« Gentle Reminder | Main | Color Picture »

Wednesday, 07 May 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Interesting, I find the colour version of the boats preferable. Perhaps its the conversion but there is too much flat grey in the image whereas the muted tones of the "mucus" I find more pleasing and intersting.

Interesting. For me, Behera's image worked in color. I thought when I first scrolled to it in your post is was going to be the "good-use-of-color" example. For me, the water color is a context, missing from the B&W version. It works in B&W for me also. But that is simply because it has that B&W "advantage", in an image like that, i.e. reduction in detail-therefore-unintentional-homage-to-classic-Asian-landscape-thing.
I always check every image I intend to print either way in B&W mode. It does help your scrutiny of its structure, and it is funny how many can work both ways. It also helps me see what would be to derivative.

I do not do the blur thing, simply because I can simply remove my glasses for a similar effect.

I have always worked in both color & in B&W, but when I did chemical darkroom printed my own Black & Whites. Now with digital printing (due to the printer I have yet) I do mostly colour. I am finding though that I am pre-visualizing my post-porcessing when shooting, like i used to do B&W with film. My color work is changing.

Perhaps the thing I am most grateful for running into art-wise, is years ago reading Edward Weston's brief essay "Color as Form". I know it changed things for me.

I once printed all of my colour photos out in black and white and did a customer survey. It was interesting to compare the results to the survey I had done previously with the same photographs in colour. Mike as you rightly would predict the best colour photographs were also the best in black and white. The photographs even came out with exactly the same rankings. My anecdotal evidence to add to the argument.

I also note that as my taste slowly matures, I find myself more and more attracted to my black and white work. I haven't loaded any colour film now for a year. All of those years relentlessly pursuing colour images has paid off by developing my skills and aesthetic particularly when dealing with unforgiving transparency film. But I must point out that I still appreciate colour photography, though images that move me the most memorably usually are in black and white. A post for thought. Thanks Mike.

Color is our natural way of seeing the world. Whether you choose to use color when making photographs does not change that fact. Proposing that seeing in monochrome is superior to color does not change that fact. Color and monochrome images can both be used and misused to some end. Color and monochrome are frequently used inappropriately. Maybe dissonant color can be used as a means to an end. Perhaps Noir really does represent the world more clearly.

Policing the great-unwashed rabble of image-makers who don't wish to be subtle in documenting the world is a task best left to experts. Thank You.

While I LIKE color, part of your essay struck a chord and made me smile. My old film instructor taught us that the true test of the quality (or lack thereof) of a photo was to convert it to black and white and see if it looked as good. If it didn't have the same "punch", then it wasn't a "keeper".
But I STILL like color.. Maybe we'll be in that park together beating on each other with our canes while trying not to let go of our walkers. 8o)

One must also remember that just because a photo is black and white doesn't mean it's a good photo.

Back in the day, Mike, a suggestion I took to heart was to photocopy a print. Copiers were much less sophisticated than they are now, so what you would end up with was a very contrasty b/w rendering of the photo, but it would tell you if the photo worked compositionally.

It goes to show you how much people forget.

Fifteen years ago, taking black and white photos was all the rage. Every person who had a camera shot black and white (remember "color negative" black and white film) and littered their homes with chrome-framed black and white cliches.

Soon enough the "Fuji Velvia on steroids" color fad will go away and everyone will be invoking the next fad in photography. I would not be surprised if you (Mike) are out with your "cane" bludgeoning the masses who indulge in the new offense.

you must be joking; your examples don't support the argumennt. You do realize that you ruined the natural geographic photo, right? Its not supposed to be pretty.

Like some of the others, I would have to disagree with you with regards to Behera's photo. While the green is certainly not my choice of colour for a car, nonetheless it is beautiful and even soothing in its own way; a depiction of the 'crudeness' or 'ugliness' (sorry couldn't think of better words right now) of the environment. Almost an oxymoron I know, but the colour version just works for me.

The portrait on the other hand, point taken.

"Take this photograph by Udayan Behera"

Like Jay, I thought this was going to be an example of when colour is needed. There's a lot of subtlety in the colour of the water that gets lost when converted to black and white. I took a copy and tried various methods of converting to black and white but none of them worked for me.

In principle I agree - but there's plenty of better examples out there.

I'm not convinced that you actually believe that B$W is better than color Mike. I do however enjoy these academic ruminations that you often toss out to stir the pot.

I can easily be accused of using color for the sake of it's "decorative" qualities.

"Too decorative" is surely a nice way of calling something garish or tacky. One of the other arguments people have of color is that (And I believe you have used this) "It does not exist in Nature" Well......yes those colors do exist in nature. Spend some time under water, in the high mountains (summer or Winter) in the desert or the jungle. You will most certainly find those colors and likely won't find them in the woods or backyards of southeastern WI.

B&W photography seems to live in this sphere of "I shoot B&W because I know better" I say it depends on your approach and choice of subject matter. Would Michael Kenna be as successful shooting color?........... Sure he would. Did Eliot Porter make decorative photography? (some would thinks so)

What about all those people shooting B&W prior to 1935 or whenever we first got color? Did they all see the world in B&W because it got right to the soul and essence of the subject? No, they had no choice (except to paint). And look at all those monochrome painters that have gone on to great success and note.

Do too many people "Juice" the saturation slider to get that wow factor from their pics. You bet...... Are most of us working from our own personal eye and taste for color in any given situation? Yes. I'm sure I could use much more eduction on color theory and many others could as well.

In the end this argument is nothing different than saying Rock music is better than Jazz music, or Beer is better than Wine.

I'm not sure that photo (snot color) and all is as horrible as you think and I would lift the mid tones of your conversion for sure. The portrait is much nicer in B&W but that could be the fashion choices she made!

OK Blah blah blah. ;-)

Here is a garish and too decorative picture for you.


