Why Black and White Photography? - Digital Photography School
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Why Black and White Photography?

Black-And-White-1One of the questions I’m being asked about more and more lately is about Black and White Digital Photography.

As I said yesterday in the post announcing our Black and White Assignment it seems as though Black and White images are making something of a comeback of late as digital camera owners rediscover the beauty of mono images.

If the big response to the assignment is anything to go by readers of this blog LOVE black and white photography too (I’ve used a few of the images submitted in the assignment on this post to whet your appetite).

I have a few friends who are into Black and White photography and I asked them what it was that attracted them to it. Here are a few of their reasons for getting a little obsessed with Black and White:

Black-WhiteVersatility

“I love that it’s a format that suits almost any type of photography. Portraits, landscapes, urban landscapes, architecture. Not only that, it’s a medium that adapts really well to all lighting situations. Whereas color photography often works best on sunny days or in brightly lit studios – low light just makes a black and white image moody.’ – Sol

No Distractions

“I find that colors can be terribly distracting in some images and can take the focus away from your subject. I do portrait work and find that taking the color out of an image lets the subject speak for themselves. Its raw, it’s stripped back, it’s honest and it allows you to show the true person.” – Shane

Subtlety of Tones

“I love the subtlety of tones that black and white images can have. In a world that often boasts about how many millions of colors a TV or monitor is able to produce – I love that in ‘Mono’ there is such a variety of what can be achieved in a photo. Black and White sounds so boring – but the fact is that there are so many shades in between – I love the challenge of bringing them all out in an image!” – Jim

Black-And-White-2

Variety

“I find the creative process with black and white images is so… artistic. It’s like molding clay – you can shape it into a myriad of shapes. Black and White images can be strong, high contrast and powerful – or they can be so soft, gentle and subtle.” – Belle

Of course the black and white vs color debate is a very personal one. For every person I ask who loves shooting mono there are others who much prefer the vibrancy of color photography.

Which do you prefer – Black and White or Color?

What do you like about your preference? Have you experimented much with Black and White digital photography? Interested to hear your thoughts in comments below.

UPDATE: Learn more about Black and White Photography with our new Essential Guide to Black and White Photography.

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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+.

  • James

    I personally love black and white photography, people that aren’t photographers or know how to manipulate photographs in photoshop that well see them as being boring. You can add tones and tonal ranges to black and whites just like color, its just utilized in a different way. Also, some people have a better eye for color than they do black and white. Someone below stated they didn’t like the third image in black and white. I don’t either, but not because it’s in black and white but the editing is wrong. If it was edited in a different way it would be more striking and the person who made this comment would probably have reacted to it in a different way. I think black and white is a little more challenging because you don’t have colors or anything to fall back on. It’s all about composition and have you’re utilizing space and the subject itself, if you’re not good at that or spotting that out than you’ll have difficulty understanding the “purpose” of black and whites. I personally think ALMOST almost everything looks better in black and white.

  • Emily Taylor

    I love black and white. It’s how the photography part of my brain works. Shooting color comes out bad for me because when I imagine a shot in my head, or imagine what I want my shot to look like or when I’m composing my mind always sees the images in black white.

  • Sofia

    I love Black and White Photography! Check out the new and awesome B&W Photo Community http://www.hotshoe.org :)

  • http://www.pixpa.com/ Sarakshi

    I personally like colours in my photographs and I totally agree with MakMaker’s point

    ‘if realy the black and white photos shows the truth, is that mean every thing we see is fake? because we see in colors.’

    Nonetheless, the post helped me broaden my views on the black and white Photography genre.

  • Joyce Ann

    I like both. That’s why I take pictures in color so that I can change it to black and white later and it can be one, the other, or both!

Some older comments

  • Steve Ayres

    September 15, 2013 07:28 pm

    I agree black and white works in some cases. But looking at the third photo I I thought 'what a waste'. The colour of the model's eyes, her skin and hair, the contrast of the knitwear...a breath-taking imagine is now merely interesting.

  • Robert Godbolt

    January 25, 2013 06:23 pm

    Black & white causes an admirer to see the entire image. There is no color distraction. Sometimes Black and White and Colour both create and equal but opposite impact! Also checkout my monochrome photography portfolio here http://www.platonicmoviez.com/monochrome-photography-platonic-moviez/

  • MakMaker

    May 14, 2012 11:12 am

    If realy the black and white photos shows the truth, is that mean every thing we see is fake? because we see in colors.
    I just agree that the black and white is just an artistic effect, it's like the the slow motion and the speed motion effects in the videography field.
    We find this effects beautiful simple because our eyes can't do it, it's new thing for our eyes.
    If we had a black and white vision we would find colored photos extremely beautiful.

