One of the most fundamental decisions to make when photographing is whether to portray a subject in color or black-and-white. In the old days of film photography, that decision had to be made in advance, with foresight. Now, thanks to digital technology, we can decide after the fact, in post-production.
Color vs. Black-and-White Photography: How Palette Affects What We See—and Feel
Instinct might tell us which palette we prefer when we compare color and black-and-white versions of the same image, but if we don’t understand what underpins those instincts, we haven’t fully grasped how to communicate with pictures.
In this tutorial, we’ll discuss features of each palette and how they can help clarify—or muddle—an image’s message.
Has Reductive Simplicity
There’s a reason so many students learn to photograph (and
draw, for that matter) in black-and-white first: a monochromatic palette is simpler, with fewer elements.
- Black-and-white photographs comprise only highlights, shadows, and the shades of gray between. In contrast, each hue in a color photograph adds an element to the image, which can distract viewers from the
subject. By reducing an image’s elements with black-and-white, there’s less for photographers—and
viewers—to contend with.
- Composition can be seen more readily in a black-and-white image because structure
and spatial relationships take precedence. A
silhouette, for example, can be particularly powerful in a black-and-white
image if it’s clearly separated from other shapes in the composition.
- Similarly, shapes, lines, textures, and contrast
within a black-and-white image are prominent. As a result, black-and-white is more likely than color to
create an abstract visual.
- The more complete the tonal range, the more
dynamic the image. Black-and-white photographs with a deep black, a pure white,
and lots of varying grays in between can engage the eyes and draw viewers in.
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they
symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever
subjected.” —Robert Frank
Offers Technical Leeway
Because a monochromatic photograph contains so few elements—just black, white, and shades of gray—it can be manipulated to surmount technical issues more easily and to greater effect than a color photograph.
- Black-and-white photographs can be tweaked to an
extreme to overcome exposure problems.
- The need to deal with differences in color
temperature is eradicated in black-and-white photographs. Making an image that
contains both natural and artificial light is not a problem like it is in color.
- The digital noise that’s produced by
photographing at a high ISO tends to be less visible in a black-and-white
- Blur and grain are a bit more pleasing to the
eye in a black-and-white image. Blur and grain can give a color image a lovely
soulfulness, too, of course, but perhaps because black-and-white was invented
first, these two elements are more common in monochromatic images and, therefore, are more likely to be accepted and enjoyed.
“In black-and-white you suggest, in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty.” —Paul Outerbridge
Provides a Distinct
Finally, a black-and-white palette provides a distinct aesthetic. It shows familiar subjects in an uncommon way.
- We see in color, so monochromatic images make
the world look and feel unlike the one we inhabit. Showing the world anew allows
viewers to distance themselves from reality, an experience that can be used to
- Black-and-white images often have a timeless, romantic,
nostalgic look. Because black-and-white was invented before color, we associate
monochromatic images with the past, even when they portray a current event. As
a result, subjects who have that same timeless, romantic, or nostalgic look
tend to work well when photographed in black and white.
- The contrast between the highlights and shadows of
a black-and-white photograph can add drama. Turning up the contrast and using
vignettes can be a powerful way to draw viewers in.
- Monochromatic images are sometimes perceived as
more serious, thoughtful, or artistic than a color palette. It wasn’t until the
1970s that color photography was considered “art” in the United States (thanks to William Eggleston,
Stephen Shore, Saul Leiter, and others), and some of those associations still
linger, whether we are aware of it or not.
- Black-and-white photographs have an air of
authenticity, credibility, or objectivity. Depicting a scene using only shades
of black and white can appear to strip it of the subjectivity that color sneakily
imbues. It reminds us of epic images from the past, like those published in Life magazine and made by Farm Security
Administration (FSA) photographers during the Great Depression, both of which
used black-and-white images to bring important issues to the fore.
“Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black-and-white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world.” —Joel Sternfeld
In stark contrast, a chromatic photograph shows the world in all its colorful glory. It’s controversial and no one seems to know for sure, but most research says the human eye can detect somewhere between 1 million and 10 million different colors. Therefore, introducing the element of color to a photograph significantly changes viewers’ reactions to it.
- Color plays a huge part in the story the
photograph tells. So if color somehow detracts from the main point or subject
of an image, the image has lost power. Ideally, the main subject is in a
prominent hue while unimportant elements are in a less dominant hue.
- The complexity that color invokes needs to
somehow be resolved in an image. To make an image that coalesces, all of the colors
need to establish some sort of relationship with each other.
- One way to achieve color harmony is to
photograph complementary colors. In the traditional color model of red, yellow,
and blue, complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel: red
and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange. Pairing them can create a
very satisfying visual experience.
“It’s a dirty little secret that I’m pretty self-conscious about coloring my own work. I just see so many people who love color more than me that I get freaked out every time I hit Photoshop. Black and white? I know exactly what to do, but color offers a million solutions to problems I don’t even know exist.” —Doug TenNapel, graphic novelist, illustrator, video game designer, animator, and writer
Color images obviously have a much more dynamic range of colors, tones, and hues than black-and-white images. Therefore, color photographs tend to provide a richer and deeper description of a scene.
- The colors in a photograph can allude to time of
day and time of year. A blue hue can signify it’s late in the day; an abundance
of red and orange leaves can signify its autumn.
- Color photographs can showcase an important
aspect of a subject. For example, in Cuba and Peru, color is a big part of the nation’s
culture. Photographing in color enables that key detail to stand out.
- Color can suggest the era in which the
photograph was made. Films manufactured in the past often have a very distinct look.
For example, Kodachrome film, which was wildly popular in the 1960s and 70s but
discontinued in 2009, had a color saturation photographers still lament losing.
“The human brain works as a binary computer and can only analyze the exact information-based zeroes and ones (or black and white). Our heart is more like a chemical computer that uses fuzzy logic to analyze information that can’t be easily defined in zeroes and ones.” —Naveen Jain, entrepreneur and philanthropist
When we are confronted with a color, we have an emotional reaction to it based on our associations with that color.
- Color photographs feel more real than
black-and-white photographs, because we see in color. As a result, color
photographs tend to ground viewers in the emotions of everyday reality.
- Color can help describe the mood of a picture.
For example, pictures containing yellows can evoke an uplifting or playful
mood, while blues can make a picture feel melancholy or low key.
- Colors are multifaceted. Although blue can be depressing,
it can also have a very calming effect, and although yellow can be cheerful, it
can also be a very disturbing color.
- Color has a mysterious power that evokes personal
and psychological reactions. Studies have shown that it’s much easier to understand
how shapes affect viewers than it is to generalize about the effects of color. When
we are confronted with a color, we can have a very strong visceral response
that we aren’t necessarily conscious of.
“At first I photographed in black and white.
After a while, however, I began to see a dimension of meaning that demanded a
color consciousness. Color photography was not new for me—most of my
commissioned work and all of my films have been done in color. But color in the
subway was different. I found that the strobe light reflecting off the steel
surfaces of the defaced subway cars created a new understanding of color. I had
seen photographs of deep-sea fish thousands of fathoms below the ocean surface,
glowing in total darkness once light had been applied. People in the subway,
their flesh juxtaposed against the graffiti, the penetrating effect of the
strobe light itself, and even the hollow darkness of the tunnels, inspired an
aesthetic that goes unnoticed by passengers who are trapped underground, hiding
behind masks, and closed off from each other.” —Bruce Davidson, speaking about his book,Subway
In the end, the choice of whether to photograph a subject in color or black-and-white is a personal one: it depends on what we want to impart to viewers and where we want their focus to be directed. Each palette has strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited with great success. But in order to carve out our own unique vision, it’s essential to understand how chromatic and monochromatic palettes affect what we see and feel.