Black and White Photography vs. Color Photography

posted on 10th of april, 2013

I consider myself a color photographer so this blog may be biased. I rarely use black and white. However, I see how many people tend to use it or even over use. Since, I consider myself a work in progress, I decided to do some research on visual design, specifically regarding color. Now, I would like to share what I found.

To start, let us see color and emotion. Every photographer knows that color temperature affects our moods and sometimes dramatically. Warm light soothes us while cool light is too revealing and harsh. When the colors are bright-saturated hues most people respond readily and are aware of their emotional responses. We like it or not.

A photographer must be aware of muted colors in order to stimulate or control emotional response to his/her subject matter. Colors very often help us answer two of the basic questions of a good composition. 1) What? is usually about emotions like delight, sadness, and tranquility. 2) How? it concerns factual explanations E.g. tranquility is suggested by pale hues and softly curving horizontal lines.

Sometimes color is a subject itself. Many times we walk along a maple tree the whole year and we never notice it until autumn arrives, then it turns red and we want to photograph it. Why? Because is red! A red tree! No satisfactory theory has ever been devised to explain the power of red but the truth is we like to photograph red boats, red sunsets and red strawberries.

Then, harmonious colors tend to convey serenity, peace and inaction. When you want to express such themes you emphasize the harmony by using soft light and soft colors and tones that are not primary (like pink). If you want to emphasize life, movement and change you may want to increase the oblique lines and primary colors (red, yellow and blue).

In all color photographs we perceive colors in relation to the other colors that are present. A composition dominated by the primary has great stability and if you add secondary hues (orange and violet) it avoids boredom.

A composition dominated by secondary hues has less stability because they "tend" toward the primaries. The tension created helps the composition to be more dynamic.

I surely don't want to bore you so let's go to the B&W issue. In B&W photography composition and emotional impact are determined by the shapes, lines, textures and perspectives that are created by tones. In color photography both the range of tones and the range of colors establish the structure of the composition and color has a greater impact on our emotions. We tend to identify physical objects by their tonal contrasts and "like them" or "dislike them" for their color. Think of two spruce trees growing in your backyard, both are the same shape and size, both are darkish in tone, and establish their shapes against a lighter background. However one is a pure green and the other is quite blue. A B&W would render both trees identical because of their shapes and lines but when you see a color photo you would be able to state a preference.

Conclusion, in my opinion a composition for B&W it easier because it only has the tonal factor into account. It is also easier to be liked by people because the color info that affects our emotions is discarded (hence the "I don't like it" response is highly diminished).

I would very much appreciate to read your opinions. What do you think?


Comments (25)

Posted by Aashikakansara on May 08, 2013
According to me a good photo is something which describes the best mood without words. A black and white photo or a colored photo does not really matter much.
Posted by Gheburaseye on May 02, 2013
I prefer black and white photos: they has something magic ;)
Posted by Robinstockphotos on April 18, 2013
It really helps with fixing chromatic aberrations. I have come across hopeless situations too....where the leaves turned purple and teeth turned green. That's where monochrome saves the day. Tell me of a bride who wants partially purple and partially green teeth associated with the good memories! (that's the sort of lens compact cameras have)
And I remember someone saying that "wedding function...that very moment of happiness usually becomes ancient history very quickly. That is why people love wedding photos to be black and white." and he was an experienced wedding photographer. haha! I'm 18, I can't agree or disagree with him. I'll have to wait for the time being.

I prefer a colorful portfolio though. And yeah, black and white can be used as an intermediate stage for further post processing. Especially when you cannot do drastic color changes. For example, if you make a photo black and white and then create a new layer above it and paint on it and set the layer to "overlay" mode, you...(More)
Posted by Mrhighsky on April 15, 2013
I think there are times when a color photograph would be more effective for example to capture a season, as you have yourself said an autumn tree will look more attractive in color as compared to black and white. On the other hand sometimes expressions on a person's face are much better expressed in black and white, Sometimes when you see a black and white portrait you can say for sure that it would have not been that impressive in black and white.
Posted by Panayiotisdemou on April 14, 2013
Posted by Danielsbfoto on April 13, 2013
Around emotional responses the "strenght" in b&w photography is a sort of translation of color way. theory of light and frequencies and so. Maybe the interesting thing is the the way our brain take to compensate that no information we see in b&w..He see color all the time!
Posted by Alvera on April 12, 2013
Posted by Yelo34 on April 12, 2013
Perfect examples @Baldas1950. Love both pictures. Thanks for your help in illustrating the blog.
Posted by Baldas1950 on April 12, 2013
I think the images in black and white are most effective when the photographer wants to highlight mainly the subject of a picture like this:
   Memorial at American war cemetery in Nettuno   

The color is much useful when the photographer wants to highlight also the atmosphere surrounding the subject as in the latter case:
   Path along the gorge   
Posted by Yelo34 on April 12, 2013
The point on Chromatic aberration is a good one! I have a 10.5mm fish eye that does it pretty frequently. I will remember that!
Posted by Yelo34 on April 12, 2013
@Robinstockphotos: Yes, I understand and it is not that I don't use it from time to time. I see it as tool that can save a pic, or to add variety to a collection. For intance, when I do a wedding I always add a B&W or Sepia to the final results and people love it.