  • James

    May 12, 2012 11:00 am

    I really don't get the fascination with black and white photography. Personally, I think it's boring (most of the time). Color adds another dimension to the photo, it adds life, interest, and mood. Black and white is good for high contrast or abstract photos, but I really don't like the people that use it for EVERYTHING.

  • Maurice

    March 30, 2012 12:36 pm

    When I first got into serious photography, we mixed our own chemistry from scratch - didn't have cans to just add water... My mentor always told me 'if you can't make it good, make it in colour'... I still favour tjhe classical black and white...

  • Danielle C

    March 19, 2012 08:54 am

    I am a true fan of black and white photography and i just love it! its elegant and powerful and can tell a totally different story if you looked at the same picture in color. I shoot in color and convert to high contrast mono.

  • Danny G.

    February 4, 2012 10:56 pm

    I love black and white photography. When I was learning how to shoot with a 35mm SLR in the late 1960's, I shot primarily in b&w. Many experts say that shooting in b&w helps you learn composition. Perhaps that is true.

  • Sarah Treanor

    January 26, 2012 04:50 am

    I love both B&W and color photography, however it seems that most of my photos tend to always end up looking their strongest in B&W. Which has always seemed curious to me, since I don't really plan for my photos to be B&W while shooting! I suppose it is my love of high contrasts and bold design elements that just lends my images to live best as B&W =)

  • Tim

    November 5, 2011 10:32 pm

    I use Black and white a huge amount in my 3D design on pc and it does give a beautiful result , I also use it in my photography where I can.

  • Aum Kleem

    August 22, 2011 01:49 pm

    I prefer shooting in black and white but lately have been introduced to the concept of floral art in black and white ...
    Wonderful article. I tried this image ... a yellow sunflower in black and white.... it seemed to have lovely shades of grey...

  • Clive Sinclair

    May 10, 2011 05:36 pm

    Colour and B&W both have places in photography. I do however disagree with advocates of B&W saying colour is distracting. If colour distracting either taking a photograph or after it has been taken, then is the subject 'strong enough', or is it composed well?

    I do believe it is harder to create a good B&W photograph than a colour one. After all most of us 'see' in colour.

  • Harry Joseph

    March 12, 2010 04:11 am

    I scanned some color film pictures that were shot with Kodak Supra and I was amazed by the tonality of the picures. They came out way better than what ever came out straight of my camera using the Monochrome feature. Even better than color digital pictures that were manipulated for hours using photoshop(although I'm not an expert).

  • Ashley

    October 9, 2009 08:18 am

    I prefer shooting pictures and converting them to black and white. Black and white pictures are so beautiful to me. They are flawless. A color picture shows everything that a person sometimes wants to hide. Black and white is pure, soft and speaks in a way that color can't. I do enjoy black and white photography with a splash of color. I personally enjoy little baby girls, tucking a bright colorful orange or yellow flower behind their ear and bringing it to color while the rest of the photo i take down to just black and white. It turns out amazing.

  • marie

    October 1, 2008 11:52 pm

    black & white and monochrome images add a dreamlike and timeless quality to them, its like walking around in another world. it leaves so much to the imagination- if the photo subject is a person with light coloured eyes, you have to imagine- are they green or blue? is the hair light red or blonde? black or brown? what shade of lipstick is that? what shade of green are those trees or how blue is that water? sepia-toned and antiqued images lend much of the same questions. and to me, that is the measure of a powerful photograph- to leave you guessing.

  • Mr Bach

    April 5, 2008 08:27 pm

    I shot mostly B&W when using film, and that's continued in the digital era. Perhaps the one overwhelming reason to shoot mono, is you don't have to worry about white balance.

    B&W can be enhanced with an IR filter, and the Minolta A1 allows me to change the contrast and color tone, with sepia being an all-time favorite.

    If you think B&W is boring, take a look at the photos of Ansel Adams.

