Color or Black and White


My last post had photos of my son’s toys. They are in black and white. I’ve really been into the monochrome thing lately and I leave my camera set that way more often than not. Flandrumhill commented that it was cool to see a child’s toys, which are almost always brightly colored, in monochrome. This got me thinking about something I’ve wrestled with for a long time.

What is it about black and white photographs that is so alluring? Is it because photos only came in monochrome for so long that there is a bias for it based on conditioning?

Although I’m sure this is partly the case, I don’t think it is the only factor. I can remember the advent of color TV, however many people have grown up knowing pretty much nothing but color imagery in all forms of media and yet there is still an appreciation for black and white. The art of Sumi-e painting is traditionally done in monochrome and has been that way for much longer than photography has existed even though colored inks are and were available.

Fencer in his blog was playing around with some photos to use as a basis for a watercolor painting and delved into monochrome versions as a way to analyse the scene. Lookingforbeauty describes art works that while not exactly black and white, still work with a reduced palette of just two tones.


An internet search or two pulled up nothing much in the way of research into the various reactions people have to monochrome versus color photographs. A few studies tried to quantify the amount of information that could be conveyed through color vs monochrome images. Color seems to win out in the strict “did the viewer get the point of that bar graph” category.

Still mere information transfer is not my interest. I want to know about the emotional impact, the subtle communication of form and texture, and the sense of involvement evoked by an image.

Did you know that Ansel Adams produced over 3500 color images? Have you ever seen one? ’nuff said.

In a review of the book “Ansel Adams in Color” (which contains 59 color landscapes by Adams selected by Harry Callahan) for Booklist magazine, Gretchen Garner wrote: For Adams, black-and-white was an abstract medium and color was inseparable from banal realism.

“Banal realism” seems to sum it up for me. There are many many landscape/nature photographers out there working in color and they produce many beautiful images everyday. People rave about these images. But how many of the photos are more than just  reproductions? Most of the images are beautiful because the scenes themselves are beautiful, but after a few seconds viewing, I realize that I’ve seen pretty much the same images dozens of times before. I quickly lose interest after the initial attraction of colored eye candy.

It is extremely difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by the “reality” of color photography, particularly in landscape work. It can be done, but it ain’t easy. Even Adams had trouble breaking free from the tyranny of color.


Working in black and white is no panacea, but I think it allows the photographer to hold on to a significant portion of the “reality” while at the same time abstracting the scene. This abstraction takes away the reproduction factor and thus provides a space for the photographer’s creativity to come to the fore. A free space with limitless possibilities yet paradoxically with fixed boundaries.

A black and white image can so easily fall flat. Without the support of eye-catching colors, merely capturing the scene is rarely enough. Now comes the difficult job of making something with the pieces one has left. Unique compositions, attention to form and pattern, subtleties of light and shadow, and consideration of the smallest details become all important.

I love color. I love to shoot in color. For a long time all I ever shot was color, but also from early on I felt the restrictions of color. I struggled to find fresh perspectives to avoid scene reproduction – only occasionally succeeding. I also continued to experiment with black and white despite my poor results with it. It takes a different kind of “eye” to see beyond color. I hope I am finally starting to develop that ability.

I’m not going to give up color completely and my attempts at black and white often fail, but the variety and the challenge it brings can only improve my image making.



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6 Responses to “Color or Black and White”

  1. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I’ve often wondered that too, why black & white, or its relatives like duotones maybe and monotints of one kind or another, seem so much more evocative…

    I didn’t realize Adams did so many color photos… you’re right, don’t recall, or remember, seeing any of them.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    In the creation of an image, colour is only one of many elements and may even be the most distractive. In a good image, everything has to work all at once – the forms, the shapes, the composition, the textures, the patterns, line, spatial relationships and …. colour.
    I remember struggling some thirty years ago, trying to get a grasp on these qualities that make up images. In my frustration, I returned to black and white and took one of these elements at a time, working through what it would mean to my finished drawings. I slowly built up a vocabulary to work with – without colour – just in black and white.
    There is a simplicity in black and white that brings out the essence of the subject. It gives clarity. It reduces the complications.

