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Black and white is a moody and evocative way of doing travel photography. But then, so is color. So how do you choose between them? And is it important, given that (as long as you shoot in Raw) you can easily decide when you get back home and look at your photos?
Personally, I think it’s a good idea to decide before you start whether you’re going to shoot in black in white, in color, or a mixture of the two.
It makes a difference because it affects the approach you take to composition and light.
If you’re using color, then you need to think about the colors and quality of light in the scene. You might decide to make your photos in the early morning or late afternoon, to take advantage of the golden hour. Or at dusk, when the streets come to life in many places and the light creates beautiful effects.
But if you’re working in black and white then you’ll be more interested in texture, contrast, shape and pattern. It opens up more opportunities to work during the middle of a sunny day, taking advantage of the hard light to create bold, graphic compositions.
Either way, there’s a lot to think about. As black and white and color photography need different approaches, it’s a good idea to decide which you are going to work in before you press the camera’s shutter button.
Let me give you some examples of how these thought processes have worked for me over the years.
When I traveled to Beijing I noticed that red is a common color in the city, especially in historic buildings like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. It represents power and wealth and plays an important role in Chinese culture.
I decided to work with this and use red to make a series of photos. Here are some examples, all made in the Forbidden City.
Black and White: Wuzhen water village
On the other hand, when we went to Wuzhen water village I was drawn to textures, shapes and patterns. It also rained a lot, and we didn’t get any sun.
For these reasons it seemed natural to work in black and white, and I made a series of photos that includes the three you see below.
In both cases once I decided which way to work I continued with it. That helped me create a set of photos that worked well together. It’s also why I cropped the black and white photos made in Wuzhen to the square format. The compositions made strong use of texture and shape, and using the square format helped emphasize that.
Read my article How to Build a Body of Work for a deeper dive into this idea.
Color: Muslim Quarter, Xi’an
We also visited the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, a fascinating city that lays at the end of the Silk Road in China. It has a market that comes to life at dusk, and is a great place to both people watch and make photos.
I decided to use color to make the most of the qualities of artificial light. It gave me a mood and atmosphere that I couldn’t get in black and white.
Sometimes artificial lighting gives a beautiful effect, especially when you can balance orange light against a blue background.
At others, the effect is ugly, especially with fluorescent lighting. It’s a different type of mood, one that reflects the reality that people often live and work under fluorescent lighting.
Tip: Set the White Balance on your camera (or in Lightroom Classic at the developing stage) to reveal the true color of artificial light sources in your photos.
These are some of the photos I made in the market.
Black and white: Carnival in Cadiz, Spain
A few years ago I spent some time at the carnival celebrations in the city of Cadiz in southern Spain. I was amazed by the energy in the city, a lot of it coming from the costumes and performances of the street performers that the city is famous for.
I made plenty of photos of the performers during the carnival and it made sense to me to do it in black and white. My intention was to create a series of images. Working in black and white helped them look like they belong together. There’s also something timeless about black and white that shows the character of the people in the photos.
This is probably a good time to point out that the decision on whether to work in black and white or color is personal. Another photographer might decide to make photos that showcase the costumes of the performers in Cadiz. It’s all about your priorities, and what you want to show.
To decide whether to shoot in black and white or color you need to assess the scene and the situation, and make a decision based on your own experience and personal preferences. Whichever way you decide to go, I recommend keeping two principles in mind.
The first is that you’ll get a better result thinking about creating a series or a set of images, rather than about single images. That encourages you to take a consistent approach and explore themes. In Cadiz, for example, I explored the theme of making portraits of the street performers. I largely ignored all the other photographic opportunities that Cadiz has, of which there are plenty. Making decisions is about being selective – deciding to focus on photographing a certain theme or subject, and ignoring everything else.
The second is to feel free to experiment, especially at the post-processing stage. What happens if you decide to work in color on location, then realize that you’ve made a set of images that would look great in black and white? Then go for it. Don’t lose your sense of playfulness. This is your project. You’re not shooting for a client, so you only have yourself to please.
Giving yourself permission to experiment afterwards means you can fully commit to the decision you make on location. Work the subject and create the most powerful images you can. You have plenty of time to assess the results when you’re at home.
If you’re working in color, think about the colors in the scene and how you can use them effectively. Your mind will engage and start looking more deeply at the colors around you.
If you’re working in black and white, look for interesting textures, tonal contrast, and shapes. Again, once you commit your mind will start looking for compositions that work well in monochrome.
The Magic of Black & White
If you enjoyed this article then you’ll love my ebook The Magic of Black & White. It takes you on a journey exploring powerful ideas that help you make powerful black and white photos. Click the link to learn more or buy.
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