Why B&W?

Posted on May 20, 2011


Right? I mean it made total sense when the world was black and white.

Calvin and Hobbes when the world was black and white

Calvin and Hobbes when the world was black and white

If you think about it, and apparently I do think about these things, when B&W was all there was it made sense. But why does it endure now? Now, you either have to convert from color on your digital cameras, or if you are a Luddite like me, look back in time to antiquated processes. In my research and travels I’m actually quite surprised how many active B&W photographers there are out there. It’s thriving.

I guess there are a lot of individual reasons people still shoot in B&W.  For one, in some ways simplifies things.  So for students, it lets you concentrate on the compositional aspects of the image. In fact, I still have issues with this. Even though a photo is just a little slice of the world, it’s amazing what you will miss. I started doing macros in my kitchen and OMG that is the hardest thing I ever did. How can some thing so small you need magnification to view it have too many stops to photograph with natural light? So maybe simplification isn’t the right word. Maybe it reduces the parameters so that you can fully explore them.


Texture is another reason. I will gladly take a shot just because it has great textural range.

Driftwood 1

Driftwood 1

I shot a whole roll of film of this log at the base of twin falls, and the light wasn’t even that good. I would never have thought twice about this for color. The bland yellowish tones would not have done anything except divert from the texture.


Another reason is that before Photoshop came along it took genius -level skills to manipulate color photographs,  especially changing relative contrast levels. You don’t “expose for the shadows” in color, because that washes out the rest of the image and there is no way to get it back. But in B&W this is very easy and  you have many tools to adjust relative contrast. Anybody with a darkroom can use a variety of controls:

  • Filtration on the camera or enlarger lens
  • Film and paper choices
  • Increase or decrease contrast through development times
  • “Dodge” or “burn” (subtract or add light) locally during printing
  • Pre-expose or “flash” film and paper to build  shadow and highlight density
  • Bleach out areas of a photo locally to increase contrast

These are all tools in the process of previsualization, whether analog or digital. Since most things I post here of mine are unedited straight scans of negatives, I’ll use an example from The Art of Photography:



Sorry about the crappy scan.



This print uses almost all of these controls, and the bleaching is evident in the lightened lines. The second, with it’s extended contrast almost seems to glow. The controls strengthen the lines and lead your eye even more strongly to the boulder than the natural composition allowed for.


Luminosity is something much discussed and, as far as my research shows, poorly defined. You would think that somebody with a sensitometer would say “luminosity is defined thus,” but I have not seen it. While I originally thought full tonal range is what makes a print powerful, Jahnavi Barnes informed me that it was actually the midtones, the central zones, that create it. The Before  image is by itself quite luminous (trust me). But the second image has strengthened the natural composition.  We all know luminosity when we see it. Getting it in your capture, that is the lifelong pursuit.

Graphic Nature

Not all scenes are luminous. Does that mean that there is no picture? Luminosity is just another expressive tool, not the only tool. Certain examples of photography eschew it. Architecture seeks not so much luminosity as the expression of the form. Street photography and journalism often use harsh contrast as part of the message.

But color would reduce the impact of these images. In particular, a lot of street photography today is still B&W.


Color film has never had the dynamic range of B&W, and this is still true in digital.  And you can’t fix this in Photoshop, unless you do HDR (which is fine if you do). Printers and printing papers, I believe, are capable of providing the full tonal range, but I don’t follow this much.  Honestly, many film photographers have switched, are waiting for the technology to improve, or have incorporated digital into their workflow (digital negatives). At that point it will be a matter of personal preference and not superiority of whether you shoot film or not.

When Color Then?

For me, shooting B&W is shooting the bones and sinew of the image, the muscle and blood. Color photography is make up on a pretty girl, largely superfluous and distracting.  There are times, though, when color is the primary design element –  sunsets, autumnal foliage – and you cannot let it go. Last week I could not do the Elwha river justice without color.

And a sunset is hard to pass by

Of course, one of the interesting things about color is that unlike the eye, which is constantly rebalancing, film and CMOS sensors continue to take it in, even in relatively short exposures and color shots tend to be supranatural in their saturation.

If it screams “Color!” then I break out the Ol’ DSLR, but when I go shooting, I’m looking for things that move me on that visceral level, and my medium format is always loaded for monochrome.

Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man’s made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones

(Sixteen Tons)

Muscle and blood and skin and bones. It’s like that.

Posted in: Photography, Style