DISCUSS: When you Photograph People in Black and White, you Photograph their Souls - Digital Photography School

DISCUSS: When you Photograph People in Black and White, you Photograph their Souls

NewImageCanadian photojournalist – Ted Grant – is quoted as saying:

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

This quote often comes to mind when talking about portraiture and I thought it might make an interesting discussion starter.

Do Ted’s words resonate with you?

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://www.guigphotography.com Guigphotography

    Perhaps it’s as simple as having less distraction in black and white and the same can be said for objects. That said, you don’t necessarily get less “soul” with a colour shot either. B&W tends to be simpler and often more dramatic (though the one I’ve attached is literally dramatic). I guess his words do resonate with me but for practical reasons on this occasion.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8057168807/in/photostream

  • Dave

    I disagree with this statement for the exact opposite reason. The only way to truly capture a persons essence is to capture everything about them.

    The colours in a persons life are part of them. The choice of a persons clothes, for instances, says a lot about them. To throw part of that information is to throw away part of that person.

  • sumphotons

    I agree with @Guigphotography – I think it’s more about removing distractions and focusing on the story to convey. Would Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl have been more effective in black and white? Debatable! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_Girl

  • Jeanine Di Matteo

    I think it’s getting to the basic story the picture is trying to convey. You certainly can show the same bond in color but black and white keeps it simple and to the point. Here’s my example. Not a typical portrait but a story
    http://flip.it/73lcL

  • http://www.daedalus-v.de/english Ronald D. Vogel

    Well, I quite often try to desaturate my portraits to complete monochrom.
    Afterwards I realise that a little bit of color makes them more vivid:

    http://www.daedalus-v.de/english

    Ronald

  • roy

    I tend to agree. While color is certainly something that we all perceive when we interact with the people around us, removing the color can often focus our perceptions on factors beyond the purely visual aspect. I dont necessarily believe one “style” is “better” than the other, but I personally have experienced the power of the B&W image, that perhaps “strips” the conventional perception of a subject, and allows one to see a different, and sometimes deeper connection with a subject.
    Of course its not a universal truth for all photography or subjects,, but it has the capacity to reach into a different presentation of a subject, and can have an impact by removing a “conventional” expectation, and exposing something beyond what a viewer may assume or expect, than simply exploring “photo-realism”.

    Many of the greatest photographs of all time have been B&W, whether by necessity, because of technology of the time, or by concious decision, to “pare down” the Image, and try to show something beyond casual or “conventional” perception.
    “Afghan girl” (as another used to rebutte the concept) would certainly not have had the impact, were it not for the impression of color, so one cannot say that color images cannot portray the subject with the power of B&W. In many cases the color can be just as, or even more important to convey the image.

    But in many cases, I at least, find that B&W can be used to cut through conventional perceptions and convey a deeper perception, by removing what we expect to see, and portraying something beyond simply visual, and instead, something more emotional or introspective..

    In the end it depends much on what you as a photographer see and wish to convey in your image. And there are no wrong answers necessarily. Its a tool that I for one believe, is exceptionally useful and powerful to a photographer, to present a subject, in a unique perspective and one that has the capacity to bring more to an image in many circumstances.

    So yeah, I’m for it :-)

  • Danny

    Much has to do with the goal of the photographer and the story he/she is trying to tell

    When I go back and look at much of Gordon Parks work, I just can’t imagine getting the same feelings had he opted for color.

  • http://www.bestphotoscanning.com tim

    Black & white can create a mood that is different than the same shot in color. It really depends on the composition. If there’s too much extraneous detail, it dilutes the focal point of the image, whether it’s b&w or color. In the case of a portrait, you need to minimize such things anyway, and keep the attention on the subject, preferably the eyes..the windows to the soul.

  • Don Rogers

    It’s about the art of the photographer connecting with the soul of the subject. If the connection is made, the image can be a reveleation of a soul’s qualities in either B&W or color.

  • Peter

    B&W photography is for people who haven’t learnt to master light.
    B&W photography is for people that are colour blind.
    You have to be much more exact with colour, get it wrong, convert it to B&W, call it art.
    Why do most street photographers print their work in B&W, is it for the above reasons.
    People claim that B&W photography is more dramatic, yet why do you want a dramatic portrait, unless it’s a picture of an axe murderer.

  • Gerald Thomas

    I agree with Ted Grant, B&W photos speak to me in ways that color photos just don’t , I can’t explain just why so their must be something spiritual about it..

  • ScottC

    They do resonate, I can’t explain it but B&W brings out something very different…..

