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Wednesday, 07 May 2008


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I was wrong -- in B&W it is a lot more than just pretty ordinary, (but it does take color to make it back into the masterpiece it is).

Mike, For me it is hard to see a familiar b&w photo in colour or the other way around.
It is the first time I've seen "Afghan Girl" in b&w and I think both are fantastic. In fact this b&w version extenuates the eyes even more.
I'm also very happy you mentioned that colour used to be considered the added-value version of photography. It's amusing how perception changes over time.

McCurry's Afghan girl is a very strong photograph in B&W. I might just prefer it that way. Strangely enough, Afghan restaurants in New York often have multiple copies of McCurry's photo posted in various spots.

I think Gursky is often about the color. "99-cent" would just dissolve, I think, in B&W, and "Chicago Board of Trade" is also very much about red jackets in motion. Web sized images are too small to appreciate this effect--you've got to see it in person. And indeed, are these not vulgar things? Once again, Walker Evans is proven right.

I for one think the (sometimes temporary) B&W conversion a great idea as it lets one think about composition, and just as importantly, tonality. Yes, the Afghan girl's picture needs the eye color to "make the image," but I now see patterns in her shawl that I never noticed before. (And we can all think of B&W images where gradual shifts between shades of deep grays create a wonderful luster that colors might inadvertantly mask.)

Now, about the Degas comment: Mike, do you remember the reason for his disdain for flowers? I am not a connoisseur of his work, but when thoughts of him does pop into my head, I think of his blues and madder reds. I initially wondered if he found the colors of flowers clashed with his preferred color schemes. Then I occurred to me that since he often depicted people and their activities, perhaps he felt flora displays either competed with his human subjects for viewer attention, or they fostered stasis a la "still life" images. Just curious.

Color vision was thought to have evolved in humans for a variety of reasons, one being the ability to identify food. Ask someone to describe a fruit or vegetable and the first thing they mention is the color. Ask someone to buy you a bottle of berry Powerade at the store and you'll probably tell them "the blue one". Hand someone a hot dog covered with Heinz's blue ketchup and they might look at it and you with some suspicion.

While I agree with most of your sentiments, (I've only done color a few times over the past six months) your apple reminded me how I personally think that food in particular is one of the times when color is (in the least) an important consideration and its absence can be disturbing.

I too had an interesting reaction to seeing the Curry portrait in B+W - I know the image, but strangely enough it didn't register immediately that it HAD been converted to B+W. This suggests that the strength of the image have little to do with either colour or B+W.

I think too many people are making the mistake that B+W is somehow an end in itself, and that it is the B+W-ness of the image that matters. It's the goal that the photographer is striving for that is important. If he is attracted by form and light and shade, then he uses B+W to emphasis this. In the apple photo, which is an interesting example, I would have thought that the important motif is the contrast between the form of the fruit and the surrounding grass - perhaps Mike also had at the back of his mind some kind of birds nest analogy. So B+W or colour? In this case you could be equally successful with both. Colour contrast would work, as would B+W if processed a la red filter. In addition we have textural contrast. Personally I find this works best in B+W because of the simplification.

Who needs colour when the real world is so black & white?

The pendulum is swinging Mike.
The more we are inundated with retouched hyper-coloured versions of what 'they' think we should see, the more we want to have the purity and simplicity of black and white photographs in our lives.
After 25 years as a photojournalist starting with black & white and then on to transparancy, colour neg (all self-processed and printed) to scanned neg and then completely digital, I made the decision to go freelance and have a completely digital workflow,producing work in both colour and black & white.
However, I always know which it's going to be, before I shoot
Knowing, makes a significant difference to the photographs for me.
For my black and white work, a simple conversion to grayscale isn't enough. I insist on extracting as much emotional value out of the image as possible, often emulating techniques that I used in the darkroom, but more often using software to get to the essence of the picture.
The funny thing is, I continue to get feedback from people, unaware that I'm shooting in digital, that "It's so nice to see a photographer using film. Digital can never make a photograph like film can", and so on.
Intent matters. It's more important than the craft used to realise the intent.

Why is it, even in black and white, that I immediately knew that was a red apple?

I think there is possibly more to our perception & expectation of colour than the mere "that is red".

