Why Black & White? Or Color?
Long ago, shortly after dinosaurs roamed the earth but before D became a standard part of the abbreviation SLR, photographers had to make a choice before they started shooting: color or black and white? The answer determined what kind of film you would use, and you were stuck with that for at least 24 frames.
Yes, you could easily convert a color negative to black-and-white in the darkroom. But if you really wanted black-and-white, you really wanted the texture of films like Kodak Tri-X that were dedicated to that look. And for color, you could not beat the saturation of films like Kodachrome and Fuji’s Fujichrome and Velvia – ahhh … he drifts off reflecting on some oceanfront images from the early 1990s.
Fast forward 20 years, and most of us make the black-and-white or color choice – or desaturated looks that are very hip these days – after the shooting is done. And I love that freedom and flexibility to say, “Hey, what would black-and-white do for this image?” or “What if we bump the saturation a little bit?” I really have found I tend to like one or the other – bright colors or beautiful B&W.
But when do you use which look, particularly when photographing people? I focused on that earlier this summer when editing Amy and Dave’s wedding photos. I had been pretty steadily dropping a number of images from each setting into black-and-white, and then I hit the bridesmaids – the bridesmaids in their beautiful blue dresses with bright yellow bouquets held together with bright pink ribbons.
What could possibly be gained from transferring those images into black and white? They were all about beautiful, colorful women. I think I gave the saturation a little nudge up. That was it.
So, what persuades me to go the other way? Any number of factors and questions.
- How important is the color?
- Are there forms I want to emphasize here?
- Is there a story that will come into starker focus?
- Are there effects in black and white that will enhance this picture?
For instance, last week I was shooting senior portraits of Will, and there were some urban shots that I thought gained a little character from the grayscale and a dash of grain (OK, noise).
Thinking about this takes me back to an image of Ben and Elizabeth’s wedding from last spring. It was a tight shot of them between “You may now kiss the bride” and the kiss. I remember having that photo up on my monitor and liking it. Then I hit shift-ctrl-alt-b and I really liked it. The black and white seemed to accent Elizabeth’s classic look, particularly the vintage dress she wore. But what’s more – and I think this is why photojournalists have such a romance for black-and-white photography – it put the emphasis on the story of the image.
The No. 1 factor in choosing how to present an image is instinct. But it’s good to sit back and think about what’s driving that instinct.
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