Also, it is important to street photography where the mix of colors can be distracting or unpleasant due to the unexpenctancy of the moment. Here the moment is more important than the colors. There may be more instances that I don't recall or don't know right now.

My final reflection and the one I wanted to learn what the community thought about was the fact of using B&W when it is actually no necessary. E.g when I do it for the weddings. I was amazed to know that it was actually more difficult to compose a picture having colors into account than to simple deliver a B&W or sepia.

Thanks for your comment it made me think a little bit more on the subject
Have a good one!
Posted by Robinstockphotos on April 12, 2013
Oh well, stock is about attracting people. So better employ colors.
But you see, I shoot in color and if I fin dthe image is good with composition but has too much chromatic aberration due to my horrible lens, I make it monochrome. haha! Otherwise B&W is better used for fine art and emotional stuff.
Posted by Peanutroaster on April 11, 2013
B&W won't cut it for stock. For fine art type photography it has been said when the photo is about color then it should be color, if the subject is what is important then black and white.
Posted by Yelo34 on April 11, 2013
Thank you @Bradcalkins, that was the idea when I wrote the blog. I am open to all POV and interchange. I really appreciate your comment.
Posted by Bradcalkins on April 11, 2013
B&W and color are two completely different ways to create images. Try to create strong black and white compositions and I think you will find that it is as challenging as creating strong color ones. I do not agree that black and white images have less emotion in them. In many ways black and white images can create stronger emotions, as they remove distracting color elements and allow our eye to be drawn to someone's smile, etc. There is no better or worse here, creating strong images is challenging regardless of whether you shoot in color or black and white...
Posted by Robinstockphotos on April 11, 2013
Thanks! :)
I'm working on a "metallic finish" black and white look. It would make the scene black and white but also make it's look like glass. Let's see how it goes.
Posted by Yelo34 on April 11, 2013
Very beautiful image. I like it very much! Thanks for sharing
! Visiting your portfolio...

Minutes Later: Wow! I love yor imagery @Robinstockphotos.....very impressive and elaborated!
Posted by Robinstockphotos on April 11, 2013
   Full moon stormy clouds night   @Yelo34: I personally like to stick with color photos most of the time. Color aids memory - it is scientifically proven already. People tend to remember colored images more than a black and white image. A blue toned image is easier to remember than a yellow toned image.

I prefer employing black and white when there is no significant color. This scene was quite boring with grey color. But adding blue tint helps give it that scary feeling. And this image would sell good anyway, I'm sure of it. It's hardly a week old but it is in good demand. :)
Posted by Yelo34 on April 10, 2013
I am not an expert, neither I want to be. I just enjoy photography. I felt happy to share what I learned. I could be right or not, that is why the open question at the end. I want to know what the community thinks.

If someone is offended then they should write a blog explaining their reasons. Enlight us oh Lord! The humble are waiting your mighty knowledge! Show us all those pictures thar are above average and sell more than Yuri Arcus....Oh Oh...!
Posted by Cammeraydave on April 10, 2013
It's like fashion, It go's in and out...
Posted by Vcarmstrong on April 10, 2013
I am one of those photographers that probably over uses black and white, or especially monochrome with muted sepia and cyan tones. I don't even understand what it is that I like about them, I just know that I do. Maybe it is because it simplifies the photo so the colors don't affect my feeling about the photo. Interesting question to ponder.
Posted by Wisconsinart on April 10, 2013
Then why write a dissertation on a subject you have yet to explore?
Posted by Chanevy on April 10, 2013
I think it is much harder to compose black and white for the same reason, you are limited to shape and tone to create the desired effect. With more limited tools, the composition must be stronger to elicit the desired response. Withouta strong graphic composition there will be no response from the viewer at all.
Posted by Yelo34 on April 10, 2013
Hahahaa...No, thank you!
Posted by Wisconsinart on April 10, 2013
I would suggest you might want to try taking photography classes at a local art college or other venue.

Comments (25)

This article has been read 2376 times. 5 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Yelena Rodriguez.

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