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4557804773/

  • Gerald Thomas

    I agree with that statement because Black and white photos speak to me in ways that color photos just can’t, I can’t explain the reason, so their must be something spiritual about it.

  • PBradshaw

    Peter, that is a very bold statement that you are making and obviously your personal opinion. I find that attacking others skills by claiming that we haven’t learned to master color yet is very rude and unprofessional. It is fine to have different opinions, after all we are all very different and our tastes vary from viewer to viewer. I do like color photographs but I believe that black and white has it’s purpose other than what Peter claims it has. I agree with the statement some of the others share. To me, black and white captures something beyond what we can see in color. Call it essence, soul, whatever. Sometimes the real object is hidden by color and black and white helps to capture the pure emotion of the scene. This includes street photography as well. Photography is very subjective, as it shows with Peter’s statement. What one person sees as trash, another will see art. Could you imagine if photography was only allowed if one followed a set of strict standards? How boring that would be.

  • JacksonG

    Well Peter your closed mind approach will never take you to the next level. Most photographers I know are more concerned with lighting while shooting B+W than color. I don’t know what street photographers you look at but you should check out James Maher. James uses B+W and color and he definitely understands lighting.

  • http://www.tomcollinsphotography.com Tom Collins

    Peter, your statement that “B&W photography is for people who haven’t learnt to master light.” is interesting. Photographers such as Dorothea Lang, Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Capa and Ansel Adams, just to name a few, could all have something to “learnt” from you. Perhaps they were all “colour blind” and couldn’t get their shots right so they thought “convert it to B&W, call it art”. Amazing insight you have there Peter.

  • Bob Harley

    for me color is more emotional, b&w is more cerebral. capturing a person’s essence/soul is a matter of when you take the picture.

  • Peter

    Colour is out there, it’s all around us, it fills every corner of our lives. Embrace it, take your head out of the sand, don’t pretend it’s not there.

  • JackieG

    “Colour is out there, it’s all around us, it fills every corner of our lives. ”

    Exactly, Peter, and that’s one of the best things about B&W in my opinion. It allows you to look at things in a way you cannot do in real life.

  • Julie

    Despite weather or not we prefer black and white over color it is the customer that counts. It amazes me how many people still do not like having photos done in black and white. One lady was offended when the photographer offered both. In her opinion she was paying for modern color photos. So never assume! ;).

  • Sheila

    I agree. the difference between colour and B&W is colour is there you get what you see. Take that same picture and make it B&W and you now have a depth of character you did not have previously before. the eyes pop, or the wrinkles show up more exposing what’s really in that person; their character.

    http://quwicken.smugmug.com/Other/Food-glorious-food/i-DNz4Cn5/0/X2/Susie%20B%26W-X2.jpg

  • Payton

    Photography in all aspects is about light. Black and white or color if you haven’t mastered it in color then you haven’t mastered in in black and white. Having learned to shoot in B&W I have to disagree whole heartedly with Peter. If you didn’t understand lighting and how to read your meter and then factor in things like snow that may throw off your meter reading then you would spend hours waving your hand under an enlarger trying to burn in a sky or even out a blown out part of a pale face. So trust me after a few long weeks, months, years ect. You understood light.

    I do prefer b&w maybe because I learned it that way, I don’t know, but I do prefer it. I shoot mostly color now because digital is far easier and places that process Tmax film in my town have pretty much all shut down. So pretty much what I’m getting at is Peter your comment is way off the mark to imply that shooting b&w is due to a lack in skill is crazy.

  • jla

    “We all can shoot the same thing, but how you see it is up to you”. B&W is good for something that you might want to say, as well as color can also show the same thing based on what you are shooting. Is a NBA game better in color or B&W? I would say color looks better because of the action of the game, it still can be done in B&W. When we take out our camera we something that we can freeze in time forever, but how you see it is up to you B&W or Color. B&W or Color is personal for you your own shots for your collections, but for the customer ask never assume! We are pro photographers no need to debate both B&W and Color is great!

  • Lee

    If colour can enhance the story, leave it in, otherwise use b&w…

  • warren

    Wow Peter. Did you really want to expose yourself as someone who knows absolutely nothing about photography?
    Because that is exactly what you have just done.

  • Peter Grifoni

    I’ve never really gotten the Black and White trend for portraits.
    It’s a hangover form the dark ages and In fact B&W images only came about due to a limitation in technology.
    I like colour!
    Rarely do i see an image that i think would look better in B&W and many times i see images that are B&W and they look flat, dull and with no emotion.
    Colour is life! (unless your colour blind )

  • Kathy

    I do agree. Black and white photography draws attention to the marks life has left on the subject — and these marks often translate their internal feelings like crow’s feet that reflect a life of laughter or deep seams around the mouth that reflect a life of discontent. Black and white strips away the distractions.

