innocence, purity and hope, while color conjures up notions of guilt, sin and despair.

Of course the Wizard of Oz was shot in color, and that has a pretty positive ending. There are plenty of examples of gritty and sleazy black and white imagery. So I don’t think either mode is any more pure than the other. My point is that its good to try to understand what factors might govern your own preference? We are all biased and our views and opinions are governed by a range of things including the following:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Life Experiences
  • Education
  • Travel undertaken
  • Home location
  • Religious beliefs
  • Political beliefs

My own preference for many years was color. Actually I loved looking at great black and white images, but I felt a real connection to shooting and printing color. And I loved rich, highly saturated color, particularly in landscape photography. Over recent times I’ve rediscovered black and white and am enjoying the process of producing a series of black and white portfolio prints.

So, when determining your preference for black and white or color, you might find it worthwhile identifying any biases that may have an influence on your decision. This won’t necessarily cause you to change you mind, but it may cause you to consider and, potentially, argue for your preference a little more carefully. And anyway, just because you have a preference for one or the other, doesn’t mean that a particular image is suited for rendering in line with that preference.

One of the great advantages of digital is that we can shoot in color and render the image in either color or black and white as we see fit. By duplicating the image we can have both versions on file. And, of course, we can use a range of digital imaging techniques to produce a picture that contains areas of color and black and white within the same image.

But what makes an image well suited to black and white or color rendering? Let’s start with a black and white image. Your subject or scene should contain some or all of the following:

Variations in brightness (tonal range), appropriately situated, throughout the image. Imagine a photograph where the primary subject matter is a group of 3 young girls. To make the picture clearer in your mind let’s say they are triplets, and almost identical physical appearance. All have equally pleasant smiles and nice, dark eyes. Let’s say that 2 of the girls are dressed in black and the other in white. Visually it would make sense for the odd one out, that would be the girl in white, to be positioned in the middle so that the viewer’s attention would be drawn in towards the middle of the group. While their gaze will move around the frame, and to the 2 girls in black, it will always come back to the middle of the group. The reason for this is that the girls in black are acting as a kind of secondary framing device, allowing the eye to wander, yet leading it back to the middle of the group. This makes sense to the viewer, on a subconscious level, producing a pleasing picture in their mind.

Let’s take a slightly more difficult example where 2 of the girls are dressed in white and the other in black. Placing the odd one out, the girl in black, in the centre would be a little less successful because the viewers attention will inevitably be drawn towards the brighter elements, the two girls on each side of the group. This would cause the viewer’s gaze to wander continually and produce an unbalanced, less harmonious result. Of course, if that’s what you’re after, your in luck. But, if you’re a traditional portrait photographer looking for a pleasing rendering of the group, you’d be in trouble. That is, unless you work a little harder.

Let’s place the 3 girls into a triangular composition, with 1 of them closer to the camera and the other 2 back a few steps. Let’s also ensure that you close you’re aperture down (e.g. f 11) to ensure that the depth of field (DOF) is sufficient to keep them all relatively sharp. By placing the girl in the black dress in the centre of the group, but moving her forward, you make her the initial point of reference. The 2 girls in the white dresses will then form the back edges of the triangle. Did you know that light tones advance, while dark tones recede. This means that the girl in the front of the group, because she’s wearing black, will appear slightly further away from the camera than she is in reality. Conversely the 2 girls in white will appear to advance, or come forward, making them appear closer to the camera than the are in reality. Because telephoto lenses produce a flatter, more 2 dimensional rendering of the scene, the perceived distance between the girls is further reduced by standing further back and shooting with a telephoto lens (zooming in). Hopefully the girl in the black dress, because she’s closer to the camera and in the centre of the group, will become the dominant focal point for the viewer’s eye to settle upon. Yet, due to the extended DOF, telephoto lens and the fact that the other 2 girls are dressed in white you may well have done all you can to ensure that all 3 receive a reasonable amount of attention.

The notion of light tones advancing and cool tones receding is an important design element in both color and black and white photography. But, due to the absence of color in a black and white image, all other design elements  become elevated in importance. And the tonality of individual focal points, and their placement, relevant to each other, becomes critical in black and white images.

Other subject matter well suited to rendering in black and white includes the following:

  • Highly textured areas such as the bodice of a brides dress, or the bark of a dark tree trunk
  • A subject that lends itself to notions of nostalgia (e.g. old world, bygone days, etc)
  • Very young children (e.g. babies teething) or elderly people (with “little old wine drinking me” noses) often look better in B&W
  • Alternatively, a subject that suggests purity, such as a new born child or bride, is also a good candidate

The reason why, in Western counties, white is traditionally the preferred color for Baptisms and Weddings, is because it signifies purity. The child without sin, the virgin bride, etc. Both are Christian symbols and, regardless of our own individual belief systems, if you live in a western country these traditions help form biases in our minds. Incidentally, white is traditionally the color someone would wear to a funeral in China. These days a bride in China might choose a white wedding dress, but that might have more to do with a desire to appear modern and affluent than any other reason.

Subject matter well suited to rendering in color includes the following:

Scenes with strong, dominant color (e.g. yellow flowers against a blue sky). Warm and cool color combination provide strong color contrast and often produce dynamic images.

Scenes where the color helps express an appropriate mood. This can be universal or cultural. Blue is universally considered a cool color. It can signify calmness, melancholy, sadness, etc. What mood are you in when you are blue? You are blue! Red suggests passion and desire in western societies, while it’s more commonly used in China to suggest good luck. Green is a color associated with Islam and is incorporated into many Islamic national flags. Do you know the color of the flag of Libya. It’s green! There is no other color or element (line, shape, etc) present. I suppose the color green is symbolic enough for the people of that country.

There are times when the color inherent in the image can be so strong that it actually gets in the way. It’s like an overdone polarising filter. The effect is so strong that it takes up most of the viewer’s attention. The color can be so strong that the viewer dismisses the image without giving sufficient consideration to other elements within the image (e.g. subject, composition).

I’ve added a fairly straightforward self portrait to this post, in both color and black and white. The shot was taken just after sunrise at Gibson Steps, just down the beach from the Twelve Apostles on Australia’s Great Ocean Road. The colors were fairly striking with the warm sunrise hitting the large central rock and the sky and water illuminated with the deep blue light of an approaching storm. This warm/cool color contrast adds impact to what would otherwise be a fairly bland image. I employed Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to render both the warm and cool colors in such a way to provide the desired result. I then applied a very straightforward technique (Desaturate) in Photoshop to turn the color image into black and white. While not a particularly sophisticated way to convert a color image into black and white, it was sufficient in this case as all I wanted to do was provide an accurate (as opposed to a further manipulated) conversion of the color image, without adjusting any individual tones throughout the image.

I’d be interested to read your comments as to which version you prefer. And, of course, you own preference for color or black and white images.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

glenn_gibson-steps_great-ocean-road_australia2glenn_gibson-steps_great-ocean-road_australia_bw2

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2 Responses

  1. I definitely prefer the colour image. The contrast between the orange in the rock and the deep blue of the sky is striking and complimented perfectly by the dark blue figure. The B&W image seems quite bland and uninteresting in comparison.

  2. Hi Suzanne,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to provide some feedback. I agree the b&W image is certainly more subdued. I feel your analysis of the color image is spot on. The dark blue figure you mention is me.

    All the best,
    Glenn

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