Why do photographers sometimes shoot in black and white? Why choose black and white over colour? What is it about black and white that is so special? Is black and white street photography better than colour? Is black and white easier?
Many questions but hardly possible to formulate a correct answer for the simple fact that tastes and opinions vary from one individual to another.
So instead of force feeding you one opinion, we thought of asking no less than six international street photographers for their views on the subject.
1. Life isn’t black and white, what do you think makes black and white so special?
It can definitely be said that black and white sets the mood and atmosphere. I find the variety of tones equally as complex as colour. It's not just black and white, it's a wide tonal range in-between which in the best work out there is managed to the highest level. Sadly there is also a lot of poorly processed black and white where photographers have gone over the top with upping the contrast, at the same time destroying that subtlety and variety of tones between black at one end and white at the other.
First of all, black and white is special, because it offers a fundamentally different visual perception of life. In case your photoreceptor cells aren’t completely dysfunctional, it’s exciting! If that wasn’t enough, you are simply holding a different pen when you are writing your photographic stories. The lack of colors and reduction to shades of black and white instantly underlines the depths of a photo - as long as it has depth. Third, black and white helps to highlight certain elements of your visual language such as textures, structures, shadows and light. Besides that, it shifts the focus to natural contrasts, which is one of the most important aspects of any great photo or painting. One more reason to to love black and white is that it helps to understand the incredible power of reduction in photography.
My work is not entirely in black-and-white. Although I tend to 'see' that way, there are subjects that are all about color. I love the timeless quality of black-and-white, the high contrast, the mystery. B&W works particularly well in night time street photography.
Sometimes the choice of black-and-white is purely strategic. As street photographers our job is to move quickly and remove distracting elements from the frame by positioning ourselves accordingly. There are times when a colorful elements cannot be removed from your background by framing differently. The use of black-and-white will remove that color distraction and bring your eyes back to the main subject.
The choice of black-and-white often makes stronger images when your subject is a silhouette or a strong shadow. Facial expressions, in a crowd for example, also stand out more in B&W.
- Because life is not black & white, therefore it's something special
- Because a black & white photograph is being reduced to content, structure and emotions
- Because there are too many distracting colours in the world today
- I don't like most of the coloured photographs, although I sometimes see matching colours on the street
- For me it's easier to shoot black and white on the street
- I got my first own camera when I was about 6 years old. It was a cheap plastic camera that I got out of a lucky bag. This was in the 70's where B&W film was cheaper than color film and my mom gave me a roll of B&W film to play with. So my first photographic memory is that a photo turns out in B&W. And my brain must have been wired into "photo = B&W" back then.
- In photography we are trying to capture a 3 dimensional scene onto a 2 dimensional medium. Thus reducing the amount of (often unnecessary) information in an image helps me to let the viewer better understand what it was that I found striking in that scene when I pushed the trigger. I try to point to the main subject in my images by controlling depth of field, light and shadows. Color is an extra layer that I often find too distracting for my style of work and story telling.
- I have a simple rule that I use in order to choose if I shoot B&W or color. I always start out with my image being B&W (see 1.). But if I feel that color could add some important information that is needed to tell the story in that scene, I will choose color. My amount of color work is probably only about 5% in recent years.
- Photographing in B&W makes me aware of details and things, that would often get overlooked in color.
- I still shoot and develop my own film and I really enjoy the B&W process. The color develop process just never appealed to me. Color rolls go straight to the lab, if I ever shoot color. But that makes me less attached to those images, too.
- It helps to focus more on composition
- More possibilities to work with high contrast in your photo, for example shadows works better in black and white than in color
- There is a great quote from Ted Grant with which I agree absolutely: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
- Colors can be distracting in some images and take the focus away from the main subject
- More power to tell a story with an black & white photo
2. Does the fact that black and white simplifies the amount of information our brain needs to process a photo explain why a majority of street photographers tend to favour it? In the same way that we naturally favour information via photos over text if given a choice?
I thought about that reading the other day an article on visual stimulation for newborns. How newborns can develop better vision through being surrounded by black and white instead of pastel colors. It's an interesting article well worth a read and I think it may somehow link to at least one hidden reason we favour black and white photography.
I think there is basically 3 types of street photographers that shoot black and white. Some only choose black and white if they have the feeling that the story of the moment is better told that way. If not, they simply do it in color. Usually they already have a feeling while they take the shot or figure it out during post-processing. Others only shoot in black and white. They simply love and feel it so much that they devote all their attention to perfecting that visual language to make it part of their signature. But there is also a third kind that reflects slightly less about their choice. They simply shoot black and white, because they either think it lends more depth to their photos, street photography has to be black and white and it makes it easier to take artsy shots. At the end of the day, your reasoning doesn’t matter. As long as you take photos where your pour all your eye, heart and soul into, you are creating something wonderful.
