Digital black and white has opened up a whole new range of imagery that anyone can use, and is at least partly responsible for a new surge of interest in this, the most traditional form of photography. It’s hardly surprising that with all this choice — not just the many different ways in which you can turn a colour image into monochrome, but doing so in the first place — there’s an even more pressing need to have your own good creative reasons.
It’s ironic that for well over a century, most photographers wanted colour but in practice had to work in black and white, and yet when it did become an easy reality, in the form of Kodachrome and other films, colour was actually rejected by a whole movement, mainly in the art world in the 1970s, as being too pretty. More recently, there’s been a surge of interest among photographers who grew up with digital colour in re-discovering the appeals of black and white imagery. Black and white is now more fashionable than ever before.
Digital may have made all this easy, but the appeals of black and white run deeper. At its most basic, black and white has the compelling advantage of being one step removed from reality. That can be a significant advantage if you’re aiming to make imagery that’s personal to you and identifiably yours. However powerful and sensory colour can be in a photograph, it’s always a reminder of what it’s like to actually being there in the scene. Colour is ultimately realistic, and if you want creative expression, realism doesn’t always serve you very well. If you want to alter the reality and be a little different or strange but still stay in colour, you have to do something drastic, like apply an Instagram filter, which isn’t all that creative seeing as a million or so other people are probably using it.
This is where black and white comes in, because it doesn’t look completely realistic to begin with. More than that, you have almost infinite choice over how dark or light any individual colour will translate into greyscale. In Lightroom, Photoshop or whatever other software you use to process your pictures, you can choose to make any colour anything between white and black, as these pictures of Victoria amazonica leaves from Mauritius’ botanical gardens show.
Black and white conversion is one of digital’s major contributions to photography. Because almost all sensors record three channels of colour, software can use that information to choose exactly which tone of grey any colour should become — in most cases all the way from black to white. This is not only a powerful tool, but you can choose to apply it at any time, long after shooting. That brings a really new kind of choice. With film you had to commit to colour or black and white when you loaded the camera, and in any case many photographers committed one way or another as a matter of preference. It meant that if you were shooting black and white, you were already composing images without their natural colour. Now there’s total freedom of choice, you don’t have to commit at the time of shooting, and you can re-visit images later to turn them into very different photographs from the way they started.
The advantages are obvious, but this freedom carries with it something less useful — the encouragement to think less and play more. Here I’d like to suggest a rather more structured way of thinking, in which you convert to black and white for a good reason, not just experiment. Using black and white effectively demands an understanding of what it does better than colour photography. The core visual values of black and white are that it emphasises line, shape, form and texture, and that it’s open to a wide interpretation of the tonal scale, from dense blacks and hard whites to subtle, long ranges of grey. Some scenes and subjects have more potential for these than others, and some simply have problems in colour that black and white can solve. Here below is a breakdown of 12 good reasons for converting to black and white.
Black and white lends itself to a dramatic treatment in processing and post-production more easily than does colour, for two reasons. The first is that the options for channel mixing (which is what you’re offered when making a conversion) allow you to deepen or lighten any colour. As in the example here, that could mean making blue skies black. The second reason is more basic. Because black and white is inherently less realistic than colour, it’s simply more acceptable to go to extremes — extreme blacks, extreme whites, as you can see below…
Tonal values – rich blacks
Black and white lends itself to high-contrast treatment much more so than does colour because it’s not held in check by the expectation that it should be a faithful and realistic version of things. Moreover, increasing contrast is a particularly good way of emphasising structure — as in the conversion here, of a gate tower in the Chinese city of Dali, with intense blacks to give graphic simplicity. This emphasises the repeating triangular structure, which is key to this photograph.
Tonal values – long grey range
An opposite approach stylistically is to concentrate on the mid-range, in a way that mimics certain printing methods like platinum and palladium. Basically, removing colour simplifies
the tonal scale, and allows a clearer, purer concentration on the subtleties of transition between shades of grey. The idea, as in the image here, is to expand the mid-tones. It helps the effect NOT to close up both black and white points, and keep overall contrast low. Visually this forces more attention on the subtleties of the mid-tones.
Two extremes of lighting style are the light and bright high key, and its darker, more moody cousin, low key, and they work particularly well in black and white.
