Black and white photography is a weird animal, a bag full of contradictions. It’s historically at the core of photography. Colour became an option only long, long after. In the tradition of photography, monochrome has been the norm for a long time.
Yet, photography is often associated with a link to reality. Black and white actually strips away an important element of reality. Reality isn’t black and white, after all.
Also, the long history of black and white photos also shaped expectations. Viewers expect a certain look and feel to monochrome photos, which limits your creative freedom as photographer. Yet, the lack of colour also adds some creative freedom. The photo is a step disconnected from reality, so viewers are a little less likely to expect your image to correspond with what they saw.
The strange relationship between reality (or the expectation of reality), and photography is a great subject in itself. All I mean to say here, is that reducing colour to greyscales creates a level of abstraction and non-reality in a photo. This can be good, or bad, depends on what the photo was meant to say.
So, most viewers see black and white as typical for photography. And most viewers expect a link between reality and the photo. And those two are somewhat mutually exclusive. Now what?
Probably the key point: photography ultimately has little to do with reality. A photo is an object in itself. A photo of your grandmother is not your grandmother. It’s a photo.
And yes, black and white is something typical for photography. So in between these mutual exclusive expectations of the viewers, one makes sense. Let’s go with that one.
How does this matter?
If you’re making photos, these points may not be all that important to you. You make a photo, and either it works, or it doesn’t. You convert a photo to black and white, and now it works, or it still doesn’t. The freedom of processing photos afterwards give that flexibility, and that is nice. Certainly with tools like the Nik Silver Efex filter, you can get very good-looking black and white images, if the base photo lends itself well for black and white.
This is a pretty common way of coming to black and white. There is not a lot wrong with that, but it does make black and white photography a bit the recycle bin of colour photos. If the colours don’t work, go black and white. And that is massively unfair to the older monchrome brother. And using filters, or presets, also disconnect you from understanding properly how some of these styles work, and why they work.
The choice between colour or monochrome should be a conscious choice. Ideally one that is part of your idea (as photographer) of what the end result should be. So, yes, when the camera goes click, you already know whether it’s going to keep colours, or not. The easiest way to force that, is shooting black and white film, since that completely removes the choice. In this sense, the flexibility and choice that post-processing gives is also an enemy. Using a preset filter does not push you to previsualise for yourself what your final result should be, nor does it push you to learn that. And it is a skill worth working on.
Well, obviously I like black and white photography, a lot in fact. As a viewer, I feel often black and white photos trigger my fantasy more, give me more story-telling and focus (more abstraction, less distraction). As a photographer, black and white help me express what I hope to express.
It also can help give a sense of timelessness. Colour photography has a tendency to fashionable looks – like the bold, rich look of Kodachrome and Velvia, or the washed-out look of Polaroids. The faded-to-brown/red look that is sold as “60s/70s photography”. Black and white also has such styles, but more functional: rich tonality, low grain landscapes, or high contrast, high grain low light photos. Balanced medium grey documentary and journalism work, high-key or low-key portraits.
Often I like this timelessness because it further removes the photo from reality, and lets the photo be its own thing.
I started shooting film as a step to learn better pre-visualise, but as I got deeper into it, I also got more appreciation for the specific styles and constraints that film bring – relationships between tonality, overall contrast, grain and apparent sharpness, and colour filters and contrasts. And yes, those styles just mentioned above are all result of these contraints. These constraints helped me understand why some looks/styles do look natural, and others not. That in turn helped improve the skills for converting digital images to black and white, and come to more convincing results.
Cliché….less is more
The lack of colour gives more abstraction. The abstraction help the more graphic nature of an image, and/or draw more attention to action, expression, the subject of the photo. It is really less being more. Strong colours will grab the attention of the viewer. You can use that to great benefit, but it can also put the focus of the viewers where you don’t want it.
Seeing tonality in colour images can be really difficult if there are bold saturated colours like deep reds, or bright greens. They overpower the subtler, less saturated colours easily. With monochrome images, tonality has a completely different effect on the viewer – it helps shaping forms, create a sense of depth and helps guiding the eye around from dark to light. Which again helps making a composition work the way you want to.
I’m not advocating that you need to pick up a film camera, and rolls of Tri-X, HP5, Fomapan 100 and so on, to get a grip on black and white. But do dive into the history, the technique behind it. Go out one day to make only B&W photos, not allowing yourself any choice afterwards. Learn what makes black and white work, and what not. Appreciate it for what it is, and not just for the fact that it does away with pesky colours. Because it’s so much more than that.