Oh this was a lovely read, thank you!
I actually think the Gaussian blur tactic is a very useful tip!
I also like to look at the bokeh and see if there's a matching colourpalette there with what is in focus.
Funny though, that you talk in the terms of colour junkies! Cause I noticed, in the online area I'm involved in, like deviantArt and photoblogs, that a lot of people just convert a plain colourphoto to b/w to make it look "good", or interesting or whatever. Perhaps it brings about an air of filmphotography which inherently is interesting? (Or so they think). I dunno!
But I guess colour and b/w photography are very much two different things. When I load my film with one of them I really have to reconsider what I shoot. When shooting b/w it's more about textures and patterns and structures, while with colour it's more about - duh - colour! (A frame that could've worked in b/w could be a disaster in colour because someone in the background is wearing a hotpink coat!)
But I guess with the digitalization of photography you have a choice afterwards, which makes it very difficult. So I think this entry was quite helpful, to at least make one think about it and how to go about with the choice.
I do like b/w a lot though because in a way it strips the image down to its essence, instead of "ohhh, pretty colours!".

You might be on to something with the "too much information" thing.

(Purely theoretical pontificating...)

I would argue that a picture that was "interesting" as black and white and interesting as a color blur would be too much information.

Keeping things simple, one would expect that the structural components of the photo (shown in black and white) would have to be less pronounced to support an image with extremely strong color expression. Similarly, the color component would have to be demure to avoid overshadowing highly interesting structure.

Mike - great topic ! I had actually been thinking of posting to photoborg something to the effect of "why is b&w favored over color by artists ?"

I happen to vastly prefer the canoe shot in color; I think the color (even if it's icky ;) is the primary subject and the physical subject matter, the composition of objects, doesn't stand on its own in b/w.

But I wonder to what degree the love of b/w depends on the fact that it came first. Why should it be natural for an artist who decides to use photography to create art to look at the world in shades of gray ?

Regarding color being too revealing ... it's said over & over that the photographers job is to decide what to show and (just as importantly) what not to show. The frame is the boundary and the result depends on those decisions. I can see color being part of that decision.

I'm still not sold on the "b/w better than color" ... not completely ... I have a few b/w pictures that I just love, and I admire an awful lot of excellent b/w photos taken by others. In fact, I'd be inclined to say I admire more b/w than color, but I suspect that's because more good work has been done in b/w and not because I intrinsically prefer b/w. But I'm not sure.

I guess part of the problem is that while I think b/w is viewed by some as a "higher art" form (I view it as the choice of many good artists) there's also the notion that b/w is sort of a crutch - by removing distracting colors, you're enabling good photos to be taken that would not be good in color. I see it as the obvious choice of photographers who need/want to get shots where they have no control over backgrounds.

Regarding your exercises - the second one (color blur) is interesting. No smugness - I think I may try that ! On converting to b/w, I always struggled to convert color digital - I was used to shooting in a b/w or color mindset with film, and didn't like the idea of converting color after the fact. Lately, though, after I run a batch of pictures through ACR, I select all, then desaturate, and run through them to see which ones look good in b/w. I'm often surprised to find ones I thought would, don't and ones I didn't expect, do. Sometimes it's a picture with strong colors that contribute nothing or detract that are improved but sometimes it's the nearly monochromatic color picture that looks better in b/w.

Anyway, thanks for the good food for thought - I'll try to remember the words "too much information" and see if that helps me decide why I like some pictures better in b/w. BTW, I recall an elderly coworker of my wifes saying she was devastated the first time she saw - I think it was The Wizard of Oz - in color. Her mind had filled in all the colors previously, and they were all wrong in the color version.

Interesting. I almost always do both for colour: convert to B&W & blur (although using Jay's glasses removal technique) for exactly the reasons you state. Helps me tune the tone of colour shots, too.

For people pictures I rarely like (or make) colour pictures.

As for Behera's shot - I see where you're coming from but I think the context warrants colour in this case.

I also liked the boats better in color, to be honest. Obviously it's a matter of taste. In general, though, I'm with you--I prefer the clean black and white. Unlike you, I have no issues with converting a digital shot taken in color to black and white.

At this stage in the game I don't think about post-processing until after I've taken the shot (sometimes well after). For me, shooting and post-processing are completely separate activities.

I've been thru the whole black and white versus color debate with myself many times. After intense research I think the following exchange between Calvin and his father pretty much explains the whole issue.

Calvin: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they
have color film back then?

Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just the
world was black and white then.

Calvin: Really?

Dad: Yep. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

Calvin: That's really weird.

Dad: Well, truth is stranger than fiction.

Calvin: But then why are old paintings in color?! If their world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?

Dad: Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane.

Calvin: But... but how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?

Dad: Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the '30s.

Calvin: So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?

Dad: Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?

Charlie wrote "I'm not convinced that you actually believe that B$W is better than color Mike. I do however enjoy these academic ruminations that you often toss out to stir the pot."

Charlie, I share your both your skepticism and enjoyment of this post. Mike, I recall your having posted not long ago that digital cameras on the whole don't yet produce good B&W results. That coupled with your general preference for B&W must leave you a bit dissatisfied with the current options, no?

Just curious as to which version of these shot of the B&O Railroad Museum Roundhouse ceiling others prefer:




Mike, I hate you!

I have been thinking about this discussion for the past hour.

A new thought occurred to me... (this must have been discussed somewhere else by someone else...but it is new to me...)

When you move to black and white, you are emphasizing form and shape. When you evaluate your preferences, you are emphasizing our species-ist nature.

I would argue that there are few photographs that contain all or part of a human (enough that the element is recognizable as part of a human) that would not "work well" in black and white. Similarly for man-made structures (cars, buildings, etc.).

