Are you thinking about doing black and white photography, but you’re not sure whether it’s worth taking the plunge? Or are you simply wondering why so many famous photographers have preferred black and white over color?
You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I’m going to explain what I love about black and white photography – and why you can love B&W, too. I’ll talk about black and white composition, mood, and more, plus I’ll share plenty of examples so you can see exactly what I mean.
By the time you’ve finished, hopefully you’ll know the answer to the key question: why black and white? And if I’ve done my job right, you’ll be ready to embark on a black and white project of your own.
Let’s get started.
1. Black and white helps you see differently
If you research old photography masters such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, you’ll notice they photographed primarily in black and white. Now, part of this had to do with technical limitations of the time. Until the 1930s, color photography was tough to produce. Yet even once Kodachrome, a color film, was invented, plenty of photographers stuck to black and white, simply because they preferred it to color.
Why? One reason is that black and white presents interesting creative problems. The world looks different in black and white, which means that you can think about tone, texture, and light in new ways. In fact, when you remove color, the emphasis of an image naturally shifts to other compositional elements.
For some photographers, this can feel freeing; you’re no longer stuck thinking constantly about color but can instead focus on the more fundamental aspects of photography: tone and light.
As you’re probably aware, not all great color images will translate well to black and white. But the inverse is also true: certain images that look great and black and white won’t look good in color, which means that you’ll have a whole new set of photo opportunities to contemplate.
Ultimately, this emphasis on tone and light over colorful hues will help you see the world differently – and may even result in a brand-new photographic style.
2. Black and white eliminates distractions
The world in color is great, but sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming.
Specifically, there are plenty of distractions that exist in color that simply disappear when converted to black and white.
For instance, a rainbow shirt in a color portrait may draw the eye, but is essentially unnoticeable in B&W. And a distracting red rock in the foreground of a seascape might turn a nice neutral gray following a black and white conversion.
Plus, color itself can take away emphasis on contrast, texture, lighting, shape, and form. If you’re photographing a weathered man with a face full of wrinkles, black and white will highlight the texture of the wrinkles, the intensity of the man’s age. Whereas color will simply distract the viewer and prevent them from seeing what the photo is all about.
Black and white can also eliminate distracting color casts that would otherwise subtly shift the viewer’s attention away from what matters.
3. Black and white offers increased creative choice
Since the world is in color, it is safe to say that color photography is more realistic and descriptive. A color photo depicts the world as it really is – whereas black and white photos only show a version of reality, one that seems more interpretive and creative.
In a sense, this can help you break free from certain restraints. Without color, you don’t have to show the world as it is; instead, you can show what you see, which might involve unusual relationships, interesting shadows, beautiful textures, and so on.
Ultimately, when you take away color, you remove what your viewer is used to seeing. Suddenly, you have to capture the viewer’s attention without the help of color – which also means that you’re free to have fun, experiment, and show the world in a completely new, creative way.
So in a way, black and white forces you to think, but it makes you more creative in the process.
4. Black and white adds emotion and mood
Take a look at the black and white photos I’ve shared throughout this article. Do they evoke mood? Do they make you feel something?
Personally, I think black and white photos almost always create a wonderful mood – or in cases where the mood is already present, the B&W conversion makes it even more intense.
Why does black and white photography go hand in hand with moodiness? I’m not completely sure, but something about tonal range, rich blacks, and deep contrast just appeals to us psychologically. It creates an emotional connection, and it makes you stop, look around, and pay attention.
Of course, not all photos need to emphasize a somber, dramatic mood. Sometimes, moodiness is not what a photographer is going for, and that’s okay.
But in cases where moodiness can enhance the shot, try shooting in black and white.
5. Black and white photography feels timeless
Here’s a common reason why photographers shoot in black and white:
It adds a timelessness to your images.
For one, black and white photography has existed since the beginnings of photography, which means that a black and white image cannot instantly be dated. Also, color schemes change over time, especially in clothing, business logos, cars, and architecture. Therefore, a color image will often include datable elements – but in black and white, these features may be much harder to place.
Personally, I feel that black and white photos seem to transcend reality. Look at the image below. Can you tell when it was taken? Is it a recent shot? Is it from 50 years ago? Or does it exist outside of time?
That’s the power of black and white!
Bonus tip: Use your camera to see the world in black and white
For black and white beginners, one skill is more difficult than all the rest:
Seeing in black and white. In other words, many beginner black and white shooters struggle to imagine the world of color translated into a monochromatic photo.
Back in the days of film, you had to develop your ability to see in black and white through trial and error. You’d take a handful of shots, send in the film for processing, see how the images turned out, and repeat.
But thanks to modern electronic viewfinder technology, you can literally see in black and white. Simply switch your camera over to its monochromatic mode, then watch as the world is transformed into blacks, whites, and grays.
If you don’t have an electronic viewfinder, that’s okay, too; you can always use Live View to see the world in black and white, or you can use the LCD preview to check on your photos.
So the next time you’re out shooting, try it! I guarantee it’ll make things easier.
Note: If you shoot in RAW and set your camera to its Monochrome setting, you will see a black and white preview on the LCD (and you may see a black and white scene through the viewfinder). But you will still have all the color data available in the RAW file at the post-processing stage. This gives you the best of both worlds – a quick black and white preview plus the ability to revert back to color later on!
This is a problem, because if you don’t know how a scene will look when photographed, you may miss outstanding opportunities (and many of the photos that you do take won’t look so great).