That is a question I’m often asked when someone is looking at one of my monochrome images. I have yet to give an ideal answer. That my vision was to make a monochrome image when I looked at the scene, or that was how I was feeling at the time, just seems like an inadequate explanation, and yet those answers are the truth. You can ask an artist in another medium, a painter for example, why did you choose to paint that tree? Why did you choose that color for the sky? “Because I wanted to”, or “Because I felt like it” are perfectly reasonable answers. The same holds true with photography.
There are occasions in photography that I have no choice, I may be using Black and White film, or a Monochrom camera, but in most cases I do have a choice and process the RAW color file in Black and White.
My vision for the above image was Black and White from start to finish. It’s what I envisioned at the time, and yet, the image was made with a color camera. Below is a color image from that day.
The color shot could be made more dramatic by processing, but this version is close to what I was seeing that day.
John Sexton, Ansel Adams technical assistant, explained some of Ansel’s feelings on Black and White one day in class. He said, Ansel believed all photography was a step away from reality, by choosing to capture a scene in a square or rectangular box, it is not reality, it is the artists vision, making an image Black and White takes the image one step further away from reality and in some cases, one step closer to the artists vision.
Ansel Adams is famous for his Black and White prints, however Ansel also worked in Color. The images below are from the book “Ansel Adams in Color” by John P. Schaefer and Andrea G. Stillman.
I find as a general rule, my Monochrome images are better if I decide that is what I want before pressing the shutter. Choosing to make an image monochrome during the editing process sometimes works fine, but other times it is a disaster. Color can be a distraction. Not only in the processed image, but while making the negative. If, for example I’m seeing beautiful vibrant color when shooting, and want to capture that, it affects my thinking, my composition, my exposure, the whole ball of wax. If, on the other hand I have decided to make a monochrome image, color still affects my thinking, I need to be aware of what shades of grey that the colors are going to be, and how that will affect brightness and contrast, and that in turn affects exposure and composition. What I’m saying is the thought process is different when the decision is made before pressing the shutter. The image below, made in Iraq, was never going to be a color image. The contrast was the reason I made this image. Color would have been distracting.
With the contrast I can achieve in Black and White, many times I can produce drama that would not be as effective in color. So, contrast and drama are two reasons I choose Black and White for an image.
Another reason I choose Black and White is I feel people look better in Black and White. However many people feel they look better in color, so we have a difference of opinion.
The great thing is we do have choices. We can shoot Color or Black and White depending on how we feel about a scene. Emotion is a key element in any good photograph. A good image in any genre evokes emotion, and the emotion in any photograph starts in the mind of the photographer. One of the learning steps for every good photographer is how to show in the image the emotion the photographer is feeling. Color can bring out emotion …
… But so can Black and White.
Which is better? There can be no universal right or wrong answer to that question. So many variables are at play that make you choose either Color or Black and White, not the least of which is how you feel about the image.