  • http://marmotridgefoto.net Frisinger

    Go Grifoni. YES.

  • http://www.rafaelmarquezphotography.com/ Rafael Marquez

    I find, occasionally, that ho hum color pictures really pop when you convert them to black and white. Of course, ymmv.

  • http://www.brianstewartphoto.com Brian Stewart

    To me, on many occasions, colour… just… gets in the way. With B&W there is less to distract from THE subject.

  • Akshat

    Something about black and white which impresses me most…no colors no shades everything black and white…all emotions as it is, in their truest form in their truest ‘colors’ —AK

  • http://www.fokkomuller.nl Fokko Muller

    This is a discussion you also hear very much regarding to street photography. In my opinion it’s depending on the skills of the photographer if he can show the soul of a person or the soul of ‘the street’. It has nothing to do with color or black and white.

  • Michael Hurley

    I would agree, there are times you see more with a b & w photo than you do with colour. For an experiment and the practice I was shooting self portraits yesterday. When I compaired the b & W next to the colour there was something more that I could see in the b & w.

  • http://poppyave.wordpress.com/ Destiny

    I find shooting portraits in B&W give it a timeless look…though color can make a shot more interesting. It really depends on what style you want the finished product to have and/or what the client wants.

  • http://www.bluewaterstudiosllc.com/ Emma Mercer

    I really don’t know much about photography but i admire and respect other people’s work. As for black and white over the colored ones, i prefer black and white pictures of people. I think there’s more character and depth.

  • Sandy

    PBradshaw: beautifully put. Peter’s comment is very offensive.

  • makesoundsnotlove

    This rings true for me. From a B&W stand point, there is only design to look at. Color is eliminated thus having us focus on the structure of someone, we read more into their messages on their faces and encapsulate a mood better. Color will always be about fun and reality but black and white, that is where the soul lays.

Some older comments

  • Sandy

    July 7, 2013 01:57 am

    PBradshaw: beautifully put. Peter's comment is very offensive.

  • Emma Mercer

    June 21, 2013 01:01 am

    I really don't know much about photography but i admire and respect other people's work. As for black and white over the colored ones, i prefer black and white pictures of people. I think there's more character and depth.

  • Destiny

    May 31, 2013 07:12 am

    I find shooting portraits in B&W give it a timeless look...though color can make a shot more interesting. It really depends on what style you want the finished product to have and/or what the client wants.

  • Michael Hurley

    May 30, 2013 11:42 pm

    I would agree, there are times you see more with a b & w photo than you do with colour. For an experiment and the practice I was shooting self portraits yesterday. When I compaired the b & W next to the colour there was something more that I could see in the b & w.

  • Fokko Muller

    May 30, 2013 11:31 pm

    This is a discussion you also hear very much regarding to street photography. In my opinion it's depending on the skills of the photographer if he can show the soul of a person or the soul of 'the street'. It has nothing to do with color or black and white.

  • Akshat

    May 26, 2013 01:48 pm

    Something about black and white which impresses me most...no colors no shades everything black and white...all emotions as it is, in their truest form in their truest 'colors' —AK

  • Brian Stewart

    May 25, 2013 08:24 pm

    To me, on many occasions, colour... just... gets in the way. With B&W there is less to distract from THE subject.

  • Rafael Marquez

    May 24, 2013 03:38 pm

    I find, occasionally, that ho hum color pictures really pop when you convert them to black and white. Of course, ymmv.

  • Frisinger

    May 24, 2013 12:12 pm

    Go Grifoni. YES.

  • Kathy

    May 24, 2013 09:59 am

    I do agree. Black and white photography draws attention to the marks life has left on the subject -- and these marks often translate their internal feelings like crow's feet that reflect a life of laughter or deep seams around the mouth that reflect a life of discontent. Black and white strips away the distractions.

  • Peter Grifoni

    May 24, 2013 09:55 am

    I've never really gotten the Black and White trend for portraits.
    It's a hangover form the dark ages and In fact B&W images only came about due to a limitation in technology.
    I like colour!
    Rarely do i see an image that i think would look better in B&W and many times i see images that are B&W and they look flat, dull and with no emotion.
    Colour is life! (unless your colour blind )

  • warren

    May 24, 2013 08:32 am

    Wow Peter. Did you really want to expose yourself as someone who knows absolutely nothing about photography?
    Because that is exactly what you have just done.

