Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Color v B&W

Whenever I teach a digital photography course, and the question of shooting in the black and white mode comes up, I always tell my students to shoot in colour. It's so easy to convert to black and white later in Photoshop (or Lightroom/Aperture etc), and it does such a good job, while retaining the RGB colour values (important if you want to add tinting effects later), that I really don't see the benefit of shooting in black and white in-camera. Especially if you are shooting jpegs.

Of course, we don't have that luxury when we shoot film. Although in one sense, the same for digital is true for film - shoot in colour, digitise the negative, and convert later.

But what about all that black and white film? Is that akin to using the black and white mode in your digital camera, thereby restricting your options later? I suppose it is. Yet for someone who 'grew up' on black and white film photography - processing his own films in the darkroom - the allure of shooting black and white film is very strong. And I suppose that when I think of 'real' art photography, I think almost exclusively of black and white.

So recently, when trying out different films and cameras over a weekend, I found myself shooting with both colour and black and white film. And although I hadn't actually planned it that way, a couple of the images on both types of film were near to identical. So I got to compare them to each other, to see whether I liked the colour, or black and white version better.

To be clear, these are not simply black and white conversions of the same file. They are two different shots taken on both film types. The top, colour image, is actually taken by my 10 year old son on an Olympus Mju 1 with Fuji Superia 400, while I shot the bottom image on an Olympus Mju 105 with Kodak 400CN. They are uncannily similar, although neither of us were following the other around and didn't know the other had taken the same shot.

Which version do I like? Well, I like them both. But which version do I prefer? Probably my son's colour image on this occasion. I love the blue of the mountains and the lake against the green. It adds a real contrast that I find slightly lacking in the black and white version.

This is the trap of black and white photography - learning to 'see' in greyscale and not rely on the colour of the scene for impact. Because, lets face it, most of us see in colour, so it is often the colour in a scene (such as the blue above) that first attracts us to the image. But the black and white photographer has to zone this out and rely entirely on the tones of the scene - also keeping in mind the relationships of colour.

Imagine, for example, a figure in a lush green field wearing a red jacket. In colour, this image would literally scream off the page, and the red figure would immediately become the focus of attention - even if they were relatively small in the frame. Yet in black and white, this image wouldn't work at all. The mid tone of the green would blend together with the mid-tone of the red, creating one very boring mid-toned image! Yuck.

In the examples above, however, the tables are turned and I actually prefer the black and white photo. Maybe because I feel that this image is more about pattern, line and texture, than about in-your-face colour? Both were taken on a Bronica S2 - the colour image was shot on Fuji Reala 100, while the black and white is Kodak 400CN. And again, the colour photo is ok - I just prefer the black and white version.

Would I have gotten the same result on both occasions by converting the colour file to black and white? Yes, probably. But as mentioned, shooting in black and white to begin with actually forces you to see differently - and I kinda like that. Anything that helps you be more creative and 'think' about your images is worthwhile in my book.

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