  • Phillip A Jones

    October 28, 2007 05:04 pm

    My 2 Zone Technique in Theory.
    *Based on the concept of visual change in negative exposure of one stop ( a factor 2x). This change in tone is referred to as a zone in Black and White photography. Most prints contain about 9 zones. The 18 % reflectance gray card responds to zone V (5). In the Munsell system of color notation, middle value of 5 has a reflectance of approximately 18 %.
    *I print all of my Black and White Photos in the range of zone 3 to zone 8, it give me 5 zones to Hand color in the final print. Only the neutral colors ( Blacks , Grays, and Whites), have no hue and zero chroma.
    *In my Prints I add color to predetermined points of interest in the fore ground , middle ground, and back ground. I will also add colors to the bottom, in the middle and on the top of each print. This enhances the third dimension and gives the print some what of a fourth dimension. The colors have a tendency to levitate and float.
    *I use only color film to create my Black and White Photo Art. Color films have three layers and Black and White Film have only two layers. I find that color films record the true mood of each scene as it really is. Reds are red, blues are blue, and greens are green.
    Black and white films records the tones and not the hues and the chroma of each scene as it exist. I use my color prints to aide in my color balancing process Hand tinting each black and white print.
    *I have a simple formula that I created, to achieve my color balance and color contrast of each final print. The foreground = A, middle = B, back = C. The bottom = 1, middle = 2, and top = 3. I can place my hues of color in one of the cubes to create unimaginable illusions of Grandeur.

  • Phillip A Jones

    October 28, 2007 05:01 pm

    *I want to bring Hand Tinting back in the main stream. Since we have our computers and high tech soft ware we fail to realize that computer generated imagery or photos are not the same as in the past. The reason is, that the computer lacks Zone "A" and Zone "B". Its merely a copy. All computer generated photos or prints will oxidize or fade. The sole purpose of making Photographs are to record and document historical events. Archiving Photos that are computer generated defeats this goal. In museums you will only find Black and White Photos, they know that any other type of print won't last long enough to achieve their objective.
    *When we look back in the early 1800's we see images that were produced that still exist today. What if our Great masters used pixels to record there Art. They would have never dreamed of wasting there time and effort to gain fame by employing methods other than the Classical techniques to create their Art. When history is written, those who have negatives and Hand developed Prints will have works of Arts that will be priceless.
    *The Great masters such Van Goghs, Picasso's, Rembrandts, Cezanne's, Seraut's, El greco,s, Constables, Botticellis, Angelico's and Bounnarroti's would not exist today as we know them if they had used digital assisted soft ware to create their works of Art. I have over 50,000 images and over 90,000 negatives In my Photo Archives.
    Photo Art has been around in the main stream for quite some time. No one has change or improved on what George Eastman, Joeseph Niepce, Giovanni Battista, Thomas Wedgwood and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre attempted . The computer can never allow any one the freedom that gives you the ability to capture an image as on sees it. Ansel Adams was the last person to that gave us a new set of rules and technique.
    *I have develop a "2" Zone that takes his ideas and the other great Photographers of the past and improve how we see and reproduce our Photos.
    Don't miss out, if you can have the luck of buying a old Photo of the past, you will own tomorrows Picassos' Van Goghs' or even an Rembrandt.
    *The only worth while investment in todays Art Market will be a Hand Tinted Photograph. The other Great works of Art merely exchange owners and becomes more expensive in the process.

  • Adam

    October 28, 2007 08:25 am

    i realy enjoy black and white because it gives u a better feel and a mellow town to any picture. it is calming to look at at and is more appealing to the eye because with color its hard to focas on the main subject because there are brighter colors behind.

  • Phillip A jones

    September 12, 2007 04:55 pm

    I specialize in Hand Tinting Black and White Photos the "Classic way", using my own 2 zone technique to create my Black and White Photo Art. My Photo Art is original and signed. Never computer aided in any way. I have been in the field over 25 years. My blog, http://my.opera.com/Phillip%20A%20Jones/blog/
    Thanks Artfully yours Pacco J Pompei

  • Ernani Bezerra

    April 10, 2007 05:29 am

    I like both, but for portraits I like more BW. I really don´t know why. I guess, BW show beter the details of the skin, the eyes, the person itself.

  • Mary Ann

    March 28, 2007 02:37 am

    shane thinks black and white photos are good because they show the realness in tone and shadows while color only works well on sunny days. He says black and white photos bring out the real person and the quality in the shots.

  • mediaphile

    February 24, 2007 04:38 pm

    It should be noted that De-saturation is not Black and White Photography, and the results of both are strikingly dissimilar.