As explained above, this is helped by black and white’s capacity to take more extreme processing and still look good. High key, a term that came from early cinema, meant balancing the lighting ratio so that there were no deep shadows. Nowadays, it basically means a treatment that is overall bright. This doesn’t mean over-exposed, and for high key to work well, there needs to be smaller darker elements. In other words, while the contrast over most of the frame is very low, when you include the small darker parts there’s actually a full range of contrast. As in the example here, the main subject can even be very small and dark. Ultimately, a high-key treatment depends on a large area with a high value of whiteness, and on high contrast. Raising the brightness and contrast throws emphasis on whatever smaller darker areas remain.
Low key, which in cinema was the basic lighting technique of film noir, is the opposite of high key in one sense — it’s overall dark — but relies on both a very high contrast ratio and incomplete lighting on the main subject. Rim or edge lighting is very typical of a low key shot, as in the example here. The setting is a dark interior, with weak sidelighting that reveals just enough of the subject to make it obvious, and a background that can easily go to black. And probably should go to black in order to keep attention on the texture of skin.
Line and shape
On elf the most basic qualities of an image is the shape of things, and this depends heavily on outline. Taking away the colour throws much more attention on this, and it’s very dependent on edge contrast, which is why a strongly processed black and white image with clear contrast, like this church and fence in Iceland, reveals line and shape so well.
Form and modeling
The other classic and basic quality of a photograph is form, which means the roundedness, the volume of a subject. Lighting plays a huge role in this, and as with line and shape above, when the modelling is the most important quality you’re after, black and white concentrates the viewer’s attention more than in colour. The American landscape and nature photographer Eliot Porter, who began in black-and-white but made his reputation in colour, was unequivocal when he wrote that, “When photographing subjects like rocks, the approach is entirely different, because in black and white you see the forms much more than you do in colour.”
Texture is structure and form on a small scale, in the detail. It’s a surface quality, very tactile, and of course depends on the actual material, on whether it’s rough or smooth. The example here, a close, wide-angle view of an area of desert in Saudi Arabia, is classic texture territory, relying on raking light from a low sun to reveal the details of mud flakes. Black and white carries this better than the colour version, as you can see, not least because of the higher contrast, which would have looked exaggerated if applied to the colour shot.
There’s another entirely different type of reason for converting to black and white, and that’s what I call ‘corrective’. Basically, it’s when the situation you’re shooting in isn’t satisfying you, for one reason or another. Most commonly, this has to do with either the colour or the light, or both. In these cases, black and white is doing a problem-solving task. One colour-corrective situation is when the colours are insipid, as in this view of a horseshoe bend in the Yangtse River in a very barren landscape. Black and white avoided this, and allowed a strongly textured view by processing to a high contrast.
Another common colour problem is when one or more of them are actually distracting attention from what you want the viewer to see. This example may not seem drastic, but the patches of colour in this Japanese woman’s kimono were, for me, drawing attention away from the action and expressions in a series of pictures I was shooting of a tea ceremony. Black and white once again solved the problem.
Yak caravan being loaded with sacks of flour in Manigange, Sichuan, China, in preparation to travel to Dege.
There are no hard or fast divisions between ‘unattractive’ colour and ‘unattractive’ light, and in any case this is very much a matter of taste. While it’s true that most photographers respond to the tried and tested effects of, say, Golden Hour, when the sun is low, it’s also fine to buck the trend and work in, say, harsh midday light. That’s everyone’s choice. However, if this kind of lighting is not to your taste, black and white is a very useful solution. Even if it’s not exactly immune to the time of day, monochrome is much less in thrall to it than is colour photography. And, as we’ve seen, black and white actually thrives on strong contrast. As Henri Cartier-Bresson put it: “Black and white photography abstracts things and I like that.” In this case, the harsh lighting was accentuated by the high-altitude location, close to Tibet., but there was no option but to shoot in it, as this yak caravan was being prepared right in the middle of the day. The colours, too, were not very attractive. Converting to black and white saved the day, and also allowed me to stress the dark, weather-beaten face of the man.
Finally, if you’re presenting a series of images on a particular theme, you may feel that while the individual colour shots work well, they don’t necessarily fit together seamlessly when they’re displayed side by side on a page or in a slideshow gallery. With a series of images, black and white can tie them together when in colour they may stand apart because of different palettes. That’s what I did here with a sequence on horse caravans in China.