Brace yourself because here it comes…it’s another discussion about black and white photography. Don’t worry, it’s not going to be the same old “which is better?” or even worse, another “how to convert your photos to black and white” type of articles. Admittedly, I have written on both of those subjects extensively before but this time will be a little different.
Today, we’re going to strip down the idea of black and white photography and attempt to locate how this tried and true area of photography has managed to maintain its status in an arguably over saturated(pun intended) world of photographic modernism.
Monochrome and the Film Difference
It’s not secret that the black and white side of photo work is deeply rooted in film. Still, even though it makes for a solid title for this section, the term “monochrome” has been somehow mismanaged to the point where it is widely considered synonymous with black and white. This is wrong. Monochrome means “one color” or essentially an image made of shades of only one color. This color could be anything from black, yellow, red or pink. Grayscale might actually be a more appropriate term for true black and white. Even then the lines become somewhat blurred because it’s incredibly difficult to completely abolish all color toning from a black and white film negative. Take a look at these images of a 4×5 black and white negative(complete with film borders)and I’ll show you what I mean.
The first photo is a color rendition of the negative. You’ll notice that is is toned quite blue based on the development. This is due to a few factors but the point is virtually all black and white photographs aren’t exactly black and white. Rather, they are toned based on the type of film emulsion and the development techniques used. Now, look at that same piece of film after I have digitally converted it to black and white in Lightroom.
See the difference? I say all of that to say this: modern digital photography often paints a one dimensional representation of black and white images. True black and white photographs aren’t usually black and white at all or not even monochromatic. Instead, they are a carefully mapped presentation of tonal ranges. Remember this the next time you click a button to make your photo black and white. Sure, it might remove the color but the work shouldn’t stop there.
Speaking of color…
Is Color Necessary?
Yes, color is needed. Is it always needed? Absolutely not. There are times when a photo is suited to black and white and times when it is not. Well, who decides? That question is also deceptively simple to answer. It’s you, you’re the one who decides. Does the color play a role in the emotion or feeling you mean to convey or does it get in the way? These are most certainly murky waters to wade.
Today, we don’t even have to approach color or black and white photography the same way as we did thirty or even twenty years ago. Take the very site you’re reading this article on right now. LifePixel specializes in infrared converted cameras that brings the world of color into a new realm of creative exchange. Infrared cameras see light differently than our own eyes. As a result, completely familiar colors become foreign and black and white pictures take on a completely new feel. When you think about color and how it relates to photography you must understand that even the things we see are wholly subjective to our own perception.
Some Closing Thoughts…
If you haven’t been able to tell by now the purpose of this article isn’t to promote the merits of one type of photo over another. There’s plenty of room even now for both color and black and white photography. In fact, a lot of it comes down to personal taste and how we perceive the world around us. At the same time, remember to look deeper into your work and find what gives it meaning to you. Does color play a part? Does it make more of a connection in black and white? Whatever direction you choose just make sure that the original intent of the photo shines through.