Should My Photos be Black and White or Color?
Updated: Oct 23, 2021
One of the most age-old questions, well since the use of color photography stock, is should my photos be black and white or color? This is no simple question to answer, either. Some instances call for color, while others are better with black and white. Hi, it’s Rachel from Rachel Z. Photography, your expert guide with San Francisco, California photography, and let’s talk the big debate of black and white vs. color.
Which Style Do I Use?
When modern-day photography was invented in 1839, the only option available was black & white. It wasn’t until Kodachrome came around in 1935 that color photography became more widely available and started gaining popularity. Some of the most important and iconic photographs of our generation were all captured on monochrome film. Just the mere mention of these images conjures nostalgia that echoes the ghosts of our past. Some of these images include the sailor and nurse in V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, the Hindenburg Disaster by Sam Shere, or Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. These black & white images inevitably documented our collective history in its raw form. Some of these images helped to shape public opinions and record our legacy. Some could have even changed the course of history. I truly believe we have an innate emotional reaction to black & white images because humans have been conditioned to see these images as iconic and of utter importance.
Once all the colors are stripped from an image, the viewer is forced to focus on light and shadow, emotion, and composition of an image. It’s the essence of how an image makes us feel when it’s viewed. Without the distraction of the presence of colors in an image, the true intent of the photographer can be revealed. The most raw and innate response a human can have is when presented with an image. It brings our reality to a different dimension and allows our imaginations to run free.
As a creative, ultimately it comes down to the artist’s interpretation of when a moment will be best presented in black & white. Although a lot of times it’s a very subconscious decision, there are often consistent deciding factors I consider. It usually comes down to emotion and mystique, motion, contrast in shapes, pattern or lighting, or when images have technical imperfections.
However, with that being said, of course, color images are critical and should always be used when appropriate, especially in storytelling, where color is of importance, such as cultural events, concerts, fashion shows. Many events will benefit from colors being represented so a more cohesive storyline can unfold. For example, I am primarily a wedding and portrait photographer. I would guess my clients could be pretty upset if I presented their colorful bouquets and decor in monochrome.
Here are the four factors that inform my decision if an image should be presented in color or black & white.
Typically, when an image is tugging the viewer at their heartstrings, it’s usually a tender or joyous moment. These heart-wrenching moments happen regularly throughout a typical wedding day. It could be during a fleeting moment during the speeches, where the best man and the groom exchange an understanding nod and a huge laugh. Or a sweet first dance embrace between the newlyweds on the dance floor. What about a crying father who can’t quite let go of his baby girl after walking her down the aisle.
All these moments, when presented in black & white, will undoubtedly have a much stronger emotional impact on the viewer. As discussed previously, once color is eliminated, black & white images naturally can draw out the raw emotions of a specific moment. Here are some examples of those emotional moments.
Even though I am a photographer and I don’t know the first thing about videography, I love to create movement in my images. There’s nothing more powerful than representing a fleeting moment frozen in time, while still leaving room for imagination for the viewer. Sometimes it happens serendipitously, but more often than not, it is done intentionally to create the idea of motion. These types of black & white photos work best in fleeting moments, non-posed interactions that happen organically. It could be your subject walking across the frame, background movement, or an overall room image to really convey timelessness and movement.
Often when I shoot at a venue that has architecturally significant elements, I love to use monochromatic images to showcase these shapes. Also, if there’s an interesting contrast between light and shadow, or any kind of repetitive patterns, all those elements add to the interest of an image when presented in black & white. As the famed architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said: “Less is more.” Without the presence of color, our eyes are forced to focus on other interesting elements of the scene.
Sometimes a black & white photo can save an image from going into the trash pile. To give a prime example, if you are a wedding photographer, you’ve probably dealt with the awful laser beam lighting on the dance floor. Even though it adds to the ambience of festivity, it is truly a photographer’s worst nightmare. Most professional DJ or lighting companies will turn off those lights during the first dance. However, on the occasion where you can’t avoid it, converting an image into black & white can hide a lot of these imperfections. Also, if an image is slightly out of focus, more often than not, a black & white image could help to make these slight imperfections less noticeable.
About Rachel Z Photography
I’m a 29-year-old San Francisco-based photographer, activist, tattoo enthusiast, and guardian of 2 lovely rescued birds. I adore doing portrait photography for others, whether that’s indoors or outdoors, covered in flowers and nature or covered in fake blood. My goal with my photography is to empower you by taking the essence of who you are and turning it into works of art. I want to hear what YOUR ideas are and help make them into a reality. I want you to feel powerful. I want you to feel beautiful. I want you to feel confident, because we all deserve that.