  • Ben

    February 24, 2007 12:19 am

    bdspector.deviantart.com

    some great b&w photos there

  • Anton Stocker

    February 20, 2007 02:18 am

    I pretty much exclusively do black & white photography now - I find it focuses you on technique with less distraction.

  • Peter Emmett

    February 19, 2007 04:33 pm

    Since I've been using RAW on my Canon 30D I find myself looking into B&W more and more. However I seem to be need a mental and visual shift in my approach to photography as my images so far are most about colour rather than texture, feeling or emotions - where B&W photography seems to excel.

  • Christine

    February 19, 2007 01:50 pm

    I took a course in photography in University of Arizona in the 80's. I spent many glorious nights in the darkroom honing my craft in black and white, sometimes smelling like a darkroom if I wore flannel. Black and white and color are two different ways of seeing, and I love the challenge of both. Black and white teach you about light and challenges me to look beyond what is in front of me, but what I want to really convey. Color has its place and that is also challenging. What is challenging for me is switching from black and white to color and vice versa.

  • Nicolas Duarte

    February 17, 2007 01:45 pm

    I have to agree with the statement that color tends to often distract from some of the main points of some photos, however I see absoloutly no reason to actually shoot in black and white digitally, you can always change that later (echoing what has already been stated in these comments). It's one thing to see a photo and think "Gee, wouldn't that look better in greyscale" rather than "Crud, I should have gotten those colors in there."

    Other than that, black and white really helps to emphasize the differences between light and dark, which tends to be the main times that I use it now (well besides fixing horribly lost white balances and noise/grain issues)

  • sil

    February 16, 2007 06:49 pm

    After being a big fan of color photography, I have recently re-discovered the beauty of B&W. I convert from color using PS plug-ins like BW Styler pro. You can see examples on my photoblog. BTW, I keep another color photoblog because I'm actually in love with both kinds of photography :)

  • Andy

    February 16, 2007 05:04 pm

    I'd really appreciate a tip. I love black and white, but I shoot digital and don't want to use an inkjet printer. Is it possible to make digital photographic prints that have a quality the stands up next to prints made in darkrooms? For example, would you say lower contrast prints look as good on a lightjet printer? Or slightly tinted prints look just as good printed digitally? If not, then I think I should focus on mastering color as long as I'm shooting digital. Thanks in advance for your insights.

  • pj

    February 16, 2007 01:40 pm

    sometimes, i convert my grainy colored pictures to B&W to save my photos.. i use B&W as an escape if my color photo is not that vibrant... i guess i am cheating a little bit..

  • Lois Brodsky

    February 16, 2007 12:10 pm

    Dan - How do you change your color photo to B&W on Photoshop? I have used remove color, but that leaves a cast color on the black & white.
    Thanks,
    Lois

  • Kris

    February 16, 2007 07:09 am

    Hello! Fellow blogger here and you have some great tips! I was wondering if you knew of any fine art photographers around? I like nature like paintings.

    thanks

  • Olga

    February 16, 2007 07:08 am

    I do photograph most in color. Frankly speaking, I am not good at black and white photography, but i do enjoy immensely b&w photos. I think that monochrome photos are better at expressing mood of an image. They often make photos look gloomy a bit, which appeals to the viewer.

  • Rick Coscarelli

    February 16, 2007 06:51 am

    I think that many abandoned (especially those of use over 50) black and white because color is so easily to produce via either digital or darkroom.

    When we only could afford a black and white darkroom, we were always envious of color, which was somewhat out of our reach.

    Not anymore!

    However, I sense that after taking over 8,000 color digital photos, I am thinking hard about dabbling again in B&W.

  • Eric

    February 16, 2007 06:02 am

    I've always been a bigger fan of color than black and white, but that's just a personal preference. There are many times that I'll see a terrific image and wish the colors were there.

    Perhaps that's just because black and white photographs are harder to do well, so I see less of them that really stand out as being awesome. You need to be a lot more observant of tone, contrast, and light when you're shooting black and white. Most b&w images - especially amateur ones on Flickr - are just too flat.

    On the other hand, I've salvaged a number of pictures by converting them to black and white - mostly because it hides the fact that I can't shoot skin worth a damn :). It's great for shooting portraits because the color of human skin is just so uneven on its own.

    What I've found myself doing lately is if I think an image makes a good black and white, I'll put up both versions and see which one people like better.

  • Miles

    February 16, 2007 05:14 am

    Great article, I use B+W almost always (sometimes very badly ;)).

