I realized the other day that part of the reason I love and shoot in black and white so much is that the overwhelming amount of photography I study and admire is black and white.
Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Michael Kenna, Jerry Uelsmann, just to name a few of my favorite photographers, all shot entirely in black and white (to my knowledge). Naturally, the repeated study and appreciation of photography in black and white is the surest way to, well, want to study and develop black and white technique.
What’s more, black and white offers things which color photography simply does not. The ability to play with contrast, tonal rendition of certain colors, the emphasis of texture, all of these serve as creative tools which color photography, to me, doesn’t seem to afford. When a photographer decides to take a picture in color (or leave a picture in color, in the case of digital) they are fairly “set” in how the photograph is when it’s taken. The scene must stay somewhat literal by virtue of the fact that the colors must remain largely the same.
Water must stay blue, grass must stay green, dirt must stay brown, so on and so forth.
Areas of the image can be lightened or darkened, colors can be enhanced, you can remove the “cast” of a certain color, you can increase the contrast of a certain color range, you could partially desaturate certain areas of the image to create emphasis, you could stylize the image by adding a color cast to it. You still have plenty of creative options with color photography, but at the end of the day, if green doesn’t stay green, if red doesn’t stay red and blue stay blue, the image will look very surreal and (in my experience and opinion) not for the better.
However with black and white and color filtering, you have a lot of “wiggle room” as far as how colors translate to value. Refer to the following images below for an illustration of how color filtering affects an image.
Of the three black and white images, I think that the last one accomplishes the goal of highlighting the subject the best. With color, it’s very hard to achieve the same values while maintaining the integrity of the colors, so to speak. Since I think this shot works both in color and black and white, here are my edits in color and black and white:
I think both of these images look good, but I like the color image a lot more. That is because, with this specific photo, the colors are brilliant, vivid, interesting, and contrast nicely with each other. However in photos without vivid, interesting, and contrasting colors, you get a sense of what black and white photos accomplish that color photo doesn’t entirely capture.
Without color, you get a sense of texture and form in a way that color detracts from. You see details in the clouds, in the water, which don’t spring to my eyes in the color photo. The form, shape, reflections of each of the boats are highlighted and emphasized which is lost (to me, at least) in the color photo.
In a photo where the color is thoroughly boring but the texture and form interesting, editing in black and white serves to remove the distraction of boring color. The discretion of when and how to go about editing, in what manner a photo should be edited, black and white or color, falls on the photographer. Boring colors to me may be interesting colors to some, whereas interesting form to me may be arbitrary and uninteresting to someone else.
But ultimately, I think the best thing of editing black and white is a sort of… freeing from a literal interpretation of a scene. Editing, regardless of B&W or color, should serve as a refinement of what the camera sees: a transformation of technical data to an artistic expression. However, in black and white, the photographer has the ability to create emphasis with stark contrasts of value which is not quite achievable in color, at least in my practice and exploration of it. The simple fact that the sky makes intuitive sense to a viewer as black or white (although it may carry different visual emphasis one way or another), serves to show that hues can be depicted in a variety of ways that make sense, visually, to the viewer. However, day sky must always be either white or some light shade of blue. Any other hue or particularly dark shade doesn’t look right.
This is the closest I can come to fully capturing my feelings of black and white at this moment. It is a beautiful medium, it is very different than color photography, but one will never replace the other. They serve different purposes, accomplish different things, and are very opposite ends of the same medium.