On the other-hand, from all of those "cute" photos of kittens on Flickr, you would be hard pressed to find many that would work in black and white. I would argue that this is a reflection of the fact that humans really don't find the feline shape and form all that appealing/interesting. We require the extra color information to identify with the kitten (I would even argue that people would have different preferences based on the color of the cat - where white and black cats would be the least desirable).

I would argue that much of nature photography requires color for humans to identify with the images. In contrast, human -centric photography rarely requires color.

I took your Gaussian blur advice a step further the other day - I took a couple of photographs that had nothing in focus. (Okay, I admit, the first one was an accident, but I liked the effect.) Focusing on the general shapes and colors present in the scene can be an interesting exercise, and the watercolor like result can actually be a pleasing image. It gives a whole new appreciation for the quality of bokeh rendered by the lens, too.

I agree with the comments that the original National Geographic image was probably better suited to the purpose of the image. It gives a much better sense of place, which is a huge part of most NG photographs. Looking at photographs in black and white is a good exercise, though. Strong composition should prevail through changes in saturation, and removing color can often draw attention to other strong aspects of a photograph.

I prefer the colored version of the water and boats, and B&W version of the portrait. I've heard of some purists who insist on shooting B&W with no cropping, yet B&W is, in a sense, cropping an image - cropping out the colors, that is.

Other than in the field of photography, I don't think B&W is prevalent in the art world (well, maybe sculpture). And it's probably because they simply couldn't do color in the early days of photography. I cannot think of any major western painting done in monochrome.

Can you imagine Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso using only black and white oil paints? Or imagine still watching B&W TV or using a monochrome monitor. I do appreciate good B&W photography and good color photography, but I think that as we move further into the future, we will see less and less of B&W photography.

Now that we have agreed that color is too decorative, and that B&W has gravitas, can we also agree that B&W film and B&W paper, printed in a home darkroom, provides a superior print to a B&W photoshop conversion and printed on a home inkjet?

It would follow that it's time to stop fooling around with this stuff and buy some Tri-x. :)

Take care,

This side of you is what I'd call an acquired taste, but I've come to enjoy it; it's one of the many things that sets this place apart from other photography websites.

I look at it from the other side, and maybe this is a generational thing, since I've grown up surrounded by color photos. When I'm "developing" a raw picture into jpeg and I think "this might work well in b&w," I often end up asking myself, "but what does making it b&w add to the picture?" There are other times when I convert, and suddenly there's this "ahhh" feeling of relief, because the colors were a distraction and now the photo is somehow more pure and more powerful.

I'm looking forward to the day you address "selective color," (not sure if that's the technical term, but e.g. monochrome pictures with a colorful face/American flag in the middle) because I expect it will be pretty funny and I expect I'll agree with what you have to say about it.

What would have happened if color photography had been invented first? Would we have even invented black and white photography? Nearly all non-photographic art is in color because that's the way we see the world. Even the very first cave paintings used pigments that rendered colors because human beings are attracted to color.

I find black and white photography interesting at times and a good way to draw attention to composition and texture, but in the end it lacks a certain something. Ah yes, perhaps it's lacking color!

It's interesting that movies converted nearly 100% to color as soon as color film was invented. Very few argued that moving images were better in black and white. Why is it that many still photographers are still clinging to a short-lived interim technology?

As Dr. Maturin said to Captain Aubrey, "sure, it's a point of view".

Mike: Like many others who have commented, I prefer the boat photo you posted in colour. Which is preferable for photography? I think both have their place. A sunset with deep reds and mauves loses a lot of its impact when reduced to shades of gray. OTOH, 'stripping down' a shot to B&W does reduce the observer to looking at shapes, shadows, tones... When I'm sorting my images in Lightroom, if I see an image that has strong shapes I'll often check to see if it works better in B&W, but for some colour just works better. YMMV.


P.S. As to the 'naturalist' effect - when I was first studying wildlife biology the one characteristic least emphasized when learning to identify species was colour. This was to highlight other characteristics of inherent in every species. Granted this can be difficult, especially with songbirds...

I like to print color when color is the real subject. Bright, garish splashes of color, or warm color from a setting sun. Example: a tight shot of a typical race car with all the logos and names of sponsors in a wide array of colors is best in color. I heard Sam Abell say that he preferred to do his National Geographic work just after sunset when color is muted and warm.

Often, when I convert to b&w, I'm unable to keep the photo as black and white for one reason: blown highlights. To me, blown highlights in b&w images are extremely grating, even though the same image in color doesn't bother me.

Take the portrait image, for example. I would've converted to black and white, seen the ugly blown highlights, tried in vain to recover them, then begrudgingly reverted back to color, where the same highlights are pleasing rather than garish.

Maybe the issue is that the 255,255,255 highlights spoil the illusion that the photo was made with black and white film rather than a conversion from digital. Blown highlights make an otherwise decent black and white image nearly always unusable.

I would argue that sketching and drawing is painting's version of black and white.

I believe then that Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc. worked in black and white quite frequently.

"As everyone knows, black and white is better than color."

And it's true.

If you want to be artistically inclined, that is. B&W is so much divorced from the reality that it's an instant reminder that you look at "art". Of course, the fact that you're artistically inclined doesn't mean you'll immediately produce art, as has already been pointed up there. :-)

And while we are bandying art history around, not only the white facades of buildings were painted, the white pure marble Greek statues were also painted to resemble real human figures.

Mike great post. My wife and I were just discussing this topic on our own. I find several thoughts on this fascinating.

I also often feel that color is distracting and "too much information". But part of this I attribute to my personal light hypersenitivity. Bright light often triggers my migraines and a cloudless day with no place to hide from the sun is actually quite oppresive for me. I do tend to prefer cloudy or even grey midwestern skies. My eyes and brain are not assaulted and I can relish the textures and tones that I see.

