Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Black & White OR Color

Ultimately it's a personal decision that is complex and subjective.  Overall, it circles back to your original intent and pre-visualization of the image well before you click the shutter.  During the film era a photographer had to clearly decide beforehand since it required a mechanical insertion of either B&W or color film.  But today, you take the original digital capture in color that can easily be converted into B&W in post-processing.  So the benefit of digital is that you can have both a B&W and color image without much fuss at all.  Unfortunately this luxury of having it both ways, presents a challenge to some because you now may have to literally decide which is it going to be...B&W or color OR both?  Some photographers have a strong specialization (either B&W or color) and if you're lucky the image decides for you.  Regardless of your situation, the best approach is perhaps a simple question of "what am I trying to say with this image?"

  • Is there an emotional connection I want the viewer to experience?  Which emotion?
  • Can I use color as a compositional element that adds value to the image?
  • Does the juxtaposition of color add to the composition and balance of the image?
  • Which provides the best visual impact and narrative?
  • Do I want to keep it simple, classic, and/or one with drama?

In addition to personal intent, there are probably some basics that one should consider when confronted with the decision of Color vs B&W.

  • You can use the hues, tones, and shades of color to tell a visual story
  • Provides a strong point of visual interest
  • Grabs your attention with a richer dynamic range
  • Allows you to direct the viewer's focus by highlighting elements in an image by smart use of color wheel theories and juxtaposition of colors


  • Traditionally conveys emotion better; especially mood, grit, danger or subjects that are bleak, nostalgic, or vintage in nature
  • Encourages your mind to really focus and experience a deeper level of seeing without the distraction of color
  • Offers reduced complexity that emphasizes subject matter
  • Best with compositional elements of form, shape, line, shadows and highlights
  • Popular axiom..."when you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes, but when you photograph people in B&W you "photograph their souls"

Final thought....if you can't decide make two versions; one B&W and one color.  Display them side-by-side on your monitor or as actual prints.  Take a moment (better yet several days of looking at them), to digest the image, then let your gut make the decision.  You'll feel it in your bones, even in your soul.

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