Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

I saw a post on the Internet by an “expert” who said you shouldn’t make “unnecessary” black and white photos. I am pretty sure that I lost brain cells just by reading that sentence. It generated several questions for me:

1. What constitutes “unnecessary” black & white?
2. Who gets to decide what’s “unnecessary?”
3. Why should anyone care whether or not I (or you) decide to shoot black and white?
4. What’s next? Unnecessary color?

Of course I’m writing this a bit tongue in cheek, but I do find the whole conversation to be misplaced.

Perhaps the “expert” involved meant to say, “Some subjects look better in color.” If that’s what they meant, then I agree. A sunrise or sunset often looks much better in color. Pictures of unicorns spreading multi-colored fairy dust must look better in color. But here’s a newsflash…

Throughout its first 100 years photography has been all about the black & white image. While early versions of color photography were around during that period, color photography didn’t become possible in an affordable mass market way until 1935. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that it really started to take hold. That’s when color snapshots (photos made by consumers using consumer cameras) became popular. So in reality, black and white was the norm until 70 years ago.

Even when color processes were available, the serious photo community didn’t know what to think of color. Harold Baquet said, “The less is more thing. Sometimes the color distracts from the essential subject. Sometimes, just light, line and form is enough, and it allows you to explore the sculptural qualities of that third dimension, that illusional dimension of depth.”

Ansel Adams also felt that color could be distracting, and could therefore divert the artist’s attention away from creating a photograph to his full potential. Adams even claimed that he could get “a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than [he had] ever achieved with color photography.”

While almost everyone reading this has lived in a world where color photography is taken for granted, I am old enough that I remember it being a big deal. Heck, I remember my dad bringing home our first color television and replacing the black & white TV in the living room with the fancy color TV! (Yes young people there were televisions that only delivered black and white broadcasts. I know it’s impossible for you to conceive but there was even a time on this planet when we didn’t have Facebook. But that’s another post.)

The first ten years of my photographic career were spent shooting almost exclusively in black and white. My first published photograph was made using Kodak Tri-X 400 – a black and white film. My first job shooting motor sports lasted six years and during that time I shot 100% black and white film. Yep, people paid for those pictures. Try to wrap your mind around the fact that color processing and printing was much harder to find and cost a great deal more. That alone pushed people to black and white.

While our digital cameras today can deliver color or black and white images (both in camera and in post) we used to have to make a decision. We’d start a roll of black and white and then if we wanted color for a particular shot, we’d either have to rewind and waste film to switch cartridges or bite the bullet and go with what we started with. One of the reasons cameras like the Hasselblad 501C became popular among pros was that you could load multiple film backs and switch them out shot-by-shot. But even then, the default for a very long time was start with black and white.

So bringing this back around to the “unnecessary” black and white comment. I personally do not believe there is any such thing. To put a finer point on it, shooting photos which are monochromatic is normal. And these days, so is shooting in color.

My feeling is that most people who have grown up using color processes simply don’t have the training to get the most out of black and white, so they dismiss it as inferior. Just as they do now HDR, or any other process they don’t yet understand.

For me photography is about the final image, not how you made it. If you want to shoot black and white or color or both go for it. Don’t worry about the cool kids questioning your use of black and white or anything else. As I’ve said before, 100 years from now when we’re all dead, nobody will care how you did it. If your photos survive and people are talking about them, it will be because you captured something so special that generations later, it triggered an emotional response from the viewer. And the last thing that is going to come out of their mouth at that point is, “I wonder if this was shot using Tri-X?”

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. [...] Today, Scott Bourne posted on the PhotoFocus web site about mono photography. [...]

  2. [...] this photo unnecessary in Black and White? I hated the color version because it was 1 PM and the skies were clear blue. I thought about [...]

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