Black and White or Colour?


Should the decision to photograph in B&W or colour be taken before the commencement of the project?

Answer by: Bandeep Singh, Group Photo Editor, India Today

Photography in black and white and colour are two different dialects altogether. The latter uses the language and connotations of colour to create images that are more close to depicting what is real. Black and white, on the other hand, eliminates the ‘colour noise’, and uses the tonal range of greys to create a more graphical rendering of the core idea behind the photograph.

If you want to capture lifelike reality, where the colours of the surroundings are a key component of what you want to photograph—such as in images that show locations and lifestyle, landscape and the subtle or saturated tones of light, shooting in colour is a natural medium of choice.

However, where the images need to convey a more abstract idea, or a graphical focus on a theme, or bring attention to a mood or detail where colour is insignificant, the black and white medium is more suited to create a stronger impact. It eliminates the distraction of colour and draws the mind to observe the image with a sharper awareness of the subject. Therefore, it’s often the preferred medium for documentary photography and portraiture.

In certain situations, the decision to shoot in colour or black and white must be taken in advance, especially while shooting long-term projects or creating a body of work. However, in situations such as a wedding or portraiture, choosing black and white over colour, can be a decision that can be made later. Here, it’s better to have a colour option at hand. The issue of choice can easily be solved by shooting in the RAW mode, which stores the colour information of the image. The RAW plus JPEG mode allows you to process the RAW file of any image and extract a colour option. So why must you choose?

Primarily, photography is an act of seeing. Shooting an image, more than anything, is about seeing through the camera’s viewfinder. Since we see in colour, it’s naturally suited for colour photography. However, shooting black and white images is a different ball game. If you visualise your final images in monochrome, it requires you to ‘see’ in black and white. What it means is that you need to read your subject/scene in monochrome. You have to train your brain to eliminate colour and see in terms of tonal values of grey. It needs practice to hone this skill. It’s like having to drive on the right side of the road, when you are used to driving on the left. It’s best to precondition your mind till it comes naturally to you.

A logical argument against preconditioning the mind in the digital era is that any image can easily be converted to black and white, so why choose. Because a different mix of elements is needed for making images in colour, as opposed to shooting quality black and white photographs. Making a choice in your mind, beforehand, makes it easier to go for the right ingredients—the quality of light, time of shooting, location, ambient colour, etc. It also then allows for more effective control of composition and exposure while shooting. A backdrop of a red wall—which can be the prime element for a colour image—may not matter at all when converted into greyscale. There are numerous such elements—small and large ones—that on later conversion, take away its balance and edge. This choice does not matter if your idea of photography is limited to Instagram. For quality and powerful
image-making, there is no such thing as an ‘instachoice’.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Better Photography.