Black and White or Color?

There are now three realms of photography: black and white; color; and “this isn’t working in color; let’s try converting it to black and white”. I say this rather tongue-in-cheek, but it’s become a more prevalent tactic with today’s photographers (especially if one is attuned to some of the online photographer’s forums).

This isn’t something that occurred very often back in the “days of film”, because film costs money and developing it costs even more money and time. With some exceptions (Polaroids were useful for this purpose), the film photographer decided then and there whether they were using color or black and white. Today’s digital tools and software have made it exceptionally easy now to “experiment” by using the built-in and remarkably excellent conversion tools. But has this made us better or just lazier photographers?

Let me first get this off my chest: if your photograph is not very strong when viewed in all its colorful RGB glory, then converting it to black and white will do nothing to improve it. A mediocre color photograph converted to black and white only becomes a mediocre black and white photograph. I’ve said this many times to fellow photographers, friends, and students: strong black and white photography arises from forethought, rarely from afterthought. When Ansel talked about visualization, he was talking about a process that took place before the shutter was fired, not after. In other words, a strong black and white photograph is conceived in the mind (or mind’s eye, as some would have it) while in the field, not during post-processing. What I especially object to is the notion that black and white is ideal when the light sucks or when the image isn’t working in color. These are two lousy notions.


Color or Black and White?

As a photographer who practices both color and black and white photography, what approach do I take? When I’m in the field, I look for and see either in color or in black and white, but rarely can I do both successfully at the same time. Depending upon where I am – let’s say in this colorful southwest Utah setting seen in the photograph at left – I’ve determined that the color of this location is what is drawing my attention, so I begin seeing only in color. And therein lies my Photographic Rule #1,456: if the COLOR of something draws me in, then photographing/printing in color is the obvious choice. If the LIGHT, TONE, or CONTRAST of something draws me in, then black and white is my more obvious choice. The color might do nothing other than add distraction.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website

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8 thoughts on “Black and White or Color?

  1. Michael,

    Great post and not something I have thought a whole lot about. I am shooting color 99% of the time though there is the occasion that I shoot with the specific goal of converting to B&W. I’ve got a couple packs of B&W film for my 4×5 (your old Shen-Hao I bought a while ago, if you remember) but I don’t believe I’ve shot B&W film in that since I had access to a darkroom at school. I always figured I could shoot it in color and then do a conversion afterwards rather than loading up specific film for it. I’ll have to rethink my approach a bit. It’d be interesting to do a side by side comparison. Shoot a color transparency and do a conversion and then shoot a B&W film and scan both and see what comes out best.


  2. whilst I do agree with you, there is something I feel you overlooked: A good reason for changing something to monochrome is that the colour doesn’t add anything. This is close to “this isn’t working in colour” but there’s a difference.

    A shot could be fundamentally good, with nice composition, and good lightning/contrast. But have rather dull colours. In this case, the colours really don’t add anything (not to say that dull colours don’t ever work). In this case, converting to B&W can add more than the colours normally do. This can lead to good shots, because the original colour shot was good in essence. It simply wasn’t shot with B&W in mind, nor with colour.

  3. I think you’re on the button but I do think you can be receptive to black and white shots whilst not actively looking for them. And obviously, there is the occasional exception where you get a picture back and go ‘I wonder… ‘ and it just works in black and white.. No planning, no insight, no recognition.

    An interesting question would then be ‘how happy would you be with that shot?’. Because you didn’t intentionally take it, does that mean you wouldn’t want to display it, regardless of it’s suitability?

    My own personal way of working is to carry a couple of sheets of black and white ‘just in case’ and I’ve got 4 boxes of acros quickload in the freezer which should last me a few years of ‘just in case’s

  4. Thanks for the comments, all!

    Drew: film conversion works fine, but because color transparency film is much higher contrast/lower latitude than b/w film, you’ll be cheating yourself of a few stops. Check out my older post on this subject:

    Bart: I’ll disagree with you and tell you that one should have clear and direct ideas about their subject and intent BEFORE firing the shutter (their are exceptions, of course). I would still call your scenario a “this isn’t working in colour” scenario. And some might also call me a purist with ridiculous standards. 🙂

    Carl: if it’s any consolation, I limited the total number of rules to 1,500 🙂

    Tim: I thought that I should have included the “exceptions” caveat, but ended up thinking it was too obvious. Yes, as with everything under the sun, there are certainly exceptions. However, I would assert that the best black and white photographs (by anybody at any time in our medium) were “seen” by the photographer in black and white. Not afterthoughts, not conversions – just clear vision.

    THANKS for the comments!

  5. Yep – I can’t disagree with that. It’s one of the problems I have with many digital photographers who take hundreds of pictures also. I think it’s impossible to ‘see’ four hundred pictures in a single session (it may be just me, I have problems seeing two or three) and this then shows because the images always seem to be just not quite there.

    I don’t know if you saw recently but Phase One announced a monochromatic back. Perhaps I’ll have to choose between my colour P65+ back or my Achromatic+ back (oh… that would be in my dreams… two sheets of velvia or acros in reality)

  6. I was thinking of blogging a similar topic. I know I’ve used that comment more than a few times when leaving a comment on a forum! 😉

    A little over a year ago I started shooting more b&w images with that in mind from the get go. I now go out looking for a b&w to begin w/ not the other way around.

    And I agree, if your image is mediocre to begin w/ it won’t improve it by just converting it to b&w. I have been making more b&w prints lately and looking forward to learning what makes a good b&w print and image!

  7. Hey Micheal,

    I’ve seen those same thoughts arising in myself. You’ve definitely given voice to them. In fact I think I posted on some forum where someone said their image didn’t work in color so they changed it to b+W. I think I specifically said an image with crappy light in color is an image with crappy light in black and white. In fact, light is even more important in black and white. Not that I know that much about it, but I’m starting to recognize good light a bit more.

    I think some of this mentality derives from the super sick saturation that seems to really draw people (especially togs) like flies to poo. Honestly, a color photograph that has “dull color” will still work in color if the light is right. Many of Elliot Porter’s images didn’t glow with neon color but were delicate and entrancing nonetheless.

    Cheers, mate!

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