Hi Mike,
I've been following your post with much interest and it's hard to agree with you at 100% on the colour topic (Ernst Haas, anyone?). But you knew that it would spur controversy, didn't you?
My point is that in the mid-nineties, a French magazine called 'Les Inrockuptibles' was launched and the original layout had more to do with a classy fanzine than a glossy,full-colour music mag. Every issue was proudly displaying a quote from Jacques Tati, the cinematographer. It read as "Trop de couleurs distrait le spectateur" i.e. "too much colour will distract the viewer".
I think it's an aprocryphal quote but I always found it so true. In 90% of cases anyway...


Beautiful photograph, the apple on the grass, first version.

I think taking a good photograph is difficult enough in black and white. Color adds another layer of complexity, and is difficult to 'do right'. I think that shooting in black and white (actually, in color with a digital camera and digitally developing in black and white), has helped me to understand which are my better pictures.

Tip: If you use Mac OS X and want to see your photo thumbnails in black and white, in whatever program you use: System Preferences > Universal Access > Display: Use grayscale.

Black and white simplifies, and forces you to truly _look_ at the elements in a picture—the lines and shapes, the composition and atmosphere. I think the range of tonalities in a good black and white photograph often has a greater but 'quieter' expressive power.

Camera manufacturers like Ricoh and Leica would do well to introduce a digital camera sensitive to luminance only.

For some years I have routinely converted all shots to B&W before any other processing, usually with the expectation that they will be better and end up that way. In most cases though the colour turns out to be the better option.

"Why is it, even in black and white, that I immediately knew that was a red apple?"

Exactly. When I was 5 years old, I was surprised when my mother told me that on our black-and-white TV, I couldn't actually "see" that Yogi Bear was brown, the sky blue, and the trees green. I was convinced I could "tell."

Mike J.

"In response to several comments that really raised my eyebrows, I have to say that anyone who thinks that B&W merely signals 'pretentiousness' should make an attempt to, um, get over that. It's liable to give you a severely distorted view of photography.

"It's also a little amusing to someone of my generation to hear such a thing. I grew up (I was born in '57) in a culture where, with the sole exception of the fine-art world, color photography always had greater prestige."

I grew up in the same time period as you. Actually I was born in mid century, 1951. I preferred color still photography as a kid, and today, as an adult, because it more closely portrayed my visual experience in the real world. As far as I can tell prestige has little if anything to do with why people prefer color images. I think the reason is likely the richness of information available in a color image when compared to monochrome. The very thing that people were dismissing in the previous thread.

With the exception of specialized image making such as photojournalism, the black and white images produced today are intended to be seen as being outside the every day visual experience. The pretense of monochrome images as art is part of that experience.

I also have to say that I fear journalists who convert color images into monochrome and manipulate them to produce something that is more like what they saw in the field may be taking dangerous liberties. How can I rely on the journalistic integrity of a reportage image that is juiced?

The first time I saw a color television---perhaps ironically at my grandparents' home---I somehow found the little knob to switch it back to black and white, since to me, as a child, that was the proper reality, for television at least. When I started photography as a serious hobby three years ago, I mixed mostly color with some B&W, but within three months, I decided to convert all photos to monochrome. The decision was largely visceral without any preconceived prejudices or pretense. I have since converted to all film to exploit the benefits of Tri-X and such. I certainly do not dislike color, and Joel Meyerowitz remains one of my favorite photographers. But possibly because I am partially color blind, I do not manage color very well, and since this is a hobby designed purely for my self-amusement, I can afford to avoid it.

"When I was 5 years old, I was surprised when my mother told me that on our black-and-white TV, I couldn't actually 'see' that Yogi Bear was brown, the sky blue, and the trees green. I was convinced I could 'tell.' Mike J."

Do you think you would have had the same success with "The Simpsons", if they had been on TV when you were 5 years old? Mike, I am being serious here.

Mike said
"Although I can think of a lot of Technicolor movies I think should be black-and-white-ized."

Easily done, of course, by killing the color on the TV - but really, does it work? I think not. I love B&W films - not because the are B&W, but because they are lit for B&W - I think in movies color tends to enforce a "standardised" lighting, whereas B&W seems to allow much more creativity - the lighting is much more obviously a part of the film.

So this is where I have a problem with converting color shots to B&W. I agree this is a useful exercise, and may result in a better BUT I think a great B&W image needs to be captured with the intent of the finished picture being B&W. When making the shot, the composition needs to allow for the fact that textures, shapes and contrast alone will make the image without the aid of color.