  • Lee

    May 24, 2013 08:22 am

    If colour can enhance the story, leave it in, otherwise use b&w...

  • jla

    May 24, 2013 12:59 am

    "We all can shoot the same thing, but how you see it is up to you". B&W is good for something that you might want to say, as well as color can also show the same thing based on what you are shooting. Is a NBA game better in color or B&W? I would say color looks better because of the action of the game, it still can be done in B&W. When we take out our camera we something that we can freeze in time forever, but how you see it is up to you B&W or Color. B&W or Color is personal for you your own shots for your collections, but for the customer ask never assume! We are pro photographers no need to debate both B&W and Color is great!

  • Payton

    May 24, 2013 12:44 am

    Photography in all aspects is about light. Black and white or color if you haven't mastered it in color then you haven't mastered in in black and white. Having learned to shoot in B&W I have to disagree whole heartedly with Peter. If you didn't understand lighting and how to read your meter and then factor in things like snow that may throw off your meter reading then you would spend hours waving your hand under an enlarger trying to burn in a sky or even out a blown out part of a pale face. So trust me after a few long weeks, months, years ect. You understood light.

    I do prefer b&w maybe because I learned it that way, I don't know, but I do prefer it. I shoot mostly color now because digital is far easier and places that process Tmax film in my town have pretty much all shut down. So pretty much what I'm getting at is Peter your comment is way off the mark to imply that shooting b&w is due to a lack in skill is crazy.

  • Sheila

    May 24, 2013 12:32 am

    I agree. the difference between colour and B&W is colour is there you get what you see. Take that same picture and make it B&W and you now have a depth of character you did not have previously before. the eyes pop, or the wrinkles show up more exposing what's really in that person; their character.

    http://quwicken.smugmug.com/Other/Food-glorious-food/i-DNz4Cn5/0/X2/Susie%20B%26W-X2.jpg

  • Julie

    May 24, 2013 12:03 am

    Despite weather or not we prefer black and white over color it is the customer that counts. It amazes me how many people still do not like having photos done in black and white. One lady was offended when the photographer offered both. In her opinion she was paying for modern color photos. So never assume! ;).

  • JackieG

    May 23, 2013 03:43 am

    "Colour is out there, it’s all around us, it fills every corner of our lives. "

    Exactly, Peter, and that's one of the best things about B&W in my opinion. It allows you to look at things in a way you cannot do in real life.

  • Peter

    May 22, 2013 06:47 pm

    Colour is out there, it's all around us, it fills every corner of our lives. Embrace it, take your head out of the sand, don't pretend it's not there.

  • Bob Harley

    May 22, 2013 02:31 pm

    for me color is more emotional, b&w is more cerebral. capturing a person's essence/soul is a matter of when you take the picture.

  • Tom Collins

    May 22, 2013 02:23 pm

    Peter, your statement that "B&W photography is for people who haven't learnt to master light." is interesting. Photographers such as Dorothea Lang, Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Capa and Ansel Adams, just to name a few, could all have something to "learnt" from you. Perhaps they were all "colour blind" and couldn't get their shots right so they thought "convert it to B&W, call it art". Amazing insight you have there Peter.

  • JacksonG

    May 22, 2013 11:02 am

    Well Peter your closed mind approach will never take you to the next level. Most photographers I know are more concerned with lighting while shooting B+W than color. I don't know what street photographers you look at but you should check out James Maher. James uses B+W and color and he definitely understands lighting.

  • PBradshaw

    May 22, 2013 10:52 am

    Peter, that is a very bold statement that you are making and obviously your personal opinion. I find that attacking others skills by claiming that we haven't learned to master color yet is very rude and unprofessional. It is fine to have different opinions, after all we are all very different and our tastes vary from viewer to viewer. I do like color photographs but I believe that black and white has it's purpose other than what Peter claims it has. I agree with the statement some of the others share. To me, black and white captures something beyond what we can see in color. Call it essence, soul, whatever. Sometimes the real object is hidden by color and black and white helps to capture the pure emotion of the scene. This includes street photography as well. Photography is very subjective, as it shows with Peter's statement. What one person sees as trash, another will see art. Could you imagine if photography was only allowed if one followed a set of strict standards? How boring that would be.

  • Gerald Thomas

    May 22, 2013 06:26 am

    I agree with that statement because Black and white photos speak to me in ways that color photos just can't, I can't explain the reason, so their must be something spiritual about it.