Also, I feel that color is actually very subjective. When dealing with other senses, sound (music), smells, or even pain we will agree that there are differences in the way peoples brains interpret the information and thus significantly affects the meaning of those sensations. However, we tend very much to believe our vision as fact. I feel that people "see" colors differently (excluding color blindness). I believe that we can look at the same scene and remember the colors quite differently. As you stated in your post awhile back with the picture of your dog tied up in the yard. Thus I am not sure that color photography is truely a more acurate depiction of the real world, it is an interpretation. Even more so with the easy alterations of photoshop. I actually like some of the highly altered colors I see people doing because they don't attempt to pretend to be real, they are giving a message or a feel to the image by the use of the altered color. I suspect that if we flew over those boats with the photographer we would not have all interpreted the appearance of the water the same. I do believe that the use of the color did allow them to convey the message they want sent about the state of the lake.

Another comment is that I once read that in the world of fashion women have a tendency to go for color and men prefer patterns and texture. I don't know if it is true but it's an interesting thought.

Thanks for getting us to think about these things and I will give the glasses off test a try as suggested by one of the other posts as that will be a quick and easy way to see the smudge effect on my attempts at photography.

In the river picture, I prefer the colour version. Sure the green isn't pretty, but it seems to me that that's a large part of the point of that particular image, or at least the context it is in. The B&W throws away the one thing that draws me in to the story - living and working on water that isn't some blue-green clear ideal.

I try to actually use colour in my portraits. A lot of the time I'm actually trying to compose with colour, compliments, contrasts. It isn't so much 'oh, bright red' rather than, hmm, that red might play well off this green.

When I fail to get those relationships to work I fall back on B&W. So I try to be thinking about what colours I'm using and when (though as you painfully spiked, I'm drawn to the bright primaries)

The blur thing is also a great exercise. I quite often defocus the lens and compose that way, thinking about colour and shape relationships, with the detail removed. I may have taken it one step too far by starting to enjoy those defocused images and working on series with no in focus elements. The interesting thing to those images is the very hostile reaction most photographers have to them. Not just don't like or like, but 'that's not a photograph, or stop wasting my time'. Real, angry offense. Makes me think it is worth doing more.

The water looks semi-transparent and shallow in the color version of the boat photo, since the yellow rock is visible through it. In the B/W it's all lost in a big solid grey field. Not the best example of the strengts of B/W, even though I agree with the main idea of this article.


It seems that there is a small flaw in your B&W conversion test. If you have a color photograph that is considered good, but when converted to B&W falls flat, wouldn't that imply that the color was actually used in an appropriate way. Can't color be a fundamental part of the photograph. It seems similar to saying, "if you crop out this half of the photograph, is it still a good photograph?". Well no, because the careful composition of the photograph is integral to it's success. Some photographs depend on the balance/contrast of different colors to deliver their message (although the ubiquitous flower pictures probably don't fall into this category). I agree the if you have a photograph that looks good in color and B&W, then you have photograph that doesn't depend on color and you might as well get rid of it, distill it to remove any distractions. But I think there is no shame in a photograph relying on color to achieve success.

P.S. As always, thank you for the provacative ruminations.

Sam G.

With color, I think of areas. With black and white, I think in terms of lines.

@Lambert: One word: Guernica.

(This is my first comment on this site)
In my opinion the Udayan Behera photo works much better in color. First because the water transparency is only visible in color, as the brown underwater rocks have similar luminocity than the water and therefore they are not visible in B&W. And second because the green water color teint looks marvelous to me - like those alabaster (onyx rocks) I gathered when I was a kid.

That Behera shot is way better in color in my opinion. If I was the author, I'd be deeply offended by the B&W one. I mean, you REALLY prefer the B&W?

I think you made a test to see how readers respond.

Amin, I prefer the color image as it more readily conveys that the impressive ceiling of the B&O roundhouse is made of wood which in turn suggests the large scale of the subject. I don't think this is as clear in the B&W version.

Mike, I knew this post would explode into dozens of comments. Have you noticed that nobody (at the time I'm writing this) thinks that the National Geographic shot looks better in B&W? I fear you may be very alone in that park, brandishing your righteous cane :-)

Amin, I like the B&W version better. There's not much colour anyway, and I'm just seeing the patterns. Not that I find the colour offensive! ;-)

I took a series of shots of my wife the other week. While I was shooting I was looking at the play of light over her shoulders while she lay on the couch. She was wearing a shiny, pink nightgown and I knew the contrast with her light skin would look great in B&W. In the end, I chose shots where the nightgown is hidden in the shadows, but this only happens in the B&W versions. In colour, that damn pink is still clearly visible. Here's an example:


I worked hard on the B&W conversion process to achieve "the look" I saw while I was shooting and was quite pleased with the result. When I called my wife in to see the photos she said "hmmm...I like the colour ones better". (!!!!) Just goes to show there are different tastes, and maybe non-photographers prefer colour because it more faithfully represents the world they see around them.

Needless to say, I paid no heed to my wife and posted the B&W versions online...right next to a whole bunch of colour photographs. I don't think it's an either/or decision, Mike. But if you prefer B&W, go ahead and use it! I'll still read your blog. But I'll make sure to stay well away from any old men with canes when I'm in the park photographing flowers:


Color is the way we see the world. Our memories are in color. The majority of photographers are recording memories, for contemplation at a later date. Would you prefer to go through your accumulated images of people, places and days gone by in color or in b&w? Most people would answer "color" imho. B&W photos have impact, and a place in photographic history, but assertions that one format is "better" than the other is pure opinion, not fact.

One point not often made. IMHO, colour is usually *harder* to do well than B&W. Working in color, you have all the same issues that you have with B&W, PLUS the fact that you need (at least) to avoid having the color detract (or distract) from your composition, avoid having the colors fight with each other, and (at best) perhaps achieve something more with this additional resource than would be possible in monochrome. Just my $0.02.