The choice of black-and-white may indeed be a more minimalist approach to street photography. Removing the busyness of color in order to simplify the scene.
Yes, this is exactly why I prefer black & white. There is one level less information to process. And basically we are not distracted by colours. I strongly believe that a black & white photograph is easier to be processed by the human eye than a coloured photograph.
B&W does simplify by taking out the color information, but it does also help me focusing on the essence or soul of the subject or scene. Let's take a B&W portrait for example. With the skin, hair and eye color removed from an image I focus much more on the emotional status of that image/person. I read more out of the look in the eyes or try to find a storie about the wrinkles and if they may i.e. be caused by hardship in that persons life. It is like dropping a color curtain and gaining acces to a little bit of the persons soul. I hardly ever have a feeling remotely as strong when I look at a color photo. B&W is similar to an emotional snapshot of the soul for me.
I agree that a b&w photo simplifies the amount of information and that’s the reason for the last point before, that there is more power to tell a story.
Assumed the photo is well composed.
3. Is colour possibly harder to shoot as it requires a lot more care in managing busy compositions?
I think colour is definitely hard to manage. Black and white can for some (I didn't say it is for everyone) be the lazy option. Afterall, it's a common thing as a beginner to convert to black and white a photo that would otherwise not really give anything. Having said that, the more you shoot black and white (I never convert, I shoot straight away in B&W) the more you discover its depth and learning to shoot great Vs average black and white photos takes time and practice.
Yes, color is definitely more difficult. I’m not saying that black and white is way easier, but the natural reduction to shades of grey instead of an incredibly wide range of colors certainly removes another element you have to focus on in the heat of the moment. However, taking great black and white photos is incredibly challenging, too! If you are seeing colors as an element instead of simply shooting in colors, you are facing a though, but highly rewarding challenge. Ideally you play with the colors in your moment. You use a red jacket as an eye-catcher, embrace the whole range of colors in your photo while remaining focus on your subject or you create a gradient. There are just so many ways to explore the concept of color. Accept the challenge and you’ll reap the colourful fruits of your labor soon!
Not necessarily. Those decisions are usually made before you press the shutter (unless you only shoot in color or B&W, and many photographers do.) If the color doesn't add anything to the story you want to tell, then the choice of B&W is obvious. Color can be overpowering, even if it is beautiful.
Yes, color is more difficult to shoot. But the hardest part is composition and content in general, no matter if you shoot in b&w or colour. In black & white you only have to manage contrasts and brightness, but not different colours. So there is less things to care about.
I would not say that color is harder to shoot. You may have to work harder in mixed light situations to get a well balanced image if that is your intention. Color can even be easier if it helps to point out your main subject better. Some shots just don't work in B&W. And B&W can be tough as you have to watch out more for your gradience and distracting bright objects overpowering your main subject than with color.
For me it’s harder to shoot, because there are tons of different color tones that should match in a good photo.
4. Is it possible that we (sometimes subconsciously) choose to shoot in black and white as we try to emulate the past masters of photography having been conditioned to associate black and white with past masters?
I think it's maybe something you do as a beginner, but as you shoot more and more it becomes a conscious decision, a choice which has an intended end result. You shoot with a purpose deciding when a shot will work in black & white and when a shot will work in colour.
I’m sure that a lot of people assume street photography is supposed to be in black and white. Who could blame them when most of the iconic shots we know are not in color. Although contemporary street photographers may use the work of past masters as inspiration and source of knowledge, it also involves the danger of creating dogmas as your question already insinuates. I’m pretty sure that if you had the chance to ask all the past masters of street photography, they’d love to see innovation and fresh creative approaches to the genre they dedicated their life to.
Again, this probably has to do with the timeless quality of black-and-white but yes, I believe that we have all been influenced by the work of the masters.
No, for me this is not the reason. I also live quite "colorless". My apartment is furnished in black & white and often my decisions are in the same two colors. :-)
I have been influenced by growing up with B&W photos and even B&W TV when I was young. Sometimes there is a reason why something in the past already worked very well. I think that if B&W and color film were invented and readily available at the same time, there would still have been many "old masters" that would have chosen to shoot in B&W just like some of us still do today. It's similar with the currently so called "retro camera movement". It's not a fashion trend to me but rather a reflection or a return to understanding what is really needed in a camera to take a photo without having the camera stand in the way between you and your image. Aperture control and manual focus at the lens, shuttertime dial on top and, as a gift from the digital age, an easy to adjust ISO dial is all one needs to take a photo. All these extra buttons and features of modern cameras are pure distraction between me and the subject that I want to capture.
That’s not the reason for me shooting in black and white, but it’s right that B&W gives the photo always a little classic touch.
What do you prefer shooting? What are your thoughts on the reasons we decide to shoot in black and white or in colour? Let us know, leave a comment.
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