  • ScottC

    May 22, 2013 06:23 am

    They do resonate, I can't explain it but B&W brings out something very different.....

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4557804773/

  • Gerald Thomas

    May 22, 2013 06:22 am

    I agree with Ted Grant, B&W photos speak to me in ways that color photos just don't , I can't explain just why so their must be something spiritual about it..

  • Peter

    May 21, 2013 07:41 pm

    B&W photography is for people who haven't learnt to master light.
    B&W photography is for people that are colour blind.
    You have to be much more exact with colour, get it wrong, convert it to B&W, call it art.
    Why do most street photographers print their work in B&W, is it for the above reasons.
    People claim that B&W photography is more dramatic, yet why do you want a dramatic portrait, unless it's a picture of an axe murderer.

  • Don Rogers

    May 21, 2013 02:34 pm

    It's about the art of the photographer connecting with the soul of the subject. If the connection is made, the image can be a reveleation of a soul's qualities in either B&W or color.

  • tim

    May 21, 2013 02:30 pm

    Black & white can create a mood that is different than the same shot in color. It really depends on the composition. If there's too much extraneous detail, it dilutes the focal point of the image, whether it's b&w or color. In the case of a portrait, you need to minimize such things anyway, and keep the attention on the subject, preferably the eyes..the windows to the soul.

  • Danny

    May 21, 2013 01:37 pm

    Much has to do with the goal of the photographer and the story he/she is trying to tell

    When I go back and look at much of Gordon Parks work, I just can't imagine getting the same feelings had he opted for color.

  • roy

    May 21, 2013 11:50 am

    I tend to agree. While color is certainly something that we all perceive when we interact with the people around us, removing the color can often focus our perceptions on factors beyond the purely visual aspect. I dont necessarily believe one "style" is "better" than the other, but I personally have experienced the power of the B&W image, that perhaps "strips" the conventional perception of a subject, and allows one to see a different, and sometimes deeper connection with a subject.
    Of course its not a universal truth for all photography or subjects,, but it has the capacity to reach into a different presentation of a subject, and can have an impact by removing a "conventional" expectation, and exposing something beyond what a viewer may assume or expect, than simply exploring "photo-realism".

    Many of the greatest photographs of all time have been B&W, whether by necessity, because of technology of the time, or by concious decision, to "pare down" the Image, and try to show something beyond casual or "conventional" perception.
    "Afghan girl" (as another used to rebutte the concept) would certainly not have had the impact, were it not for the impression of color, so one cannot say that color images cannot portray the subject with the power of B&W. In many cases the color can be just as, or even more important to convey the image.

    But in many cases, I at least, find that B&W can be used to cut through conventional perceptions and convey a deeper perception, by removing what we expect to see, and portraying something beyond simply visual, and instead, something more emotional or introspective..

    In the end it depends much on what you as a photographer see and wish to convey in your image. And there are no wrong answers necessarily. Its a tool that I for one believe, is exceptionally useful and powerful to a photographer, to present a subject, in a unique perspective and one that has the capacity to bring more to an image in many circumstances.

    So yeah, I'm for it :-)

  • Ronald D. Vogel

    May 21, 2013 09:59 am

    Well, I quite often try to desaturate my portraits to complete monochrom.
    Afterwards I realise that a little bit of color makes them more vivid:

    http://www.daedalus-v.de/english

    Ronald

  • Jeanine Di Matteo

    May 21, 2013 06:56 am

    I think it's getting to the basic story the picture is trying to convey. You certainly can show the same bond in color but black and white keeps it simple and to the point. Here's my example. Not a typical portrait but a story
    http://flip.it/73lcL

  • sumphotons

    May 21, 2013 06:11 am

    I agree with @Guigphotography - I think it's more about removing distractions and focusing on the story to convey. Would Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl have been more effective in black and white? Debatable! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_Girl

  • Dave

    May 21, 2013 05:09 am

    I disagree with this statement for the exact opposite reason. The only way to truly capture a persons essence is to capture everything about them.

    The colours in a persons life are part of them. The choice of a persons clothes, for instances, says a lot about them. To throw part of that information is to throw away part of that person.

  • Guigphotography

    May 21, 2013 04:23 am

    Perhaps it's as simple as having less distraction in black and white and the same can be said for objects. That said, you don't necessarily get less "soul" with a colour shot either. B&W tends to be simpler and often more dramatic (though the one I've attached is literally dramatic). I guess his words do resonate with me but for practical reasons on this occasion.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8057168807/in/photostream

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