I always used to say “if there's not a lot of colour, don’t photograph it in colour”.
I feel like now having a good understanding of when and why I would covert an image to black and white in photo-shop, since I primarily shoot in RAW (a file type which is conducive to good post processing) comes from being able to appreciate my motivations behind why I want to take a picture in the first place instead of the edit being an after thought - which often was and sometimes still is the case.
A good friend Sarah, who writes a lifestyle blog - (00zero0.wordpress.com) - check her out, and is an amateur photographer herself once told me “making an image black and white is a lot of the time just saving a bad image, unless it comes from like an old camera, whats the point?” - I agree with this sentiment a lot actually, I’ve been guilty of putting a monochrome edit onto an image simply because it didn’t “look as good” in colour - but it is kind of a cheats way out because in actuality it meant the lighting wasn’t good or I was trying to hide something I didn’t want the viewer to see. But for a lot of my photography friends monochrome is adapted into their style so much so that I see it a rarity to see them produce anything in colour. And a lot of clients will often ask for black and white images out of preference or as a chosen instagram filter. So what is it about Black and White photography that people connect with so much?
Firstly and most importantly black and white photography has a lot of nostalgic connotations as it was - as expressed earlier - the only type of processing available for a long time when SLR’s were made available to the masses. We live in such a throwback society where nodding to a culture of the past is something people love and want to share whatever chance they get. I often play on this nostalgia when I am maybe recreating a look where analogue photography was used. A black and white portrait for example has the potential to convey a certain type of mood and is also a good way to neutralise an individuals profile depending on attire or the overall purpose of the image - referencing that of an actors headshot so that an employer is fixated on their actual appearance and anything else could be altered later - it perhaps puts everyone on a level playing field that way. Colour processing was also quite expensive before digital photography came on the scene in the mid 90’s so the b&w option was an affordable compromise. Now in your day to day selfie, a monochrome filter is used to “cure” that of an image where the lighting/general scene is maybe unpleasant in colour and diminishes some facial blemishes the (model/sitter) wants to de-emphasise from a viewer. Just gotta rake them likes in wherever possible.
Also, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s where colour became the more dominant processing of choice. A lot of street photography that existed during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was monochrome and this is still used in street photography edits today to pay homage to this as black and white can actually turn what could initially be unflattering high contrast (due to the sun) and allow it become a quite striking and dynamic way to create beautiful line and shapes to an image. Black and white is also an excellent way to pull the viewers attention to the tone of an image, accentuating the shadows and highlights and allowing a viewer to stay connected to what exactly is happening in a scene instead of being distracted by colour which could vary unpleasantly (particularly if this is a candid street scene) where you have no control and are using your skill mixed with a high level of chance, especially if this is a series of images where the monochrome edit is critical in consistency within the collection.
Additionally, a lot of fine art photographers play a lot with black and white in order to create abstract images or allow a scene to become more surreal than what colour would reveal, black and white can really accentuate texture in an image depending on how light falls onto subjects. I feel like it appeals to a lot of people’s creative nature because it just simply has a lot of artistic associations within the field it exists, like the emotion in Robert Doisneau work and the Punk feel to that of David Bailey’s.
Finally, there is little correlation between the constant visitation of black and white in that of photography and that of filmmaking. Today you will very rarely see a film made/shot in black and white, some filmmakers will often use vintage 35mm recording equipment as a nod to the past but this is still often in colour probably for mass appeal across demographics and then perhaps monochrome moving images can’t compete with black and white photography possibly because the action is always moving and the focus frequently shifts so there is no big profound creative aesthetic. In fact whenever I see black and white film sequences today, I get a very unsatisfied feeling as the quality is often “too good” for me to really associate it with the time in which it was originally utilised.
I’ll admit there’s a lot of “over processing” in colour photography today that strains away from that of reality - but at least I know that there’s a little bit of believability that the colour could have been actually that way. I love black and white images and the kind of emotion that can resinate with a viewer, but for now at least I prefer to always shoot for colour when I and then play around with emotion behind that colour.
Writing this post, I think back to myself starting out just under 4 years ago and thinking, I’d never have believed there was so much associated with the decision of just hitting a b&w conversion button ahaha it just goes to show that nothings that black and white.