Color or black & white?

Color or Black and White?

The question of whether to process photos in color or black and white (or even both) is an interesting topic of discussion. Anybody who uses a digital camera can easily create two or more versions of the same photo. This is a big change from the days of film photography because you no longer have to commit to one or the other when you create the initial photo.

With film, the main choices were between color negative, color slide or black and white negative film. The act of committing to either color or black and white helped you concentrate on finding subject and compositions that suited your choice.

With digital you just take the photo and decide afterwards. It helps if you are aware that you are going to convert a photo to black and white when you take it as you can concentrate on the elements that make interesting black and white images – light, texture, contrast and so on. But equally you can work in color and convert it afterwards.

One advantage of this is that you can go back over old photos and pick out the ones that would work well in monochrome.

But there are also times when you may be better served by deciding whether you’re going to work in color or black and white (or even a mix of the two) before you start a shoot, so you can commit to one style of seeing and composition.

Color and black and white photo of buddha figure

The battle between color and black and white

I have taken a color photo many times and only realized later that it would look good in black and white. I think it’s because my approach to composition is to look for strong shapes and textures and to simplify the composition – an approach that works well for both color and black and white photos.

In Mastering Composition I wrote about an interview I once read with American landscape photographer David Muench who works predominantly in color but describes his photos as black and white images with a layer of color on top. I interpret that as meaning that he composes using tonal contrast and texture exactly as he would if were shooting in black and white, except that he chooses to work in color.

I often find myself getting caught in a battle between black and white and color, moving between the two, often processing two versions of the same photo. This battle has always existed, but now we have the luxury of making the decision later in the photo making stage, after pressing the shutter button rather than before.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should commit to working entirely in black and white as some of my favorite photographers do. I’ve learned not to waste mental energy thinking about this question any more. Now I just relax and accept that sometimes black and white will be more appealing, and sometimes color will. Why worry about it when we have the choice of both and can switch between them at will?

Color or black & white – which do you prefer?

I thought it would be interesting to show you both black and white and color versions of some of my favorite photos and let you make up your minds as to which treatment works best. Which do you prefer? Did I lose anything by converting to black and white? If you find this exercise instructional you can try it with your own photos as well. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Color and black and white portraits of Asian woman

Color and black and white portraits of Asian woman

Color and black and white portraits of man

Color and black and white portraits of Asian woman

Color and black and white portraits of man with beard

Color portrait of young woman

Black & white portrait of young woman

Color and black and white landscape photos

Color and black and white photos of vintage kitchen scales

Color photo of young boy in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Black & white photo of young boy in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Color street photo of men playing xiangqi near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Black & white street photo of men playing xiangqi near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Color and black and white photo of baboon

Color landscape photo taken in Asturias, Spain

Black & white landscape photo taken in Asturias, Spain

Color landscape photo taken in Asturias, Spain

Black & white landscape photo taken in Asturias, Spain

Further reading

Create Better B&W Portraits With UltraBlack Lightroom Develop Presets

How to Use Texture to Make Better Black & White Landscape Photos

What is a Candid Portrait?

How to Create Mood in Color Photos

How to Create the Black & White Matte Look in Lightroom

The Complete Black & White Landscape Photography BundleThe Black & White Landscape ebooks

Learn more about photographing the black & white landscape with my ebooks The Complete Black & White Landscape Bundle.

 

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer, Digital Photography School and Craft & Vision. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

Comments

  1. Hi Andrew.
    I would plumb for mono for all your images other than the land/seascapes and the mandrill baboon. In my view, the simplification of the image through sympathetic conversion to mono allows the viewer to concentrate on the fine detail. As regards your land/seascapes, the colour versions highlight the natural beauty of the scene. The facial colouring of the mandrill is its distinguishing feature, so colour works better for me.
    However, the beauty (or otherwise) of each image is definitely in the eye of the beholder, so my views are my personal preferences and not a guide to what is better of worse.
    I enjoy your newsletters, for which, thank you.
    Regards,
    Michael

    1. Author

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. I deliberately included a couple of colorful photos like the one of the Mandrill to see how people react. I like your point about black and white allowing people to appreciate fine detail. I think that’s very true.

  2. Hmm – maybe I had a surfeit of B&W in the past (I started taking photos over 60 years back, and apart from color slides which I never found particularly interesting, there was precious little color photography then). Out of the 14 shots, I prefer 4 of them in B&W and the rest in color.

    But of course we all have our own set of tastes and preferences, and without “difference” the world would be a terribly dull place. 🙂

    1. Author

      Absolutely – I prefer some of the color photos too. I’m not going to say which ones though as I don’t want to influence anybody’s opinion.

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