Black and white photography is irrelevant because we don’t see like that; we see the world in colour. This is probably the most common retort to black and white imagery and it’s no secret that it’s picked up a slightly pretentious and elitist self-image in recent years. We wanted to chart its trajectory since the inception of photography and try to find out if and why it’s relevant today.
Despite photography starting off in monochrome, the medium always felt like it was meant to be in colour. That’s because photography in the 19th century wasn’t so much a form of expression but instead, a scientific research tool due to its ability to reproduce life accurately; what you see is what you get. In fact, The Guardian quoted a Victorian who once proclaimed that photography was “‘too literal to compete with works of art’ because it was unable to ‘elevate the imagination’”.
By the early 20th century, Man Ray would test this sentiment. But when the surrealist painter turned to photography, he didn’t really try to elevate the imagination. Instead, he looked to distort it, question it and subvert it. That might sound as if Man Ray was simply testing the confines of photography in the hopes of achieving some kind of higher realisation – and in many ways, he was – but it’s also a reflection of how he saw life or more literally, how his brain interpreted what his eyes saw. As the man himself once said: “Nature does not create works of art. It is we, and the faculty of interpretation peculiar to the human mind, that see art.”
Anyhow, to be unequivocally literal, photography should be in colour. Then there really would be little room for imagination. So if you’re looking to capture life in an objective, no-frills manner, then colour probably is the way forward. And this is why we see most brands employ the use of the colour; it’s immensely relatable.
“Colour is bullshit”
Photography’s relationship with colour, however, has been more contentious. Even when colour film was available – Kodak released the Kodachrome in 1936 and Ektachrome in the 1940s – many of the 20th century pioneers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau rejected it. It wasn’t for want of trying. Cartier-Bresson did a few assignments in colour but ended up destroying many of them – he was also this destructive when it came to bad monochrome shots too though. But the context is important here: if you’ve been working in mono your whole life, colour photography probably looked a bit garish and tactless. You could say the same about the rise of synthesisers in 80s music. In the end, Cartier-Bresson declared: “Colour is bullshit.”
No matter where your preferences lie, black and white photography is hugely important both for buyers and photographers. There’s a reason why most photographers are encouraged to start their journey in mono. In many ways, it can be compared to the principles of the Bauhaus movement where Walter Gropius was eager for his students to go back to the basics of form and function. Black and white photography forces you to focus on the fundamentals of photography: composition, lighting and narrative. Lines are accentuated, angles are more prominent and textures are emboldened to the point where you can almost feel them with your eyes.
In colour, these elements are obscured by luminous hues and are therefore given less importance. This is why you have to be careful when converting a colour image to monochrome. Shooting in black and white requires a different mindset to shooting in colour so what works in colour won’t necessarily work in black and white. To many, such as Alamy photographer Vincenzo Dragani, colour is a distraction not just for the photographer, but for the viewer. If its presence isn’t adding anything to the overall message, “colour is often not necessary.” With this in mind, employing a mono look might be useful if the image has a really strong message conveyed by the composition and you want to remove all other distractions including any colour.
Furthermore, our perceptions of black and white photos have been subjected to cultural conditioning. The fact that black and white photography prevailed for so long amongst the pioneers has meant that we invariably see it with a classical and timeless tinge. Would this be the case if colour photography was the preferred (if it were available that is) and dominant choice in photography’s formative years? We can only speculate but it’s fun to. Maybe this prestige is what leads us to readily forgive black and white imagery for being a bit cold. Actually, we do more than forgive. We often forget, maybe even ignore its austere nature!
Greys stand out in a world of colour
Some would say that shooting in mono is a limitation. Perhaps. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; creativity often shines brightest when limitations are imposed. And by stripping photography down to its most rudimentary principles, it could be argued that more time and thought is given to them compared to when shooting in colour. That’s not to say that shooting in colour means you’re less aware of certain elements, it’s more that shooting in black and white forces you to ‘see’ differently. Would the image below have been obvious to the eye if it wasn’t trained to visualise the contrast that black and white invariably brings?
Changing an image from colour to black and white can often lift it from vapidity to intrigue. I’m sure many photographers have casually converted an image to mono once they discovered it wasn’t working in colour – it’s an easy out as many would say. But be wary. If you’re planning to convert to black and white to convey a sense of timelessness, remember that the lack of colour can feel distant and unrelatable, especially if the image wasn’t designed to be in mono in the first place.
But it appears there are no signs of black and white imagery waning. Even though colour appears to be the dominant choice on Instagram, mono is still ubiquitous amongst portrait and fine art photographers. They might represent a small cross-section of photography, but they have a lot of influence. And it’s also popular amongst brands wishing to convey a sense of elegance.
