Black and White Photography

July 30, 2014

If you look through my galleries, you will find a proportionately high number of black and white photos.  Not all my favorite photos are monochrome, and at the moment all the macro photos on this site are in color, but one of the most frequent comments I hear from people viewing my portfolio is "Wow, you take a lot of black and white photos."  I don't think this is a compliment, although it isn't a criticism either.  I just think that people are genuinely surprised to see such a high number of monochrome photos from a self-described travel photographer.  In fact, when I saw the number of black and white shots in my landscape and architecture galleries, even I was surprised.


Eiffel Tower at Night"Beacon"Tier Three:
12x18 - 5/10 available

Artist's Proof - 2/2 available


To read more about this photo, visit my blog post.

(Click to see on black  ::  Link to gallery page)


So, why is this? Why do I take so many monochrome photos, and why do people seem surprised when they see how many I have?


This is not an easy answer, and I think that some of the reasons behind the first question are actually a bit disappointing.  For example, I think that a major reason that many of my photos are monochrome is because the colors in the photo are simply weak.  Here's how the above photo looks in color:



You may like this photo better than the first, and there is nothing wrong with that, but to my eyes, the colors in this version are unacceptable.  The orange cloud no longer looks as if it is part of the blue beacon, and the sky has a veil of orange that is almost uncorrectable in software.  I even think that the city lights are an unappealing color, and as a whole there is very little I can do for any of this in post-processing.  Thus, I made the photo black and white, solving my color issues completely.


Another reason I photograph in monochrome so often is because it makes it more obvious that the photo is fine art.  This sounds like a weak reason, and it probably is, but there is no denying that most fine art photos are black and white, whereas most snapshots are in color.  For some of my photos, it is immediately obvious that they are intended as art rather than snapshots, whether they are in color or not.  However, for others (especially my earlier images), it would be very possible to overlook the color version of a photo as nothing more than a souvenir of my travels.  The photos below illustrate this point:


"The Road Ahead""The Road Ahead"Tier Four:
12x18 - 10/10 available


(Click to see on black  ::  Link to gallery page)



The color version of this photo simply is not as artistic as the monochrome version.  Unlike with the Eiffel Tower example, there is nothing I dislike about the colors in the second version of this photo; it just does not look as unique and artistic in color as it does in monochrome.


Another reason that I love black and white photography, this one more "traditional," is that monochrome photos are, by definition, simpler than their color counterparts.  Although many great photographers died before the existence of high-quality color photography, some modern masters work primarily in monochrome despite a plethora of color options.  Bruce Barnbaum, for instance, is one of my favorite photographers, and the vast majority of his best work is in black and white.  This is, I believe, due to the simplicity that monochrome brings to his images. 


In all the best photos, everything in the frame adds to the meaning of the photograph.  This applies to the photo's color as well, which either adds to a photo or takes away from it.  There are very few photos which are equally strong both with and without color.  For example, in the second photo below, I believe that the color is very strong.  Unlike with the previous two color photos in this article, I would have no issues putting the second photo on my website how it is.  However, though the color version is pleasing, I don't believe that the colors add to my intent with this photo: to show how an elm tree in Yosemite has a similar form to the world-famous Half Dome in the background.  In fact, since the tree and Half Dome are different colors, I believe that color subtly detracts from the frame.  In my opinion, though, this is a much more subtle difference than with the other examples.


"Half Dome Echoes an Elm""Half Dome Echoes an Elm"Tier Four:
12x18 - 10/10 available


(Click to see on black  ::  Link to gallery page)



An experienced landscape photographer would perhaps be able to tell that the second photo, though taken relatively near "golden hour" (sunrise, in this case) was not taken quite at the ideal time of day.  The morning's golden light has begun to fade, and deep shadows are starting to become slightly harsher.  Though this is not the primary reason that I prefer the color version, it is true that the monochrome image is able to hide the time of day better than the color photo.  If you are ever unable to make it to a location at the perfect time of day, monochrome photos do a good job of hiding it.  Obviously this is not a perfect cure, but it certainly helps.


(Note that a final, commonly mentioned reason for taking monochrome images is to give the photo "a sense of timelessness."  I guess that's true, just because a color photo would not have been common before the 1930s or 40s, but I personally don't care how long ago my photos could have been taken.  Unless you add a lot of grain to your photos and simulate film's imperfections digitally, it will be easy to tell a rough date when a photo was taken, whether or not it is in color.  And before I forget, it's painfully obvious what century "vintage" camera phone filters are from, simply because the filters are always the same and the effects are massively over-exaggerated.  Not to mention all the expensive, hip, modern things in these photos in the first place!)


So, although you may not agree with all my reasons, you can hopefully see now why I like black and white photography so much.  I believe that it eliminates issues with false color, helps to emphasize the artistic nature of a photo, and is able to simplify elements in the frame.  Sometimes, though, a photo may just look better in monochrome simply because it does; there is no magical, definitive process I go through to see which photos I convert to black and white.  


So, then, why are people always surprised when they see how many monochrome images I have?  I may be wrong, but  I think it all boils down to the uniqueness of such photos.  When people look through someone's photos, it's usually a set of vacation snapshots, all in color.  Typically, even when people look through a professional photographer's portfolio, many of the photos are in color as well.  On the other hand, viewers are mostly used to seeing monochrome images in one of three settings: old photos, phone photos, and maternity photos : ).  Thus, if you can show people a portfolio of high-quality travel photos in black and white, they will probably be surprised.  Even if they express this without much of a compliment ("Wow, you sure take a lot of black and white photos"), they still will look through your portfolio with a different eye.  Therefore, not only does black and white photography help out with photo quality itself, but monochrome images can make you stand out from the crowd. 


(Click to see on black  ::  Link to gallery page)

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