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Some of the most famous, most powerful photographs in the history of photography are black and white. Why is that? Why do photographers today, who have access to incredible color imaging technology, sometimes choose to shoot in black and white, and why do viewers sometimes respond so strongly to black-and-white images? Why is the most expensive photograph ever sold a black-and-white image? Given that we spend our days living in a color world, how is it that black-and- white images even make sense to us? At the simplest level, shooting in black and white is sometimes a better choice than shooting in color because sometimes color is too much information, and so as seen, simply looks better in black and white.
Color can be distracting. In a black-and-white image, the world is reduced purely to tone, to light and shadow, brightness and darkness. The black-and-white world is a world of pure luminosity. As a black-and-white photographer, your visual vocabulary simplifies to form shape, texture, volume, highlight, and shadow. Black-and-white shooting is photography stripped down to only brightness. So why should color in a photo be distracting, if we spend our days living in a color world? If color doesn't distract us when we're walking around our real lives, why could it distract us in a photo? Because photos are abstractions.
Photos may look realistic, but they don't look real. No photo actually looks like what the scene actually looks like if you are standing in it, and I don't mean because Photoshop lets us alter things. I mean because our eye can see more color and dynamic range than any camera can. It can also see a wider field of view. But most importantly, no single sense operates entirely on its own. When you're standing in a scene, your visual sense is informed by what you hear and smell and feel, both feel on your body and feel emotionally.
These things all serve to guide your attention and influence your perception of your visual sense. Now, this may all sound obvious or fruity or academic, but it's a very important thing as a photographer to understand that you can't just point a camera somewhere and expect to capture what ever it is that you find compelling as you actually stand there. Your job is to take that full sensory experience that you are having and represent it in the form, the abstract form of a small, flat image on the piece of paper.
When we look at a photo, we are always interpreting that abstracted representational image into some idea of reality. This is why, if we strip the color out of it, a photo can still make sense. Our visual system is already taking a big leap to make sense of a photo, whether there is color in it or not. Black and white is a further abstraction, and it is my personal opinion that the more abstract an image is, the more engaging it is for the viewer. If an image is more abstract, the viewer has to do more in their head to make sense of it, to finish the image, and in that process of finishing, the viewer often becomes more involved with the image, and therefore often has a stronger reaction to it emotionally than when handed a full-color, more literal image.
This is why black and white can be so powerful. But there are some other factors. After 150 years of black-and-white photography, we have certain associations with black-and-white images. We have a visual vocabulary that makes us often see black-and-white images as atmospheric or evocative. Stripped of color, a scene in black and white can feel more timeless, and we shouldn't ignore the fact that our eyes are largely black-and-white devices. Only 2% of the light-sensitive part of your eyes is for viewing color.
Our eyes love contrast, and they drink it up easily, making them ideal for viewing black-and-white images. Black and white is not inherently better than color, but for some images it is a better choice. The ability to shoot well in black and white gives you another tool in your photo toolbox and the more tools you have at your disposal, the better the chances are that you'll be able to represent a scene in a way that conveys whatever it was that you were feeling when you were standing there looking at it. And an understanding of black-and-white photography will open up an entirely new world of subject matter.
As your black-and-white skills improve, you'll begin to see interesting photos and places that would be boring when considered in color. Finally, if you are a beginning photographer, I would argue that black-and-white shooting is a better place to start than color. Color is hard. It can clutter your image. It can carry emotional content of its own. So I would suggest that given everything else you have to learn when you're starting out, why not simplify things by removing color from the equation entirely and setting it aside for later study. And we will be doing just that after the next lesson.
I say after because, believe it or not, to understand black and white, you've got to have a good foundation in some basic color theory.
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