I'm sitting here trying to think of any William Eggleston or 1970s Steven Shore photographs I would like to see in B&W.

I think it's analogous to the difference between most fine art drawings and paintings. Most drawings are in one color on another usually something like black on white, and most paintings are in color. Drawings tend to use lines to achieve their effect and most painting is tend to use areas to achieve their effect.

In the portrait example above, the B%W works well , and the the blurred version is kind of compelling in its own formal way. It sort of reminds me of the Swedish flag, if I were doing my "the intent of the artist and the meaning of the work or only coincidental" shtick I could go on at length on the searing social comment on the homogeneity of Swedish identity's fate in the face of post nationalism. Or maybe not, but I digress.

Of course you always have notable exceptions like late Jackson Pollack paintings which were more about the nature of paint than most paintings, but were also more about pure line that most drawings, needed color to function but weren't about color.
Back to painting vs drawing and B&W vs color. You also have in other art forms questions of lyric vs. narrative , sound vs silent, electric vs. acoustic, rhyme vs. meter , internal rhyme vs. end rhyme , comedy vs. tragedy.

I think that color and B&W photography are two different disciplines that share the same tools and techniques the same way that Opera and Ballet are both performed by people moving around on a stage accompanied by an orchestra acting out a narrative in front of an audience.

One of the interesting things about color war photography, which is different from B&W war photography is that in color it all seems familiar, sometimes there is a horrific scene in a setting that has an ordinary prettiness to it with perhaps interesting weather and lighting. They seem more powerful in a way than the classic B&W war photographs because they look so ordinary as opposed to the B&W photos that looked like they were taken in an exotic far away "foreign" place.

You're way off base on this one, Mike, although it is a topic which should be investigated and discussed.
For example, I suggest that you replace your lady's portrait with the Afganistan woman by Steve McCurdy. In B&W it's pretty ordinary -- in color it is one of the great photographic ikons of the 20th century.
So far as I know, Color images and B&W images are probably processed differently by the visual cortex and interpreted differently by the brain.
Blah, blah, blah...!

It is precisely because we see in colour that colour is representative, too normal. The trick is to *think* in b&w whilst shooting; that makes you think about shape/form/texture/tonal separation, at source, which will help lead more in the direction of an artistic photo rather than a mere snap. (Not getting your thumb or cable-release in the way are additional helpful factors.)

Ah, b/w - the easy way out. Your photo is just a picture? Try desaturation and you've created ART. From insignificance to substance by forsaking reality. I love that, really, gives me hope all my boring pics can easily be salvaged, making them Images with a very capital 'I'.

Regarding the above-mentioned comment made by Lambert: "Can you imagine Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso using only black and white oil paints?..."
How do you compare Picasso's Blue Period to black/white photography?

It was convenient that you wrote this entry in such close proximity to the entry about lens contrast. I've noticed in my photography that some lenses render images more readily convertible to monochrome than other lenses. For example, the kit zoom packaged with my D40, which may be optimized for color photography, doesn't render enough contrast for good black & whites. In fact, its relatively plain contrast is one of the reasons I moved on to other lenses, and primes in particular. By comparison, my recently bought macro prime with Nikon's nano-coating produces images that survive a b&w conversion very well. That may be thanks to the lens's great microcontrast. I think this ties in with your point that color creates its own contrast, which would explain why the kit lens's images, with their poppy colors, fall flat once those colors are removed.

As usual Mike this has engendered an interesting discussion although I'll take exception to your examples which both lose a lot for me when converted to B&W.

Shape, form, texture etc. can be important in B&W and colour but my general way of working sees B&W as "making a photograph" and colour as "taking a record". Occasionally a special subject and/or a special light can transform a colour shot from "record" to "photograph" but I sometimes worry that others may not see the same beauty in the colour as I do, perhaps appreciation of a B&W image is subject to a little less controversy.

I believe it was Geoffrey Crawley (erstwhile editor of the BJP, now technical guru of Amateur Photographer) who said something like "with B&W you can make a picture out of anything".

Oh, one final point, Mike could you please translate "some old fat dude in a Speedo" - what is a Speedo?

Cheers, Robin

Thought-provoking article.
I happen to like the green in your sample picture, rather like old jade but I see you point.
While the idea of checking out an image in monochrome to see if it stands up as an image has validity and I plan to try it, some images are *about* the color.
Of course those your Gaussian test should work nicely.
All in all you stir the pot nicely.
Makes us think, which can be a good thing.

Oops... I made a mistake. I just happened to read for the first time this morning your article on lens contrast as featured on Luminous Landscape, so I imagined that I'd actually read it here. That was embarrassing. But what I said about the connection between the two still applies.

My 2 cents:

Is poetry better than prose? Film better than still images? Oil superior to etching? Sculpture superior to painting superior?

They're just different, like B& W photos and color photos. Each "medium" (i.e., mode of visual expression) has its unique characteristics, and different considerations come into play for their evaluation.

Color is an essential aspect of color photography (I know it's tautological to say this, but not necessarily meaningless). It can be treated better or worse, depending on the image and the eye/mind/heart of the photographer.

There is little sense in making broad pronouncements about the worth of one medium (or manner of picture-making) over another. They're just different.

however I do not agree with the color conversion in the case of the boats, the post reminded me of the following by ad reinhardt:

color blinds

colors are
& suggest life

cannot be completely controlled,
should be concealed,

colors are
a distracting

ad reinhardt, 1957

Just got back from a long weekend in DE/PA. Saw some B&W oil paintings that I liked a lot, as well as a small collection of color photographs by Pete Turner.

IMHO, the worst candidate for a B&W image is one that has large areas of featureless midtone gray . . . just like the conversion above. I agree that many color scenes, like the hot pink example mentioned above, are easier to present in B&W, which suggests that color is more challenging, not less, because you have to make a conscious effort to keep the colors from becoming the main attraction. Aren't we blaming the medium when the real problem is that most photographers who don't understand the issue happen to work in color?