    If a student of art works towards a strong familiarity with the elements of design by working with just black and white and the tones between, and then adds in just a tiny daub of pure colour, he will see upon reflection that everything has changed. The colour draws the eye like a magnet, unbalancing everything that was laid down til then.
    If the power of dot of colour can so strongly hold one’s attention, then it follows that multi-coloured , full range of spectrum images are complicated exponentially by its addition.

    Of course, for all generalities there are counter-arguments and examples which don’t fit the “rule”. For instance, Joseph Albers was all about colour and its relationship to the colour sitting beside it. In order to bring attention to his chief concern – colour – he reduced the shapes to simple squares, superimposed. The viewer is left with nothing but colour to contemplate.
    Other artists who became enthralled with colour for its own sake are Yves Klein and Mark Rothko. Yves Klein became so famous for his painting in a bright Royal blue tone, that the colour is now named after him. There is nothing else on the canvas than this blue; and there are no variations of tone. Just blue.
    Rothko, like Albers, was interested in exploring them juxtaposed beside another and the effect that that would cause as a large field of colour flooded the viewer’s vision. To do so, he chose soft-edged squarish forms in their simplest state to convey the message.
    Back to black and white –
    I think many people are attracted to black and white imagery because it pares away non-essentials and they can focus just on the subject.
    And now that I’ve reread this comment a couple of times to figure out where I’m going with it, I see that it’s just a matter of choice. Some like reduced colour, some glory in the richness of it and there is beautiful work out there, too, for people with a heart and mind for colour.

  3. flandrumhill Says:

    I return to find a link to some of your b&w photos for a post and find this insightful post written on a similar topic. Also enjoyed reading lookingfor beauty’s comment.

    Color tv was an absolute wonder when I first saw it. Along with b&w photos, It made b&w films and shows seem like ‘the past.’ Color was ‘the present’ and ‘the future.’ Today, to younger people who didn’t witness the changeover, b&w is retro and has a special appeal for that reason.

    I love color too and cannot imagine a world as wonderful without it. However, there is a place for b&w both in art and in nature. I’m sure the penguins, zebras, orcas and pandas would agree :)

  4. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for commenting you guys. Sorry I’m so slow in responding.

    Perhaps as lookingforbeauty says, color or black and white is just a choice the artist makes and the viewer takes it or leaves it based on how well the piece “works” and personal preferences of the viewer.

    I think that in “nature” photography there is the added complication that the photographer can’t pull ideas for the arrangement of the subject and the choice of colors out of his/her head as a painter might. What is in front of you is what you get, whether it be brightly colored or not, simple or complex.

    Then one has to work with the scene to draw out one aspect or another or to just record verbatim or whatever. There is a fine line between artistry in a nature photo and altering it so far as to lose the “truth” of the scene.


  5. Gerry Says:

    I always go where flandrumhill points, and I’m never disappointed. I never knew, for example, that Ansel Adams ever used color at all.

    I once posted a friend’s photos of Lake Michigan–one in color and one in black and white. She asked the viewers which they preferred, and color won hands down. However. I’m pretty sure she photoshopped her color photo into a black and white one to good effect. I wonder if, had she set out to make a black and white image, the results would have been different. Then again, we are pretty attached to our blue, blue water.

    I grew up with black and white photography and films and television. I think that somewhere in my brain such images acquired a specific status as Serious Art. Almost all my favorite family portraits are black and white, too.

    On the other hand, I distinctly remember turning on our brand new color TV (20 or 30 years after everyone else had one, but never mind). The program that appeared was a Jacques Cousteau documentary about pink dolphins. I can still see those images. A wonder indeed.

  6. henniemavis Says:

    Hello. This is a little bit off-topic to your specific post here, but I like your nature photography in general & thought I’d say so. I’m an artist, tho not a photographer & was researching “raccoon feet” when your site came up (if you ever check viewer stats, you may be amused, as I am, what brings people to find you). Remember your 2008 dead raccoon post? Nice foot :-) I laughed aloud where you stated you’d “rather not get a rep for being that dead animal photographer.” I actually have a folder on my Flickr site entitled “Touching Dead Things” & its just that: a small collection of dead animals. I find them fascinating :-)

    Anyhoo, I am fairly new to WordPress & blogging myself & wanted to say that I commend your “Disclaimers & Policies” page. What a great idea, never saw that before and I may adopt your approach. It’s good to clear the air like that, especially re: questions of “product sponsorship” & potential for controversial issues. Thanks for all kinds of food for thought!

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