Composition Lighting & Composition Photo Editing Posts

Black and White vs. Color Photography

If color is so great, then why is black-and-white photography so popular? One simple reason is that it removes color as a component completely, removing any visual intensity and extraneous subtext that the color contributed to the image. If your image is a little too intense, removing the color might put its visual intensity back into the right range. Sometimes after you remove the color you’ll find that you need to increase the intensity in other components, which you often see in black-and-white landscape photos with dramatic skies.

FIGURE 24 The same photo in black and white (A) and color (B). In this case, the color wasn’t contributing anything useful to the image, and in fact the muted colors on this rainy day were lowering the overall energy. Converting to black and white and increasing the contrast helped raise the energy.

Also, by removing color, any emotional context associated with the colors or interactions between the colors goes away. Color accents draw your attention. If there’s a color accent in the photo, and the accented object isn’t the subject, then switching to black and white can help keep the viewer’s attention away from that object and let you focus it onto the subject through other components. Color contributes a broader effect to an image, too, as it helps us judge time. Autumn leaves are yellow and red, as opposed to green in the summer. Early morning and late evening light is more golden than midday light. Removing color de-emphasizes time, which is useful if time doesn’t matter to your vision for the photo.

Mark Changizi, in The Vision Revolution, puts forward another interesting idea about why black-and-white photos are appealing. He points out that the way we process color is very simple, and because of that we see similar shades of color in multiple objects; this expands on his idea that we see the colors we do because those are the colors that our blood creates in our skin. For example, the red in a ruby gemstone can look like the red of your face when you blush. Therefore, black and white can be said to be a truer representation of an object because any animal, even one without color vision, would perceive the image the same way. Removing the color removes the biases that our color vision system adds to how we perceive the image.

Ignoring the technical details as to why, sometimes black and white just makes an image more appealing, especially when the color’s not contributing anything. Fortunately, with our digital toolkit it’s very easy to experiment with converting an image to black and white. We’d recommend trying it when you have a very intense image and need to lose some intensity, when you have an image with very muted colors that’s almost black and white anyway (such as on a snowy day), or when you want to draw the viewer’s attention more to the lines, shapes, and lighting in the image.

Excerpt from See It: Photographic Composition Using Visual Intensity by Ellen and Josh Anon © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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