    Keep up the awesome work with this blog.

  • Andrea

    February 16, 2007 04:37 am

    B&W and color each have their own uses; each make their own mood. Sometimes one creates a bigger impact, sometimes the other. And sometimes they both create and equal but opposite impact!

    Hooray for photography! heehee

  • Paul

    February 16, 2007 04:26 am

    I personally prefer colour to black & white but I love colour in everything, from photography to clothing, to decorations. I think black & white can look absolutely amazing but I sometimes tire of seeing B&W photos on plain white walls in otherwise beautifully decorated homes.

    Interestingly Flickr shows 373,000 photos with a search for 'colour' and 491,000 with a search for "B&W"! Read into that what you will...

    I have flirted with B&W at times (see my photo-stream) and quite like the results though, so perhaps i'm over-stating my preference for colour?

  • Jeremy

    February 16, 2007 03:21 am

    I love black and white as an option. I don't stick to one or the other necessarily, it is the situation and the particular photo that often dictates whether b&w is the best fit. I usually show my clients b&w options so they can see what kind of artistic options are available. Often I find b&w can save an otherwise "lost" image in color too.

    @Dan
    I always shoot in color and use post processing in Photoshop for b&w options. You have far more versatility in your processing options in Photoshop versus what your camera may do.

  • KagoGrl

    February 16, 2007 03:17 am

    I've always been a fan of b&w - you can do so much just by adjusting the contrast. But there will always be situations where b&w just doesn't stand up to colour, and vice versa.

    To answer Dan (and this is just my own opinion) I prefer to shoot in colour and then play with turning my shots into b&w afterwords. That may be because I'm not skilled a "seeing" in b&w but I think it's more because I like to have the option to pick which photos look best in b&w.

    Cheers!

  • landon

    February 16, 2007 03:12 am

    Dan - I've found that you only lose soemthign if you're using software that degrades your image (like when I was using the Gimp). I now use Lightzone (which I can't recommend highly enough!) so I don't have that kind of problem.

    I'm a black and white guy 85% of the time. After reading Ansel's books on the zone system and realizing I can "pre-visualize" right on my LCD screen, it's so easy to see what your shots will come out like and adjust accordingly. And if I want to switch it to color because the b/w won't read right - no sweat.

  • Dan

    February 16, 2007 02:54 am

    Question -- with a digital camera, is it just as good to take the shot in color, and then do the post-processing to convert to black and white? Or do you lost something going about it that way?

    Thanks!

  • Samad Khan

    February 16, 2007 02:15 am

    Becuase it can turn a fairly dull and flat looking colored image into something wonderfully contrasty and full of life.

  • Saralonde

    February 16, 2007 01:41 am

    I've always had a fondness for b&w. The mood you can create, the subtleness, the shadows... I'm quite impressed with the variety and creativity of the b&w on the forum.

  • Deborah

    February 16, 2007 01:22 am

    Black & white causes an admirer to see the entire image. There is no color distraction. Most of the excitement with b&w is still in the darkroom, where one can finish the creation. Digital has made its way into the B&W field with the use of digital printers as well that can produce some fantastic prints. B&W is a mood, or can be.

  • Ashish

    February 16, 2007 12:59 am

    Oh.. Its the first photo by the way

  • Ashish

    February 16, 2007 12:58 am

    Wow.. I was pleasantly surprised to see the picture that I had submitted in the latest assignment on the main blog page!! Guess I must have done something right in the photo.

  • Taavi

    February 16, 2007 12:27 am

    I shoot both, but mainly colour. I have to say, that 70% of shots look better in black and white. Yet, I love colours and it seems such a waste, when desaturating the colour image.

    Black and white shots are more forgiving in post processing. I don't like high contrast colour shots, but bw is fine.

    There are three shots on display in this article - 1) colour and bw, both would do; 2) I would have left this in colour; 3) perfect in bw. So, 50-50 in my case.

  • Jackie

    February 16, 2007 12:27 am

    I am a headshot photogapher for beginning actors, and Bl/Wh shots always give the best results of what a person really looks like. Color is very nice & now becoming more popular in the entertainment industry, but Bl/Wh brings out people's features like no other medium. As an actress AND photographer, I still prefer the Bl/Wh headshot...one is not focussing on the colors that can change with hair dye, colored contacts, make up, etc.... Bl/Wh Photography=Honesty, personality, flexibility, absolute beauty.

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