Why Color When We Have Black and White

The recent National Geographic Travel Contest, edition 2015, made me think. How come that the first prize of such a certainly prestigious contest goes to a black-and-white photograph, a photograph of divers swimming near a humpback whale off the western coast of Mexico. What a capture. The winner a black-and-white image; this in the days of ultimate sensor performance with state-of-the-art color rendition and close-to-real dynamic range. Wow. Goes without saying: to this day there is something to black-and-white photography that its color equivalent cannot touch. Color can be distractive. Black-and-white images, however, seem to focus on the whole composition, like adding a different, more dramatic, more authentic dimension, not least because our brain interprets gray shadows and tones differently from what we think we “really” see. But what exactly makes a black-and-white photo a prestigious winner in 2015?

Diving with a humpback whale and her new born calf while they cruise around Roca Partida Island, in Revillagigedo, Mexico. | Anuar Patjane, winner of National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2015
Diving with a humpback whale and her new born calf while they cruise around Roca Partida Island, in Revillagigedo, Mexico. | Anuar Patjane, winner of National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2015

The question whether to shoot color like everyone does or black and white is a dogmatic one. Doesn’t necessarily have to be a Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 to shoot colorless, or does it. One of the beauties of black-and-white photography is its simple highlighting of key features in a photograph, such as a face’s characteristics, a mood, and then it doesn’t matter much whether you’re able to reproduce the complete scales of gray with a camera, a desire which would directly be linked to the color of your money, ego and lack of technique with less esoteric gear.

Any camera can shoot black-and-white, or else use the myriad of options post-processing provides. But it takes some courage these days to “develop” images in gray shades and tones only; to say no to beautiful blue skies and azure oceans, to the perfect skin tone or that golden hair.

I would reckon, however, a good black-and-white picture lets you see the colors. Even more so, every good picture can easily be converted into a not less good black-and-white picture. But not every good black-and-white image can be converted into a good color image. Technically it’s a no-brainer, done by the click of a button. Again. Color often distracts. If not well balanced, color risks distracting the attention.

That’s, of course, generally speaking. Because how bland a world it would be without color photography:

White frost over Pestera village in Romania. | Eduard Gutescu / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2015
White frost over Pestera village in Romania. | Eduard Gutescu / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2015

Beautiful color photography, isn’t it. A perfect composition. 10th prize in the National Geographic contest. It’s all relative of course. Yet what does it truly mean that a photo without colors wins such a prestigious contest; a photo, on top of that, that’s shoot in the deep blue ocean and begs to be taken in color.

Why?

Might be that it’s not the photograph that’s black-and-white or colored. It’s our mind making it whatever way. And without doubt black-and-white photographs in general engage the mind differently. Black-and-white photography is more timeless, more dramatic, with a tendency to distance the subject/object matter from reality.

Color is the “reality,” monochrome makes us pause and look more closely. Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s/object’s emotional state.

Or as someone once said:

When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.

Color is just one of the elements in a photograph.

In color you state.

In black and white you suggest.

That might explain some of black-and-white photography’s inherent magic.




  • It’s not a surprise to me: actually it’s almost two years that I only shoot black and white, and I feel more free when I do it.
    It might sound odd, but that “limitation” let you focus on other aspects of the image, composition, mood, subject.
    It’s hard to let customer accept a black and white reportage, usually they are not used to it, but once they see it and the first moment of surprise is gone, they find it “original” and it works.
    I was shooting at the Biennale dell’Arte in Venice, and I was the only one doing it in black and white: the Japan Pavillion, for example, was displaying a couple of wrecked wooden boats, and from the ceiling there were hundreds of keys hanging from red silk. The pavillion was an explosion of red, almost like a red rain on wrecked ships.
    I must say that a black and white photo stood out of the mass, and yet managed to describe the subject focusing on its parts.
    Now, my goal is to do a black and white food photography assignment.. Let’s see if I can make it.:)

  • Interesting Marco, would you mind sharing some of this work?

    Now black-and-white food photography sounds like a real challenge. No doubt about still life food photography, that sure works. Colors play an important role when eating. Colors certainly are a part of taste and make us decide what to eat. Looking forward to this of your projects!

  • Here are the two versions of the same photo: of course the colored one would have a more striking impact to the casual viewer, but a black and white version helps the picture to stand out of the choir.
    (Credits to the artist: Chiharu Shiota, 2015)
    That’s what I think about the winning photo in your article: a colored one would probably be less noticeable.
    (And from my personal taste, I like that b&w photo, it was a good choice)

    Then there are times where colors add only distraction, as in the third photo, where a street artist was performing in the middle of a street in Venice: the viewer would easily got “trapped” by the hanging clothes in the background.

  • Powerful, Marco. The red however works very well in this comparison. Black and white perfect again for street stuff!

  • Thank you Dan. The red works well because it’s really striking and part of the installation: when looking at the photos taken there, wè can clearly see that they are all similar, and the red color is dominating, and distracting somehow.
    Same for the winner photo here: I think that a “plain” blue photo would not have caught the attention of judges: I dare to say that being in b&w helped a lot!

  • Dave

    Thanks! Welcome back Dan! This kind of writing about photography was missed for too long. B&W shows the soul. Nothing to add.

  • Doyle Thomas
  • Appreciate Dave!

  • Thanks for sharing the link, Doyle. Like the post’s kind of nihilist conclusion.