I’m no pro. My opinions on this aren’t steeped in a lifetime of experience, and one day when they are I’ll probably have to rewrite this article. For now, I’m working on finding my own style, and as my journey into this medium takes new turns, so do my opinions on what makes a great picture. The digital photography world I’ve been introduced to is a very different one from the film days when my father started out. He had two choices when he bought film, black & white, or colour which was more expensive. Of course there were different companies offering rolls of film, but I’m not getting into that here. Black & white was an obvious choice for many photographers. Unless you were working on an assignment where using colour film was required, or you worked for a publication like National Geographic, you had a bunch of black & white film rolls stocked in your fridge.
Early photographers, I’m talking about the pioneers shot in black & white. And I’m not talking pre film – but great early photographers like Jacques Henri Lartigue shot their most memorable works in black & white. Why? Because that’s what he had available to him. Lartigue was young, he was 16 when he shot some of his most famous photos, he loved to experiment. If he’d have been alive today he’d probably be shooting on the latest medium format offerings from Fuji and Hasselblad. What’s less known is that later in his life he did shoot a whole series of colour photos. It’s worth checking those out and comparing the two as a whole. They have a very different feel to them. So if he loved experimenting with the medium, why didn’t he use colour more often? It’s because, and I didn’t know this until recently – colour film used to cost a lot more. A whole lot more. If you bought colour, it’s because you had something in mind. There was less room for mistakes. It’s for this reason that many of our most beloved photographs are in black & white, even after colour film had existed for some time.
I’m not part of the film generation. One day I might learn film in order to improve my craft, but I prefer digital any day. To some of you out there this means I’m a baby, digital cameras have been around as long as I can remember. The technological advances in recent years have been fast and incredible, so much so that you could fool a film photographer with a digital print (That statement will surely be controversial). Thing is, if I want colour, black & white – or a flat profile to grade later, I can make these decisions with a touch of my touchscreen. I can even make these choices in post using my computer’s generic photo software – forget Lightroom.
The challenge I’m faced with is having too many options at my disposal. To be honest, many times I don’t know whether I want black & white or colour. Unlike my photographic predecessors, I can have both with the same image. Maybe if I took a photography course, the answer would become more obvious, but I have drawn a few of my own conclusions. I find that black and white images do a better job of creating contrast, and add an element of the surrealism. We don’t live in a black & white world, and that’s not to say that black & white makes our surrounding seem easier to comprehend. In fact, we often start to notice deeper lines and shapes we might ignore in a colour photo. If Edward Weston’s close-ups of cabbages had been taken in colour they would just be pictures of his salad. In black and white they take on a new meaning, one of organic movement and fluidity.
Colour can be used to highlight the incredible rainbow of colours created by a bird’s feather, or the way in which a landscape is transformed by the setting sun’s deep orange light. In street photography, I find that colour tends to make a busy scene look even busier, but then black and white can feel like a cliché. There’s no easy answer, but I think it’s up to the photographer to highlight the emotion and direction he / she wants their audience to focus on. Sometimes the best way to go is a gut feeling – nothing scientific – just pure preference. What do you think? Do you prefer to shoot one over the other?
Photography by LIoP.co.uk