It seemed that my university years were filled with little other than lectures, studying, term papers and exams. Having said that, I did secretly have one hobby. In my second year I had purchased a Minolta Autocord film camera. The downside of being an impoverished student was that I could only afford B&W film, B&W chemicals and B&W contact sheets. The square 2-1/4” by 2-1/4” images arranged tightly into rows and columns were my only way to later enjoy what I had shot. Even today, when I stumble on those old, faded sheets, I’m taken with the impact that they still have with the well-defined shapes, crisp detail, shadows and grey scale tones that color just didn’t seem to convey.
It was something like Bogie and Bacall beside Brad and Angelina.
What has remained constant throughout the intervening years is my continued love of B&W much to the disdain of my wife who once asked what possible interest I could have in such a bygone medium.
This forced me to think deep and hard.
Why did color images often overpower my senses and leave me feeling artistically uninspired as if I were being asked to, without question or reserve, embrace one single visual experience to the exclusion, or at least subordination, of all the others?
For both of our sakes, let’s hope the following reasons explain away some of the mystery of why B&W works:
- When our main subject has significantly interesting and well-defined visual attributes other than color that we wish to do credit to.The primary interest of our subject isn’t derived from color, but more from qualities such as texture, surface, shape, form, repetition, contrast, etc., and these attributes are so essential in defining and describing our subject or scene that the addition of color isn’t considered necessary.
- When the main subject itself doesn’t have any significant color.When the subject has little or no color attributes itself then black and white is often the logical option.
- When the surrounding field upon which our main subject sits will, by its own color, diminish the visual impact of our main subject.In this case, rather than have the subject and the subject’s message diminished by the strength of the field (foreground and/or background) on which it’s sitting, black and white may offer another logical option by leveling the playing field into grey tones.
- When the photographer’s overall historical context/message might conflict with, or is inappropriate to, the use of color.Images that historically would have been captured in B&W often are assigned greater, more relevant impact when they are re-created in monochrome. A sub-category of this would be the use of sepia-tone to simulate images that would have been processed using a tintype, daguerreotypes or other similar pre-film photographic processes.
- For dramatic effect as in Low Key (portrait) portrait photography.Often B&W will be used to enhance a sense of drama, facial characterization and/or emphasis on the human form.
Photography Life also goes into much more detail on black and white photography here, but I hope the thoughts above help inspire you to take some monochromatic pictures yourself.
This article has been contributed by Tom Cooper. Tom is a member in good standing of Professional Photographers of Canada. For a decade he taught digital cameras, digital photography, digital photo-editing and digital file management at Okanagan College’s Kelowna, BC campus. He currently teaches the Digital Photography Certificate Program at Red Deer College, Red Deer, Alberta. Tom and his wife reside in Kelowna, BC, Canada.
© 2018 by T. W. Cooper All images and content are the property of the author. All rights reserved.