Color vs. Black & White
In the very early days of photography, everything was recorded in black and white. Now there was no aesthetic or compositional reason for this. It was simply that no one had yet figured out how to record the world in color. That changed in the mid 18 hundreds and was brought to the masses in 1935 when Kodak launched Kodachrome. Kodachrome became the de facto colour film for professional photographers for the next half a century. But despite the advent of usable colour, film black and white photography endured and continues to do so. Even in today's digital world, Grand old masters like Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson continue to shoot black and white. Long after colour film became readily available. And more recent icons such as Sebastian Salgado and Don McCullen are best known for their black and white imagery. So why, why, when we see the world in beautiful Technicolor, would anyone want to compose an image without it? Color is one of the five basic elements of design, line, shape, t...
exture, pattern and color. It is also the most overpowering in the same way. In humans, vision tends to dampen our other four senses in composition, color subdues the other four elements of design. Take a look at this. What do you see? A peacock? Yes, it wasn't a trick question. Color adds a layer of reality that helps your brain form an instant opinion about what your eyes are seeing. So what happens if color is taken away? By removing the number one layer of data the brain uses to quickly form an opinion, it has to pay more attention to what's left, which is line, shape, texture and pattern. Now the world's got a little bit more interesting because you're seeing detail that normally your brain would ignore, and you can use that detail in your image making. Compare these two images. Notice how the pattern is far more obvious when processed in black and white than it is in color. And that is why black and white endures as a photographic medium. Now, whether to shoot a particular scene in color or black and white basically comes down to the story you want to tell and how to tell it best to show you what I mean. Let's take a visit to New England every year. Tens of thousands of tourists flocked of a month, Maine and New Hampshire to revel in the glory of autumn color. Vast tracts of forest paint splash red, orange, yellow and oka color is the story, which is exploited compositionally through the design element of color, a pretty obvious example. Now imagine a single leaf falls to the ground. Narrative changes. The focus becomes the individual leaf. The story becomes line, shape and texture. This time, removing color is the clearest and simplest way of communicating the new story. So the question of when to use color and when to use black and white depends entirely on the story you want to tell.