Converting the odd lucky shot into B&W is not B&W photography (note that I'm not suggesting Mike said this!) - though I'm not adverse to using such luck if it comes my way.



Mike likes Red Delicious?!! No, no, no! Fuji's are much better. Anybody with good taste knows that.

Here is what you can do with a Fuji in black and white: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=6847611

Same Fuji in color: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=6847614

Fuji all the way.


Nice thought-provoking discussion, Mike.

I started thinking about painters whose work I know well enough to spot their work. Rembrandt without color, I can see in my brain. Van Gogh? Not hardly, even though you can think of his (later) paintings as using complementary colors in place of monochrome contrast. Without the vivid colors, the paintings wouldn't have the same impact.

Fascinating toys, these oversized brains of ours.

I still do both, (b&w and color), and both film and digital. This a.m. I scanned my walls, and all but one of the photos by others, and my own ones printed large, are B&W.
I will probably do more B&W again, when I someday upgrade my printer (hate the color cast problems currently experienced). My current printer (Epson 800) does really nice color. The ability also in post processing to deal with color like i used to with B&W in the darkroom is nice. Made me pull Weston's "Color as Form" essay off the shelf and re-read it last year.

I think one thing you an do with color easier than in B&W,, is a good, "busy" image. The extra information can be used to create visual themes (forms).

I graduated from high school in 2001, and that was about the time our yearbooks were switching to full color. The first time I saw color in a yearbook, on a 2-page color spread in I think 8th or 9th grade, I was excited because we were all used to black and white yearbooks. But in my last year of high school, when great swathes of the yearbook were in color, including my class's senior photos, I remember being disappointed. It just didn't look right. My classmates didn't look like themselves; the colors were tacky and unnatural, almost like bad colorizing in old movies. The yearbooks probably cost more to print in color, yet they appeared cheaper.

At the same time, there was a big craze that year in which many of my classmates were photographing eachother with black and white film, and saying that these pictures had more meaning and impact than color.

Aren't your preference for b&w not drawn from the fact that ninety-and-many percent of pictures we see in the net are over-saturated?
Quoting from Peter Henry Emerson: "Many photographers think they are photographing nature when they are only caricaturing her".

"No, no, no! Fuji's are much better."

I actually just bought the Red Delicious to photograph it. Honest. I just wanted something that wasn't too variegated and that I'd find easy to match the value of the grass.

Normally I buy Galas and a local variety I think are called Michigan Crisp.

Mike J.

P.S. I really like your "Apple #30"! Nice parody.

Yes but......

What does a red apple being photographed in green grass sound like?

As a kid, I had an art teacher that would encourage students to hold their drawings and paintings up to a mirror and examine them. What this does is instantly reveal the flawed areas, bad proportions, etc. It also shows you how the rest of the world will view your work. Our brains stop seeing things objectively after we've been staring at them for hours on end. By looking at the reversed image, we can see it with fresh eyes.

I would encourage photographers to do the same. Flip your image on it's vertical axis in photoshop (this will help you examine composition). Convert it to black and white (this will help you examine contrast). Add massive amounts of gaussian blur (this will help you examine color). When you're happy with the way it looks after all these exercises, you know you're onto something good.

Regardless of where one falls on this very interesting debate of color vs. black-and-white photography, I really must object to altering another person’s work to make a point. My comment may be a little off-topic, but it may be one reason why photography standing is often debated along side the other established art disciplines.

Mike, in your first post on Wednesday, May 7, an altered photograph by Udayan Behera was converted to B&W to support your position that color does not necessarily make a photograph better. Was there permission given to change this photographer’s image? It is not clear from reading your post.

This is not the first time I have seen people take someone else’s work and change it to “make it better”. But I only use this post to explain my commentary. While it is tempting to alter images with Photoshop of some other tool, I think it is presumptuous to assume that they know better than what the artist/photographer intended. While most people appreciate constructive comments on their work, I don’t think they are always willing to have their work taken into the public square for a little “corrective action”.

