Why we choose Black and White

Black and white should be made only to improve the final image.

A recent quote from a professional (mostly color) landscape photographer on YouTube giving advice on mistakes to avoid in BW landscape photography. Most of his advice centered around this concept, that BW conversions are only worthwhile when they increase the “value” of the original image. Meaning the BW version should always look better than the color one, otherwise don’t use BW.

The idea that a conversion to BW is only warranted if it is objectively greater than the color version seems foreign to me as a mostly BW photographer of some thirty years now. In that entire time I don’t recall every thinking before making a new image, “is this going to be better than the color version?”. This seems like a pretty cynical view of photography overall, one that assumes an inherent value for every photograph that gets weighed against every other photograph. And one where BW and color are at odds with one another in terms of artistic expression.

Photography is not a quantitative art, it’s a qualitative one. We compose and process images for some subjective feeling or narrative we want to share. We choose BW because it suits our way of seeing, or our way of showing with images. Not because it maximizes or improves the scene over color somehow. A good BW image and good color image can come from the same subjects, the same scenes. I choose BW over color because I want the viewer to see something different from what color shows or obscures, not something ‘better’.

Black and white should never be a last resort to poor conditions for color photography. Nor should it be applied only because there is some expectation that a BW conversion will increase the inherent ‘value’ of a color image, as if both are on display simultaneously in the viewers mind with them making a singular judgement call, “this would have been better in color, or this in BW”.

Good BW and good color images are not mutually exclusive outcomes, for a given scene, they are fundamentally different ways of seeing the world and they convey completely different emotions and narratives, not better or worse ones. It’s a trap to only ever think of BW as conversions from color. Instead set both your mind and your camera to a BW preview mode and think only about what you see in the image as it is, and not in comparison to anything else.

I guess it’s true to say a lot of BW photography comes from scenes that would have made less interesting color images, mine certainly does. But that’s not really why they were made as BWs. We felt something that only BW could best convey. Something about light and shadow, or texture and shape. Something about mood or maybe focus. Whatever the reason, it should never have been that we thought ‘this is an amazing image, I bet a BW conversion would really push it over the top!’.

As you look at the image pairs I’ve included with this post, you will almost certainly pick one over the other as your preference. And that’s fine, we all have our own biases and tastes and contexts we bring to bear. I have my preferences as well. The point to keep in mind from the photographer’s point of view, is I didn’t make one to be an improvement over the other, I made each for different reasons, for their own aesthetic. And I hope when you take BW or color images you’re doing the same.

Photography Composition Cheat Sheet

One of the first compositional guidelines most photographers learn is the ubiquitous “Rule of Thirds”. This principle suggests that an image should be imagined divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections (Bryan F. Peterson, 2003). 

The effect of placing important elements like the main subject or a horizon line according to this rule creates more visual interest, better flow, and more visual energy than simply centering or placing features haphazardly in a scene. As photographic “rules” go it’s pretty solid and a great place to start with understanding composition. But make no mistake, this isn’t a rule at all, just a guiding principle. It can be modified to suit a given scene, or ignored all together. And it is just one one of many compositional guides that we can use to help assemble and arrange our images.

When I was first re-entering the world of landscape photography I found the abundance of compositional advice a little overwhelming. Leading lines, foregrounds, empty space, natural frames… It’s a lot to remember and can sometime be paralyzing for new photographers when attempting to apply poorly understood guides to new locations. As a way of dealing with the often conflicting or redundant compositional advice out there, I decided to create a table for myself of the most common principles I was encountering. I collapsed anything that seemed to overlap significantly (or noted when guides were related) and applied my own more flexible interpretations to what each of these principles really meant. It helped a lot to stop thinking of them as rules at all, but as guides or best-practices instead. Remember, these are starting points to composition, not edicts. I’m posting the table here for you to use as your own starting point. Please feel free to reinterpret or append as you see fit. And keep in mind, that’s the real lesson here, these are building blocks to composition, they are not absolute, they are not fixed or unmalleable.

Addendum: I’ve found some really great videos on YouTube recently that deal directly with composition that I think are worth sharing here: