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.

Fuji Custom Sims vs Raw Edits

Coming from a film and darkroom background I see post processing as a natural part of my digital photography workflow. I enjoy the editing process and because I don’t do any composites or heavy manipulation it’s all pretty straightforward.

Most of my black and white work adheres to a uniform style and I can prep less important images for sharing with as little as 5-10 minutes of processing per image. But that’s still a lot of editing for images that aren’t intended for print or portfolio (print work usually gets more attention, up to an hour or more per image). For casual photography, family and travel shots, I usually rely on the built in film simulations of my Fuji XT-3. Velvia is great for vibrant landscapes and the Kodachrome sim is great for more muted colors. The Acros black and white sim has a great analog look to it and is not too far off my own editing style.

While researching the details around these different film sims I stumbled upon the amazing Fuji Film Simulation Recipes page from Fuji X Weekly.

The recipes all start with one of the base film sims and add custom settings for things like Tone, Color, Grain, Sharpening, Highlights, Shadows etc.. Many are intended to mimic the look a specific film type, others are just creative ‘looks’. There’s a nice variety of sims, all organized by sensor and camera type. I quickly punched in a set of color and black and white recipes for my X-Trans IV sensor and set out do a little experimentation.

In addition to the regular recipes for Velvia and Eterna film sims, I created one of my own based on the Dramatic Monochrome recipe. I used the Acros base instead of the standard Monochrome, added the Red filter, used a Weak Grain instead of Strong Grain, and added a +1 Tone to warm up the images a bit.

What follows is a side by side comparison of my version of the Dynamic Monochrome film sim straight out of camera against the raw versions edited to my basic style in ON1 Photo Raw (film sim jpg on the left, my raw edits on the right).

FILM SIM JPG

ON1 RAW EDIT

Conclusions:

I really like the look this recipe gives me, but it’s clear I’m not nailing my particular look from post. There needs to be a bit more grain and clarity (maybe increasing sharpness). And I probably need to reduce the warm tone. The particular curves adjustments I use are probably going to be harder to mimic in camera, but I think with some experimenting I could end up with something close enough that I might occasionally post the camera jpg’s without edits, at least for the less important stuff. Let me know what you think in the comments.