Here's something provocative:


I, too, find the colour version of Behera's photograph more pleasing to the eye and thought this wasgoing to be an example where colour worked better. It shows - at least on my monitor - more depth to the water and conveys to me more about the place and life on the river.

I, myself, prefer b/w, while my wife likes colour in most cases. More and more, when I do enjoy colour in a photograph, it is a muted, desaturated subtle colour, rather than glaring reds and yellows which give me a headache, or colour wheel pairings from some cheap textbook on how to shoot nature photographs (e.g., purple and yellow, red and green, etc.).

I admire some of Ansel Adams' work. It is instructive to look at some of his colour photographs which are published together in a book. In my opinion, they leave much to be desired. They are, in short, terrible compared with his b/w work.

But then some photographers--Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, Miachael Fatali, Art Wolfe, and espcially Jospeh Holmes come to mind--use colour effectively in their photographs. Indeed they rely upon it.

What can we conclude from this, if anything? I believe that at to photograph at a high level one has to think differently whether shooting colour or b/w. Perhaps some people can make equally effective photographs in both colour and b/w, but I have yet to see their work. They may, in a sense, almost be different media.

I generally like BW photography too, but Yuck! The boat example does not serve your argument well at all. The color is the only distinguishing thing about it. Completely boring in BW.

I still enjoy flipping through my Marie Cosindas and Saul Leiter books - those artists photographed in color for a reason. But I do think a lot of color photography today is overrated.

Most of time I shoot with colour simply because the world we see is colourful. But before I shoot a scene, I try to visualise it in B&W to imagine its tonality or histogram. I wouldn't argue which is better, it all depends on what you want to express.

If the portrait didn't suffer from mixed light, it might work better in color. Just sayin'.

A thought-provoking article, and the argument is one with which I have a great deal of sympathy. Oddly, though, the first thing I thought of, as I read it (aside from the thought that you are a kick-ass writer), was Pete Turner. Man that giraffe:


Not sure what it tells me about photography, but my eyeballs are having orgasms.


Thanks for the stimulating discussion point.

The next step in the argument is to admit that colour is actually very difficult to use, and that you are suggesting that the answer is not to use it at all.

Our challenge is to learn to use colour well. A complicating factor is that the "reality" of colour is variable depending on ambient light as well as the object colour, as well as haze.


The Nat' Graph' image is informational, therefore the color helps define the narrative but not the asthetic. The BxW however is strictly a very pleasing image allowing the viewers imagination to supply his own narrative and that is one of the joys of BxW.

So the TOP is POT stirring again!

keep it coming Mike


B&W is for photographers too lazy to learn Color just like film is for photographers too lazy to learn Digital. Film technology and B&W images are the same as steam engine railroad locomotives: they still work, they were great in their time and served well, but are today only reasonable for sentimental hobbyists.
(there now, how's that for gas on a fire?)

best wishes

Back in university (early '90s) I had a prof that would only use a gray-scale monitor. I once asked him why he didn't have a colour monitor, and he said "Why would you want that? B&W is much more crisp, you can see more detail, and you don't have all that colour distracting you."

The thing was, he was my 4th year computer graphics prof. He felt that you only needed to add colour to things when it had meaning. I think he was right.

While for my own photography I tend to use B+W - either RAW (ie film) or converted - like many others I found the NG colour photo much superior. The colour here is necessary for the atmosphere, and the B+W conversion seems merely to look at the original as a graphic construct - it also misses some tone gradations that work in the colour version around the lower boat.

However that aside, I have often puzzled over this B+W conundrum. I think most people agree that it changes a photograph when presented in B+W. If there is an absolute merit in this, I'm wondering why we don't have more artists Painting in greyscale? Does this somehow support an argument that photography is unique and works in a different way from other "graphic art"

Of course Rembrandt and all the others often chose to use "b&w". Just look at their etchings, drawings, charcoal, woodcuts etc. Just like photographers today, they sometimes chose color, sometimes black and white.

should it not be colour rather than color...

It's a great read and I like the point about the blur to see if the colours and composition is good.
I must say that I do the convert to B&W naturally now, to see if it still looks good, but sometimes the colours do add a lot.
And finally I must agree with some others here that the boat photo works (for me) much better in colour.

Keep up the good work.

Haha, what a giggle! I love the way you appear to come down decisively against colour after weighing the matter carefully. I think I'll adopt such a dogmatic stance for a few of my own bugbears:

People who shoot sunsets should be beaten with a stick.

And cats - double-beatings.

Boring "street photography" (i.e. "Here's some people. In a street."), black & white OR colour: thwack thwack thwack.

People who shoot Canons: extra-wide stick. Let's be clear, folks: Nikon or STICK.

Believe me, there won't be half as much rubbish filling up Flickr once I get my "crazy old coot" status.

Now as I get older it's colour that takes my interest not the black and white of my darkroomed comparative youth. There are too many uninteresting photographs masquerading as fine art these days. I've seen them: old hinges and locks, pots on window sills - nothing remarkable until converted into black and white and they become elevated to fine art. It's because its a black and white pot and we see in colour - that is the only real interest. And the picture of the boat in the article - more is said by the colour of that water than the whole black and white version. Black and white superior? Black and white pretentious!

"Lambert, Guernica is a very noted 'western' black and white painting."

And let's not forget one of my favorite painters, Franz Kline.

The artist I discussed last week, Peter Milton, works in B&W, because he's an etcher.

Mike J.

I agree that color should add something to the picture rather than just being there by accident.

What I often like are what I would call near-monochrome pictures, i.e. color pictures that are dominated by a single, possibly subdued, color. It can add atmosphere without being distracting.

