Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why Shoot Black & White?

Morning Leaf - San Diego, California
I love black-and-white photography. Often I find myself drawn to monochrome images more than color. But why is this? What is it about black-and-white photography that fascinates me so much?

When asked these types of questions I used to answer, "Black-and-white has a more fine-art feel." While that statement is often true, I think it is only a partial answer and not a particularly strong response.

I think to better answer the question I need to first look at what makes a monochrome photograph different from a color photographs. I mean, pictures are pictures, how much different can they really be?

What makes a color photograph work and what makes a black-and-white photograph work are two completely different things. Composition and storytelling work the same whether color or monochrome, but everything else is different.
Lines & Shadows - Tehachapi, California
Since photographs are not 3D, you have to rely on other things to separate and differentiate objects and define space and depth. For color photographs the color itself is one of the main methods to accomplish this. Color theories (color contrast and complimentary colors) are used to direct the viewer's eyes. In monochrome photographs tones are used to separate and differentiate within an image, and light contrast is used to direct the viewer's eyes.

In a sense, black-and-white photography is actually simpler than color photography because you don't worry if the color in a scene will work within a photograph (at the same time, colors translates into tones in monochrome images, so it is still an aspect, albeit a less critical one). By removing color, you are simplifying the scene, removing the distraction that the color could potentially cause, and making something that is naturally an abstract (because the world is full of color and not monochrome).

Monochrome photography, then, is about light. The light reflected off of objects creates different tones (11 different zones in Ansel Adam's "zone system"). Those tones create the shapes, lines, contrast, space and depth within an image that your brain interprets as a picture. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's simplicity that draws me into black-and-white photography. Because of the simplicity, it's easier for me to communicate to the viewer, to nonverbally speak thoughts and feelings through the photographs. Because the distraction of color is gone and the image is simplified to captured light, it's easier for me to communicate and it's easier for the viewer to understand the message.
Trolley - Perris, California
I don't want to skip over the importance of the abstractness of black-and-white photography. Because it's not a true representation of the world (and it's easily understood as such), I can "get away with" creating a photograph that doesn't represent reality. It's my creation. It's my interpretation. It's my nonverbal communication. The photograph can be whatever I want it to be. This is more easily accepted by the viewer with monochrome photography than with color photography, and there is freedom in this.

This is not to say that color photography cannot be effective, it's simply that I think successful color photography is actually more difficult than monochrome. Perhaps because it is more complicated, a successful color photograph can be more powerful than a monochrome photograph. Then again, what makes an image great applies to both color and monochrome equally.

I decide prior to opening the shutter which way I will go with a scene. If I can make a good color photograph, then I'll compose for color. If I can make a good monochrome image, then I'll compose for monochrome. While some scenes can produce both good monochrome and good color images, most scenes only work for one or the other. It's important to know if the photograph will be color or black-and-white so that you can take full advantage of whichever way you go with it.

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