Black and White or Color?

The same image, both in black and white and color. Color is such a powerful factor in any image. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f9, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The same image, both in black and white and color. Color is such a powerful factor in any image. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f9, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

It’s been an amazing year for hydrangeas here this year. They’ve stepped up with a huge display of blooms and I finally got around to photographing them recently. Ours are blue, blue-violet, trending all the way to a subtle pinkish hue. Depending upon the acidity of your soil, the blossoms vary greatly in color. Which got me thinking about just how powerful an element color is in our photography.. Take color away, and you have an image that will immediately tend to emphasize form, composition and light; add color back in, and these elements recede before the big, bold brashness of the COLOR of your shot….is it any wonder that color becomes one of the defining aspects of what we do? I have vivid memories of the time in the late 1980s when, due to advances in color plate technology, it became economically feasible for daily newspapers to start printing color pages on a regular basis. This was a seismic shift in the way we photographers worked, and not one that was seamless or easy for all of us. Suddenly this new element—like a 4th dimension—had to be considered and understood….and hopefully mastered.

The same hydrangea image, first processed as a black and white, then as a color file. Notice how differently you 'read' each version. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f8, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The same hydrangea image, first processed as a black and white, then as a color file. Notice how differently you 'read' each version. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f8, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Here is the same photograph, presented first in black and white, and then in color, of one of my hydrangea images. Notice how differently you process the image information—indeed, how you emotionally react to what you’re seeing—when you go from the black and white to the color versions. Does this make one superior to the other? After all, we live in a color world, right? I think the key to this issue is simply understanding that this is an ‘apples & oranges’ thing: no one right answer, since the two flavors of this are just so inherently different. I do think it’s useful to sometimes take your camera and set it for its ‘Black and White’ setting and go out and shoot some black and white images. Chimp a few of them, shoot some more. Notice how right away, the way you ‘see’ and creatively look at your subject matter changes: you’re seeing in terms of tone, light, shades of gray. You quickly start to ‘see’ as a black and white artist.

Hydrangeas and bird bath column. I liked the hard textures of the bird bath next to the soft and delicate flower blossoms. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f9, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Hydrangeas and bird bath column. I liked the hard textures of the bird bath next to the soft and delicate flower blossoms. Canon 50mm macro, 1/200th sec @f9, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

What you decide to do with this information is up to you. (Of course, your camera, if shooting raw files, has actually still retained all of the color for you). I think that shooting black and white and shooting color are NOT the same thing: sometimes, a color image will convert nicely to black and white, but I would suggest that great black and white images usually start off in the mind’s eye of someone who’s actively shooting and seeing in black and white. Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

Twelve Ways to Make a Black and White Photo at Epic Edits

Black and White and RAW All Over at YourPhotoTips

31 Stunning Black and White Subject Study Photos on Imagekind at Digital Photography School

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

9 Comments on "Black and White or Color?"

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  1. The first photo of the blue flowers is awsome. Nice work.

  2. Nice shot, you can see the comparison of the photos. Great combination of Black and White color. Awesome photos you have.

  3. kittybee says:

    YOu are amazing at teaching local value!! I made a whole powerpoint over your information. YOu rock the house my man.

  4. kittybee says:

    Really, this is so helpful. I teach High School Art I and so many of them just don’t think that way, this is an amazing way to teach them that is simple and straightforward. You should be a guest speaker!

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