As an alternative to doing the Gaussian blur, for many pictures squinting works for me (and is quicker to reverse).

Thanks for your inspiring thoughts.

Nice! The Black and white, reminded me of the creek in the philippines ;)

Wow, don't remember this conversation since the seventies, and I've loved the "new" (Shore/Eggleston inspired) color photography ever since, despite the fact that I personally shoot 99.99% B&W. It's just the way I've come to visualize photographically. A lot of the photography prior to the "color revolution" was just B&W with color added (eg- National Geographic).

All I'd like to see is a better balance between the two. Color offered a nice alternative to a medium that had perhaps become somewhat tired and cliched, thirty five years later, the shoe may be on the other foot...

the river is nice!

When I was at photography school, our head instructor, Ted Grant, had a saying: " Real photographers shoot black and white." In fact it was on the back of our school t-shirt. I have always had that phrase in the back of my head whenever I go out shooting. He also had another phrase: " Always shoot from the shadow side" but that's another subject all together.

Wow, impressive number and quality of responses!

Andrew and Miserere, thanks for your thoughts on the roundhouse photo. Some photos, such as the beautiful flower image Miserere posted above, clearly work best in color. Others, such as the portrait Mike posted, just as clearly work best in B&W. Still another category includes those which work about as well in color as in B&W. However, I tend to agree with those who have suggested that if color isn't adding anything, it's usually detracting.


To "abstract" is to take away. You can take away color, shading, shape, line, detail, recognizable features, etc., and still have something worth looking at more than once. You can leave them all in and nonetheless have something that isn't worth looking at even once. Whatever the choices, whether the result is worth looking at or not depends on the artist's abilities and skills in handling these "materials," and not on the materials themselves.

One of the great things about working in Lab color in Photoshop is that you can work on a picture in the Lightness ("BW") channel and at any point review the results in color (and unshifted color, moreover) in the Lab composite. If and when the picture works in the Lightness ("BW") channel, dealing with the color is usually much more straightforward and is often unnecessary.

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Williams Carlos Williams

All these comments seem to suggest that a digital camera with a luminance only sensor would have enough customers to make it viable in the marketplace. Ca, Ni, So, Oly, Ptx; are you listening?

i think it depends on the interpretation and the purpose of the photograph. As the colored one has more details, like the muddy path underwater, you can't see those things on a clean and crisp b&w photo.

B&W is an abstraction of color, where similar values of red and green may be indistinguishable. But while photographers are willing to make that abstraction, they often insist that **color** have some "reality." They may agree to some alterations, like saturation, but basically, they want clear skies to be blue and grass to be green.

Painters have no such inhibitions. Van Gogh had great yellow and green skies...the point being that painters adjust the colors until they are in some sort of harmony with each other, while photographers tend to accept colors as they are, or as the camera says they are.

If a photo would look better with blue grass and the woman in the photo would look better with a green stripe down her nose, well...we don't do that. We could, but we don't. So we let nature determine the colors we use, and they often don't work all that well together.

One common amateur color photograph that works well is a mixture of green grass and fallen orange and yellow autumn leaves, because orange/green are natural complementaries and the other colors of fallen leaves -- yellows, browns, reds, etc., are analogous colors surrounding the oranges, or tints and shades of orange, and so provide a natural dominant-color scheme. In this kind of scheme, color works well, and a B&W photograph looks like nothing.

If photographers weren't afraid to manipulate colors so that the colors worked well, in themselves, and if photographers were willing to free themselves from the idea of "real" color, their photographs would be better. The problem is that most people who do this are just dinking around in Photoshop and the results are a mess. We should get Ctein to take one of his photos and adjust all the colors until he feels they are perfect (as color), and then compare it to the same shot in B&W. Betcha Mike would like that better than B&W.


Carl and Mike,

I appreciate your always-insightful comments. You’re right about sketches, etchings, drypoint being monochromatic. And I think that’s because of the technology involved. However, what I actually had in mind was where the artists had a real choice between color and monochrome (such as oil), mostly they chose to work in color. Guernica – how could that have skipped my mind? But there’s no denying that the vast majority of oil paintings were done in color (to the best of my knowledge).

Speaking of Guernica, the B/W-ness was probably influenced by photography. I recall that the U.N. [ridiculously, I might add] hid a reproduction behind a curtain during Powell's presentation to push for the invasion of Iraq. Do you know of B/W oil paintings made before the advent of photography?

Stuart Hamilton
And WCW 's "The Great Figure " prompted this picture from Demuth apparently in Steiglitz' collection: http://www.wisdomportal.com/Christmas/Figure5InGold.html or further
Williams 'wrote in color' And I would have to think on it further but is not much poetry evocative in color?
And how might that play into our fascination with BW photography. People above have linked other visual arts and their use of color or not with photography, how does the written word connect and is this a valid connection to pursue?

My head hurts.

Love the Pete Turner

Is anyone interested in Yoda vs. Sith Lord stick fight?

Because I have an uncle that would stick-fight anyone that tries to shoot, convert to or even think about B&W.

Now, the real question is who gets to be Yoda?!

It seems to me, that the less "realistic" an imaging technology is, the less "artistic" it is considered, and the more archaic it is, the more artful it is considered.
I do not mean this as a criticism of anything, merely an observation.

Sculpture did not begin its journey to abstraction until its story telling function was nearly gone.
Painting did not go abstract until early photography replaced it recordation function.
It was cheaper, easier, and less time intensive. Color added more recordation capability. B&W was rendered abstract.

Generally speaking, what humans say is art, is a former utilitarian communication technology, shorn of that function.
It will be either more difficult, or time intensive, of less efficient than what displaces it.