Nike, in recent years, have been leaning towards a more monochromatic look with their Colin Kaepernick ad and their Equality video in 2018. Compared to the high-octane videos coming from fierce rivals Adidas, Nike’s slow, sensitive approach stands out amongst the hordes of brands clamouring for your attention. However, Nike haven’t just casually converted their footage to black and white in the hope that’s enough to convey timelessness and sophistication. But couple that with a piano-led Alicia Keys track and a cinematic edit, then suddenly those implications are much stronger.
There are two main reasons why I think this video works so well in mono. Firstly, it’s relatively high contrast and that means the white lines that serve as a metaphor for the entire video are bold and explicit. Secondly, black and white imagery can sometimes feel a little bleak. But I love the juxtaposition between the seemingly cold footage against the overall sentiment of the video, sensitively carried by the voice-over, which is full of warmth and emotion.
In 2015, Leica also wanted to thrust colourless photography back into the spotlight and released a digital camera that only takes black and white photos. That’s right, a digital camera with absolutely no colour capabilities at typically eye-watering Leica prices. Is this a reaction to the influx of colour mobile images? If you’re trying to break through the colourful noise, black and white is certainly a good way to stand out as Nike have shown.
In the absence of colour, the range is surprising
In a world where dwell-times are often studied, I think black and white has a better chance of getting people to linger on an image for longer. A lot of colour photos convey their message through the…err, well…colour and viewers are used to using colour to extrapolate meanings too. By taking away something which typically provides a lot of information, it forces the viewer to spend more time picking out the details in order to figure out the message.
That may sound risky to some as our attention spans seem to be deteriorating each year. But while some mono images ask you to savour the moment, others are striking and demand immediate attention. The shot below by Mark Phillips shows how a blown-out background can isolate a dark subject to create something that shouts quite loudly without being uncouth. This relationship between light and dark is made for black and white photography.
And in this action-packed and dynamic shot, the use of black and white emphasises the glossy sweat on the subject’s arm while the backlit spray of bodily fluids contrasts with the dark background and fills the frame more than anything else. You could argue a similar look could be achieved in colour. I’m not so sure it’d look quite so striking though as the details will be lost in the colour a little.
Then you have something much more airy and breezy such as the image below by Dmitriy Shironosov where there is a distinct lack of deep blacks. The wide range of warm greys produces an image that is upbeat and complements the emotions of the subject.
That’s just a small cross-section of black and white photography and we can already see there is great range to the format. Furthermore, the way you shoot and the kind of mono images you select can say quite a lot about your character. While curating a lightbox for this, I discovered that most of the images I picked leaned towards being brooding, often with a striking relationship between light and shadows. This isn’t exactly news to me but it’s always disconcerting to be reminded that my character is dark!
I may be speaking from a rose-tinted perspective, but black and white photography does carry a classical quality that lifts an image from the banal to intrigue almost effortlessly. Could this simply be that we’ve become desensitised to colour images? Back when Saul Leiter moved to colour in the 1950s, it would have looked big, bold, maybe even brash in some cases. It certainly stood out amongst the gamut of greys. Is now the time to switch to black and white in order to stand out?
Ultimately, whether or not you like black and white photography, I think it’s something that everyone should take a passing interest in. The format forces you to ‘see’ differently and that can only help you. Even as a buyer, I think there are benefits to training the eye as it’ll help you find a well-balanced image. But more pertinently, it’ll help you identify when an image is suitable for conversion to mono.
There are a few different ways to produce black and white imagery that evoke vastly different emotions. So here’s a brief rundown on some different editing examples for black and white imagery.
High key black and white
These bright, low contrast images should have minimal blacks or mid-tones. Suitable if you’re going for an upbeat and breezy look. You can achieve this with a combination of boosting your highlights and lifting your shadows. Make use of fill lights and reflectors to minimise any shadows as the trick is here to get the image looking bright throughout.
Low key black and white
Yep, you’ve guessed it – the opposite of the above. So that’s high contrast, striking shadows with deep blacks. Go for this style if you want something moody and dramatic. Let your shadows spread more and stick to a single, key light source. This style harks back to the classical chiaroscuro look.
Black and white photos lend themselves well to high contrast edits. This is good if you’re want a dramatic look or to accentuate the relationship between light and dark. There are a few different ways to achieve this but one way would be with an ‘S’ curve as shown below.
This is where the blacks have been lifted to grey. It’s a popular technique in colour photography but can be used in black and white if you’re going for a more vintage look. Whether it’s in colour or black and white, lifted blacks typify that faded vintage look and can be achieved via the curve or levels tool.
Converting colour to black and white plus toning
There are a few ways to convert and tone your image . A really quick and simple way is to simply desaturate the image but not completely. Leave a very small amount of colour so that you can control the mood of it with tinting. That way, you can choose to have a warmer photo or a colder one. See how that affects an image in a short video below.
Fancy a leisurely saunter? Then saunter through this curated lightbox of black and white photography.