I am reminded of the photo safaris where enthusiasts, for example, travel to New Mexico to “re-create” Ansel Adam’s famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941. Scientists have even go as far as to calculate the planet’s exact alignment, date and time so the same photograph can be “taken” again. One can just hear comments of “Yea, I can do the same thing as Adams…”, or “Mine is better because I used…”, or “Big Deal, I’ve been there, done that…”


Would it be permissible for one to change Mona Lisa’s smile because someone decided that “it wasn’t quite right”? Why do photographers assume they have license to change another’s work because they assume a better understanding of intent than the person who “made” the original?

Maybe this is why I sometimes sense such insecurity from some photographers about their work. They always seem nervous about competitors peering over their cubicles, trying to one-up them on “technique”. This doesn’t seem to happen within the other arts like painting, drawing, printing or sculpture. It was my rare experience in art school that an instructor would grab a student’s brush or charcoal and proceeded to “improve” directly on the student’s work. Instead, the instructor would present and example on another surface to make his point.

If one doesn’t think a photograph works as presented, one can debate their position and move forward, and use their own work (as you have done in your second post) to show your position. Given the technological advances available to appropriate an artist’s original work, why should we respect photography as an artistic discipline that demands work be judged on the merit of the photographer/artist, their skills and intent?

Technology has made photography easier for anyone to make something; it has also made it easier to form a debate. Or lazier.

Coming from a news background, in many situations I was never able to control or make decisions about the color in my pictures. A few times the color helped the picture. A few times it ruined it. There was a great middle ground where, at first glance, it didn't matter. At first glance - because with some pictures color took a relatively rough image of a serious subject and turned it into a candy colored postcard. It created a great swath of news pictures that weren't awful but didn't have any particular power.

Several decades ago, newspapers and magazines "went color" more for the ads than the editorial content. Today a viewer who has grown up with "color news" in print and tv may be more sophisticated than me. But, either too much affection for Gene Smith melodrama or the bad habits of a lifetime, have me using Photoshop quite often to convert a fair number of my old color news shots to black and white.


Martin, Mike:

What our brain does to black and white is interesting. When I was a child we had a small black and white TV in our summer house on which me and my brothers watched the cartoons that Swedish public service television sent on summer mornings. When we came back to town I became very confused when the characters in my favourite cartoons had changed colour!

It is also a lot more obvious to me that the apple is red in the first and third version, in the second it could just as well be green.


While fence sitting, I would like to quote a Vancouver based photographer (taken from his book "Vancouver Photographs") on his take vis a vis black and white or colour.

"Black and white and colour are equally difficult, but for average photo-realism, colour succeeds far more often. The reason is simple: realism with a dynamic content, such as people and action, does not afford us the time to place the main subject against a suitable background with the same speed that can be achieved in colour. As a result there are numerous failed efforts, as even a master such as Cartier-Bresson had to face and admit.
Also, the amount of time required to read a colour photograph is shorter than for a similar black and white, and the length of time the average viewer spends looking at a picture is diminishing.
-Fred Herzog


Colin Work wrote: "I love B&W films - not because the are B&W, but because they are lit for B&W - I think in movies color tends to enforce a "standardised" lighting, whereas B&W seems to allow much more creativity - the lighting is much more obviously a part of the film."

Adrian Malloch: "For my black and white work, a simple conversion to grayscale isn't enough. I insist on extracting as much emotional value out of the image as possible, often emulating techniques that I used in the darkroom, but more often using software to get to the essence of the picture."

Colin and Adrian have made two very important points here. Essentially, if you're going to do B&W work, shoot with a B&W mindset, even if you're using digital.

To expand on what Colin wrote, back when movies and TV were in B&W, colour was *very* important, but in a different way. Two examples come to mind: In the first Superman TV series (with George Reeves as the caped hero), Superman's suit wasn't blue and red, it was actually grey and brown. Blue and red were not contrasty enough and didn't work on the B&W screen. Another famous example (I hope) is Hitchcock's "Psycho" shower scene, where the blood wasn't red, but brown chocolate syrup.

As photographers, we cannot change the colours of our subjects, yet, as Adrian points out, we can manipulate them through digital or analogue filters to produce the look we want in B&W.

As a last point, I would suggest the following exercise to the B&W enthusiasts (ahem, Mike J): After you've finished manipulating a B&W photo to get the look you want, convert it to colour leaving all the other adjustments intact (depending on your choice of program/method, you may not be able to do this). I do this every now and again, and invariably the colour version has turned into some saturated, hypercoloured eye-sore...and yet in B&W it's perfect. Which underscores the fact that, even in B&W, we are not content with Nature's palette.

