Even since before the advent of modern photographic film in the 1880s, people were experimenting with adding color to photographs. Over time, photography became a respected art form, and people became accustomed to black and white photography, developing and mastering the techniques that we now deem elementary. But as technology advanced and color photography became easily accessible, it inadvertently caused some division in the artistic community. To this day, many photographers choose to work exclusively in black and white, or color and shun the other. But the fact of the matter is, each technique provides unique opportunities for artists to evoke different emotions from the viewer. Some photos might seem lackluster in color, but become powerful in black and white and vice versa. But how do you know when to use each method? Here we’ll give you a few guidelines on the advantages, disadvantages and best practices for each.
The Advantages of Black & White Photography
“I can get a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black and white image than I have ever achieved with color photography.” – Ansel Adams
How Professional Photographer Kevin Kaminski Captured this Shot – Black & White
For years in the early days of photography as an art form, the only real option was to have black and white. During that time, lighting, exposure settings, and development techniques were perfected, so revisiting those techniques nowadays can make certain photographs feel timeless, emotional and more impactful in the right context. Before you shoot, take into account:
- Does this photo require color? If your objective is to show the green pastures of the countryside, the unending arch of a rainbow, or the spectrum of colors within a Saharan sunset, then obviously you probably won’t want to use black and white. However, if the lighting and contrast accentuate a subject, then color won’t play a significant role.
- What lighting are you working with? The major advantage of black and white photography is that you can play with lighting and shadows, how they contrast and juxtapose each other within a composition for dramatic effect.
- What part of the photograph is supposed to be compelling? If the subject matter and intended message of the photo are more important than the eye candy of vivid or eclectic colors, then black and white is the way to go.
- Do you care about texture? The natural contrasts that come with black and white photography really bring into focus the texture of certain surfaces such as skin, fur, dirt, metal, wood, etc. in a way that color photography simply doesn’t.
Train Your Abilities With Black & White Photography
Even if your intent is to shoot color photographs exclusively for your work, it is still a good idea to become accustomed to shooting in black and white. As stated above, black and white photography depends more heavily on fundamental composition, contrast, and proper exposure settings to create something meaningful and compelling. By regularly shooting with an absence of color, you train your eye to become accustomed to universal photography elements that benefit all images — even those in color. You may even find that your color images turn out even better after shooting in black and white for a while. Some photographers prefer to train and hone their skills in black and white, then shoot professionally in color because they know those techniques translate easily. Their photos are not mere “eye candy”, with color being primary attraction, but rather stand on their own merit compositionally first and please the viewer with vibrant colors secondly.
The Advantages of Color Photography
Photographer Haley Pope Uncovers the Perfect Angle – Color
“Color is very much about atmosphere and emotion and the feel of a place.” – Alex Webb
On the flipside, color photography has its own advantages, based entirely off of what the artist wishes the viewer to experience. When shooting in color, be sure to consider:
- How personable are you trying to be? Black and white photography is great for evoking emotion, but oftentimes it can cause a slight disconnect with the subject matter. Since as human beings we see in color, it comes naturally that we feel more empathetic or relatable with the subject of a color photograph.
- Do you want to convey a brighter mood? When you look at a photo and immediately have a gut reaction to it, it’s because that photo evokes a particular mood. Black and white photos tend to evoke more dreary, stoic, somber or other negatively associated moods, while color photos lend opportunity for cheery, brighter moods. That’s not to say you can’t have sad images in color or happy images in black and white, but it is a general rule of thumb to control your viewers’ initial instincts about your work. Even within color spectrums, you can imply certain moods. A blue color palette may remind the viewer of the cold or loneliness winter, while warm tones can evoke happier emotions. It all really depends on the subject that you are shooting.
- Does color matter? As stated previously, if the relationships between hues within your subject actually matter, then you’ll want to stick to shooting in color. Oftentimes the objective of color photography is to show the beauty of a subject, whereas black and white uses a subject to tease out a particular emotion from the viewer.
At the end of the day, black and white and color photography have their own uses to achieve desired effects. It depends entirely on the objective of your photograph, the subject matter within the photo, and the preference of the photographer. Each artist decides for themselves what they wish to create within their own unique portfolio, whether they stick to one method or the other or change it up on a case-by-case basis.
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Black and white or color photography, which do you prefer? Tweet us and let us know!
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This article is intended for educational purposes only and does not replace independent professional judgment. Statements of fact and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) individually and, unless expressly stated to the contrary, are not the opinion or position of Tru Vue or its employees. Tru Vue does not endorse or approve, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, accuracy or completeness of the information presented.