Black and White photography, its lack of colour reminiscent of the early origins of its art form, embraced by photographers and shied away from in equal measure. I am one of the latter. Those of you who have visited my Instagram page will notice I post nearly all my pictures in colour. In fact, only 18 out 313 of my Instagram posts are black and white and 6 of them are thanks to my Flint Castle series, where I purposely tried to develop my black and white skills. Admittedly, I avoid black and white photography because in recent years it has become a fine art, its popularity soured it to high end and gallery levels, and when you look at the level of those photographers who have mastered black and white photography it seems daunting to attempted. Without colour, black and white photography relies on contrast, light balance and sharpness to depict mood and atmosphere. You only have two colours and all the grey that comes in between them to bring your subject alive and draw the viewers in to the scene. Not everyone views black and white in this way, however, there are some photographers who believe black and white is sometimes over used as a way of avoiding the use of colour and covering up bad colour composition. For example, in season two, episode two, of Sky Arts’ ‘Master of Photography’, renowned photographer Oliviero Toscani says: “Black and White is an easy way out of this chromatic scale. Chromatic scale is very difficult to handle, so Black and White make it easier”. This resounded in the minds of the contestants so much that they even discussed avoiding black and white in the next episode for fear it could be perceived as choosing the easy path.
For me, choosing black and white is not the easy path. I’m not familiar with it and I shy away from converting my shots, however, the only way to master a new format is to embrace it! So for this weeks post, I’m converting some of my photographs into black and white, I’ll then compare the advantages to each style and see if I can be persuaded to ditch the colour on a more regular basis.
Colour vs. Black & White
In Favour of Colour: When the picture is in colour it gives the spider more character, seeing its environment gives you a look into the life that it lives, and it gives a little more context to the image.
In Favour of Black and White: The web is definitely more defined in black and white, as well as the hairs on the spiders legs. There are aspects to the picture I hadn’t noticed before, so the details have definitely become enhanced.
In Favour of Colour: In colour the flower has a much softer, delicate appearance. It appears more alive, and that draws the viewer in as though they can feel the petals smooth texture.
In Favour of Black and White: The darkened background makes the flower stand out and the texture of the petals becomes more apparent, especially towards the centre.
In Favour of Colour: In colour you can see the dust spraying up around the elephants feet which is lost in black and white. Also, The elephants eyes are more defined in colour, meaning you’re more drawn to the elephants face and character when it’s in colour as opposed to black and white which focuses on texture.
In Favour of Black and White: The texture of the elephants skin is clearer in black and white. The lack of colour actually creates a story, it removes all the background noise and you just see the elephant, so it’s really drawing you into the subject.
In Favour of Colour: I’m always drawn to landscapes and I feel that in colour the trees and background get to stand out a little bit too as well as the monastery. There’s also more depth to the windows in colour, as the tonal difference isn’t as strong in black and white, and the depth of field is enhanced by the bright green of the foreground hedge.
In Favour of Black and White: With the subject being ruins, the black and white image creates a more eerie feel and strips the image from a timeline. The image depicted could have been taken at any time, and that adds a bit more mystery to the subjects history.
In Favour of Colour: – The Swan’s bill is one of its defining traits and in black and white you don’t get to see its vibrancy. The grey reflection in the ripples add to the feeling of movement and the blue tells the viewer this was taken on a sunny blue sky day, it tells the story.
In Favour of Black and White: – In the colour picture the reflections not all being the same colour are a little distracting from the Swan, whereas in the black and white photo, the startling white of the swan stands out bold against the dark water, drawing your eyes straight to the subject. The lack of colour adds a tranquil feel to the image as the Swan glides along.
Before I started this blog post, I did a little research into photographers that work nearly always in black and white, and there are so many amazing black and white photographers out there but these three really stood out to me and I’ll definitely be following their work:
Chuck Kimmerle – Mostly working with nature his images have a real isolated feel to them, yet beautiful in equal measure (http://chuckkimmerle.com/gallery_recent.shtml).
David Fokos – His work is clean, bright and smooth. Lots of contrast between the bright white backgrounds and dark focal points (http://www.davidfokos.net/works/).
Anton Denisenko – Anton’s photographs are extremely detailed, very little white and lots of shade of grey to create really strong depictions of life. With so much to look at in each photo you won’t notice there is no colour (Instagram: @anton.denisenko.bw).
In terms of which I prefer having compared the two images for each subject:
Spider = Black and White
Flower = Colour
Elephant = Colour
Monastery = Black and White
Swan = Black and White
In conclusion, black and white photography can definitely add texture, atmosphere and mood, but you have to be careful that by removing the colour you don’t remove the character from the image. Having done these comparisons I will be far more willing to use black and white images in my work in the future. It has surprised me that I did end up in favour of more black and white than colour out of the five, especially the swan, as that was one of my favourite pictures but I love it even more now I’ve seen it in black and white. The difference in detail was interesting too, I hadn’t realised how much more the spider’s web would be visible when the colour of the background was stripped away. However, there are times where I will never be able to give up the colour, for example, I’ve been photographing flowers for years and they’re so beautiful and colourful, I think they’re best appreciated in their true colour form.
Do you have a tendency to always lean to either colour or black and white photography? Or have you got any tips on how to overcome favouritism and try out different colour compositions? Let me know in the comments 🙂
Amy Williams-Weeks (AWW)
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