Black and White or Colour?

Ok, this isn’t going to be easy to resolve but I’ll try to make a few valid points. For commercial work I shoot almost exclusively colour – for my own projects I shoot 99% black and white. Commercial work doesn’t really factor into this discussion as it’s about accurately recording the clients requirements, displaying an event, place, product or person in a way that reflects what they really look like. The black and white or colour debate is when 100% of the creative decision making is in my own hands, what then do I choose to shoot?

For me, the decision was made many years ago, iconic photography from great photographers like Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Fan Ho and Robert Frank were admittedly only shot black and white as it was the only option available to them at the time but that meant their creativity and attention was focussed on storytelling, on forms and shapes, on composition and on capturing a creative, artists vision of their subjects. Would their most revered and famous work have been improved by being in colour, I don’t think so, do you?

I’ve debated this point with other photographers and their argument is often that colour is how we see life, therefore colour is how we should shoot – period. The secondary argument is often that technology has evolved, colour is available to us so we should be using what’s available, this is possibly the weakest argument as many technological advances are available to us but we shouldn’t shoot everything with 360 degree cameras for example, simply as they're available to us.

Taking pictures should be about creating meaningful images, telling stories, recording moments, capturing memories, it should be about creating art. Does a photo being black and white automatically make it art, absolutely not, does turning an unsuccessful or poor quality colour photo into black and white, suddenly make it a good, successful or in any way artistic image – of course not, but for me it forces my focus on the composition, the story, the shapes and forms, the elements that I personally find important.

With current post production techniques, seeing a colour image is in no way a guarantee that the colours are an accurate rendition of what the photographer was pointing their camera at anyway, colours are enhanced, filtered and otherwise manipulated. We’re almost never seeing them in their original state, therefore the argument that ‘colour is how we see the world’ is somewhat redundant too, we’re not seeing an accurate record of the colours present at the time of the shot, even in an ‘as shot’ example, something as simple as the camera’s colour temperature settings, changed how the colours were recorded and consequently, how the final, theoretically ‘unedited’ image now looks.

When shooting film, I always shoot Kodak TriX 400 which is a classic black and white stock. When shooting digital however, I always shoot RAW but depending on the camera body, I always turn my viewfinder (if it’s an EVF) to black and white and any LCD live previews and JPGs to black and white too. I think this helps my shooting as it filters out all distractions, it’s very easy to be blinded, distracted by a dominant colour but a monochromatic image forces me to look for composition, interesting geometry and pleasing shapes.

You’ll often hear photographers talk about the ‘quality of light’ and it’s something I’m perpetually hunting for myself, great quality of light but it’s never the colour of the light that’s interesting, it’s how diffused, how dappled, how harsh or how soft the light is, definitely not its colour.

The sample image below is colour for a somewhat obvious and important reason, how meaningless it would be in black and white, but that’s the point right there isn’t it?, this is a lazy photograph, made only vaguely interesting by the colour, the story is weak. Once the viewer has acknowledged ‘oh look, three yellow convertibles in a row’, the image is over, there’s nothing left to discover, no greater interest or depth, its use of colour is a crutch for an otherwise dull shot – this to me is why black and white is and always will be, so important and my personal choice for my own work.