Like Ansel Adams said: "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships." God didn't make the sky black either, so Mr Adams had to take care of that mistake too.

Afghan girl is the only icon color photo I can think of. Being a B&W fan I think your conversion works well. I hear some folks say a B&W is harder to shoot than color. I disagree. Good color is hard to find unless your putting a shot together in the studio and get to choose your own palette. Other than that you take what the powers that be give you. (BTW good job on the apple shot. It grabbed my attention right away.)

Regarding B/W ~ colour TV: We had a B/W TV until I was seven, when we got our first colour set. I remember being really amazed (and disappointed) when I first saw one of my favorite shows (CHAMPION THE WONDER HORSE) on the colour set as it was in black and white. For years I had been watching it in colour (Champion was a chestnut horse) and now I had to watch it drained, before my very eyes, of all that colour.


Anyone who loves film should try to see "Mon Oncle" by Jacques Tati ("too much colour distracts the viewer") As well as being my favorite Tati film, the colour palette he uses is beautiful. Lots of very muted pastel colours as I remember. Truly a wonderful film.

Also I wanted to mention "Some Like it Hot". I imagine there are very few here who are not familiar with this movie, but Billy Wilder was orginally planning to shoot the film in colour. He soon realised that no matter how much Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis shaved, their stubble underneath the makeup was still coming out with a blue cast on the processed film. Hence the decision to shoot the picture in Black and White - a technical rather than an artistic decision.


The thing about colour and black and white photography in the digital era is that hardly anyone sets out to shoot black and white specifically. Most people I know play around with their images in Photoshop and when after every technique has been exhausted then a black and white conversion is deemed to save a lousy photo because it made it look "artsy".

A crap picture is a crap picture and no amount of phaffing about in photoshop will be able to fix it. Six years ago at the age of 40 I decided to do a tertiary photography course. Working along side kids who had grown up using nothing but digital was a complete eye opener. The attitude was that as long as I'm within a couple of stops of correct exposure its ok because I can fix it in Photoshop. It was the same with colour. Consequently no body bothered to pre-visualise a photo. It was a case of shoot a couple of hundred of everything and see what happens when I run it through Photoshop. Small wonder that the two newspapers in town refused to take anyone who had graduated from this college.

If you want B+W shoot for it. If colour shoot for that. Otherwise all you get is the occasional happy accident.

Our small collection of prints is housed in our stairway hall. With one exception they are all B&W images. The one exception is an original print of McCurry's Afghan Girl. We dont even notice that it is in color. And I dont know when anyone who has looked at the images has commentented that we have "only one" color photograph. I believe that images that are strong dont rely on color or abscence of color (B&W)- they are strong because of the light, the image itself. Strangely enough, I also believe it can be harder to make a great image in color because the color can easily get in the way of the light.

The brain interprets images as value first, before shape, texture, pattern, or color, which is why an image has to work in b&w if it ever hopes to work in color. But to conclude from there that b&w is better than color is absurd. It's like saying images with straight lines are better than images without. Or that images with short depth of field are better than images with infinite depth of field.

Jim, after reading your post I was clapping and cheering (in my head). Yes, I absolutely agree about "strong images."

As for "shooting for B+W or color," the above comment about strong images (Jim) seems to negate the "pre-visualization" statement, and that has definitely been my experience. But as they say... your mileage may vary. Since I think that I am very critical of my own photos, that leaves me with the conclusion that "happy accidents" are my forte. Occasionally I pre-visualize an image as B+W or color -if it really strikes me- but usually I am paying attention to a number of other things, and that seems to work well for me. Ahhh... the wonderful world of subjectivity.

Ken White, I don't understand, because color reportage photos are also "juiced." And B+W film reportage photos before digital were also "juiced," in the field and/or the darkroom.

Mike, I love the gaussian blur (with color images) suggestion; thanks! And I'm glad you usually eat Galas. I've never understood why people bother with Red Delicious, or why they are even called "delicious."

Chris, I love the image flip suggestion; thanks!
I think some years back I encountered a similar technique, except I think it was to look at it upside down. Anyway, unfortunately I forgot about it, it can be very helpful though, as I'm sure flipping it can/will be... I will definitely be trying it out.

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