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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.
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.
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