Now we have a preference in the "art" photography world of, in order of price, with highest first:

B&W film, old chemical process
B&W film contemporary chemical process
Color film chemical process

Any of above as film capture /digital printing

Digital capture and process B&W
Digital capture and process color

Huw - I think you nailed one thing that strikes me about b/w ... would it have ever become so popular if it weren't there first ?

And I have to chuckle at Mike's commentary on the color picture (and wonder if it isn't tongue in cheek) because it seems like he's dismissing it on the unpleasantness of the color, whereas I would expect Mike to be the first one to beat me over the head if I were to dismiss good photographs over unpleasant content !

Re the Behera photo: I think much of Mike's original post and the discussion is too focused on aesthetics rather than significance: the colour version is less "charming" and that's part of its interest, and much of its power. The colour version seems much more ambiguous, much more reflective: water is not pure, it can be murky, even polluted perhaps. The shading between the transparency and the murk, and the colour of the water, in this picture makes me ask if this is a natural phenomenon, or something that humans have done to this water. We aren't told here (but read on), so the question sits there spooking us out ever so slightly. Gordon McGregor's post makes the more important point very eloquently: this photo is about people's lives.

However (big However): I deliberately looked that photo & thought a lot about it before seeking out the original on the NatGeo site. The photographer's original caption suggests that he had something else altogether in mind: "This photograph was taken from a helicopter over the place called the Satkosia George in Orissa, India. It is 22 kilometers long, very deep, and filled with crocodiles and many other natural beauties of the world which are still out of the limelight."

So, probably wrong about the pollution then. Now I'm thinking about crocodiles who lurk in murk (sorry) and the vulnerability of those little boats. The green colour of the water makes blends with the mental image of a browny-green crocodile thinking about its lunch.

But (big But) I /still/ think about pollution when I see the photo. The question /has/ still been asked. But it now also asks the questions "where's the crocodile? And how hungry and tetchy is it?". I think the B&W version risks asking mainly the question "who's a pretty photo then? Go on, admire my tasteful tonality and clever graphic sense".

I've taken photographs like that, I know I have, and I've even toned them beautifully and I've shown them to people who have said how lovely they are. And I've been filled with self-loathing for days afterwards.

So in /my/ old age I will be chasing off people who might be making charming, tasteful, above all /photographic/ B&W photos of red flowers.

"So in /my/ old age I will be chasing off people who might be making charming, tasteful, above all /photographic/ B&W photos of red flowers."

That's just the point of my "Color Picture": B&W photographers wouldn't BE making photos of red flowers. B&W photographers would understand that there's not a picture worth taking there.

Mike J.

"B&W photographers would understand that there's not a picture worth taking there".

I so hope that's ironic. I really really do. I hope there are things yet to be seen in red flowers, seen in black & white or in colour. I'm working on one at the moment where the whole essence of the picture hinges on two flowers' redness. Sure, it's tougher than it used to be to take pictures of red flowers because lots of other people have.

But that's about practice, not principle, and I think what is going on here is a rhetorical confusion between the two. I've been trying to work out the truth value of the statement "As everyone knows, black and white is better than color" (which is probably a statement about practice dressed as one about principle), and I can't do it, really I can't. It might be true, but I'll be blowed if I can see how one could know.

I love black & white - I even prefer it to colour most of the time for my own stuff. But I take pictures of cats too, so I'm probably going to hell anyway.

Color would have destroyed Cartier-Bresson's body of work.

"I've been trying to work out the truth value of the statement 'As everyone knows, black and white is better than color' (which is probably a statement about practice dressed as one about principle), and I can't do it, really I can't."

I think the accurate evaluation is called "tongue in cheek"....

Of course everybody knows it's actually true!

Mike J.

Mike, your ambiguity is very manifest at the end here. This was much to project your preferences and provoke us all to think as has been noted, but I still must comment that your snarky statement "B&W photographers would understand that there's not a picture worth taking there." can be considered a tautology. Photography = BW photography, if it does not make a BW photograph it is not a photograph, maybe its an image.
Yep, colo(u)r ****** are images.
Maybe you should redefine this here and it will spread everywhere. Mike you can be the Vanguard of a new dichotomy in the art world. BW= photo : Colo(u)r=image.
It's the Bomb, we may have hit it big. Just give me a footnote.

The u is for political correctness in the English Language world.

No political correctness needed. The "u" is a variant found in the written expression of the dialect of the American language spoken in parts of some rainy islands hanging off the western edge of Eurasia.

And before anyone thinks I'm being "tongue in cheek" - I'm not. It's time we English got over ourselves. It's not our language any more, and a good job too.

Tongue in cheek. Um. Sounds a bit of a retrofit to me.

Anyway, since George Housley may have awoken the Sleeping Trolls of the Cave of Semiotics by mentioning the dichotomy between "photograph" and "image" I'm heading for the hills, pausing, as I pack the Lowepro, only to say that "interestingness" can be found all over the place, and it's often in colour and often in black & white. I don't know if the B&W version of the Afghan girl is "better" or not, and I'm not that bothered. I do find it much less interesting, though. Ditto the river.

Oh, yeah, just before I try to squeeze the tripod into the back of the station wagon - one other thing about colour: you can always turn someone else's colour photograph into black & white - but t'other way round is harder. Black & white can be a way of maintaining power & control, saying "I know best" to the viewer. I turn things into B&W specifically when I want to control the viewer's reaction, and I think that underlies a lot of the discussion here.

Oh, no, I've just had another panic attack - if colour causes problems, what's it going to be like when we get 3-D?

Interestingly enough most natural systems seem to actively use color (There are exceptions), but then they've had millions of years to perfect their "art".

I think color is plain just harder, takes more effort and time to achieve the same effect.

Hopefully this is not an Ad Hominem, Mike Zebra Johnson. Strike that, let me use my name Bob Zebra Wong.

that's a nice green, and I like the way it fades into brown on the edges reminds me of something ... can't put my finger on it.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007