Black & White or Colour - Which is easier?

Referring to Black & White photographs, probably one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read was, “ the tones that matter in a print fall between the paper’s white and its black”. Now you may want to spend a lifetime, or even longer, trying to see what occurs either side of those boundaries, but you may be put in the same cell as the person who wrote that. It has always amused me in advertising when they say “new and improved, whiter whites and blacker blacks”. The implication is that the whites and blacks weren’t up to scratch before hand. They always were of course, so how much whiter than white and blacker than black can you get? Yes I know it’s just advertising, something we just seem to accept without scrutiny.

What falls in between the papers white and its black are greys, and many of them. I really think that it is the mid tones that make a print and lift them to the heights that they deserve. Whether or not you photograph with film or digital, a lot of the time images have a contrast issue. A negative is a negative and the contrast can be controlled to a degree during exposure and then through development of the negative, however, as a rule, it is controlled by the grade that you select when you are in the darkroom. My experience with digital is somewhat similar, where during exposure you can control unnecessary contrast, but mostly it is done in post production via photoshop or lightroom or whatever it is you use, usually the easiest one. Now when it comes to making prints in the dark, I know I want a paper that doesn’t require endless fidgeting just to get the tones I want in those extreme areas.

There are good and bad darkroom papers, but I know I have one of the good ones. The bad and the ugly ones I leave on the store’s shelf. There are also good and bad digital papers and via the loathsome task of testing I have settled on my preferred two or three papers. Even so sometimes they just miss the mark and I know I am always fiddling a little bit here and a little bit there to get what I want. The last thing I want to do, if I can help it, is compromise, and only I would know if that has happened.

So while we are chatting about black and white or monochrome prints lets see how they stack up against colour ones. I have often found that if I am to make a colour photograph and a black and white photograph (I am never sure why I do that) of the same scene then most times I seem to prefer the colour one. This mainly must be because I see it as more a colour shot than a b&w one. Then why did you take the black and white I hear you mutter. If I have made the decision to photograph a scene in colour then 96% or it may even be 94% of the time, for me, it must be a colour shot. Maybe when I do both there is something nagging inside me that isn’t sure.

I feel that the colour in an image, should not be the picture. I have seen many colour images that are colourful, but have no structure, no depth or soul to them. No vision. If you strip away the colour and look at it in its shape and form, do you still have a strong picture? I feel that the colour should enhance the image not make it.

It’s a well known fact that we are all attracted to colour. It’s almost unavoidable and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. I think some colours are relaxing and some compelling. The advertising industry has made huge studies into human responses to certain colours and have based a lot of the colours used in the commercials on the result of those studies. Example being that garish colours being loud and obtrusive often represent or imply cheapness, (one large store chain is the perfect example) where the deeper rich colours (bottle green, burgundy, deep blues etc) represent style and quality.

If we are to come across a landscape of several green fields except for one which is a crop of canola, then it can be somewhat mesmerizing. Or even a whole canola crop as far as the eye can see, punctuated with the odd field of green, does it not stop us in our tracks? For me it is hard to imagine photographing something like that in black and white. It really is the colour that is the interest, and this is where the image can fall down. Are we photographing colour for colours sake or because it adds to, or enhances the image we are seeing?

I think an image first and foremost has to be compelling. Has to have a strong point of interest for it to grab our attention. Interesting foreground detail or definite leading lines (but don’t make it a habit) to a point of interest or an area in the photograph that the photographer may want us to focus on is a good start. Good photographers have different approaches to highlight certain elements within a scene and these are usually employed at the time the photograph is made.

Good photography is hard work. In general people don’t take enough time with their compositions. They seem to rush into it. “Wow, look at all that colour! Where’s my camera?”

Even quick and spontaneous photography could do with a bit more planning. A move to the left or to the right, crouch down a bit, a vertical instead of a horizontal. When you’re in close, with a wide angle lens, small alterations can make a big difference. When you’re using a telephoto lens, small movements can be just as critical unless for far off images where they can make little difference.

If you’re photographing with a digital camera, try switching it to the b&w mode and then go looking for b&w shots rather than having a look later on to see if it might work. Remember similar colour tones when converted to b&w will merge together, so you need to watch for that. Or likewise if photographing in colour, look for colour shots, and I just don’t mean ‘colour(ful)’ shots.

Maybe after an exercise like that you will reach the conclusion that colour is easier than b&w, which of course it is, and you may start to concentrate a little harder. There will of course be those out there who think I am wrong about black and white being harder than colour. If you happen to be one of those then try turning your capture dial to black and white and go on a picture hunt. Not for a day or a week, but for a month. You will soon discover that photographing in black and white requires a different discipline, a different way of seeing. The narrative of the image takes on a different air. It is an entirely different language that just doesn’t jump out at you. Even though today ‘they’ have made capturing an image so much easier, good photography is still difficult.

And if you still think I am wrong ask yourself why prior to digital photography did camera clubs sink to their lowest member numbers ever. Photography and especially B&W photography then was just too hard, and good photography was near impossible.

Now we all know the impact that computer software has had on imagery, but you still need to start with a good image to begin with. How often has this been said? As Uncle Ansel once said, “there is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. Once you have the good image make sure it is of high quality, because if you enlarge it and print it out and the image begins to break down, then you will be disappointed unless of course they never leave the computer and if that’s the case see last issues article. And if you do print it out make sure the result doesn’t need a strong wind as well to move people.

So with that in mind, I would like to discuss the images that I have offered here. The photograph of Rannoch Moor was taken when I was conducting a week long workshop in Scotland last year. Our last port of call was the Glen Coe area of Scotland. Just a little after sunrise, myself and one of the ladies in the group, were strolling through this moor area (see general picture of location) when we came across this small stream. We both stopped and remarked how beautiful it looked. Immediately I thought it to be a colour photograph. We made pictures. You can see the conversion to b&w just does not have the impact of the colour one.

Likewise I feel the same with the power station. The subtlety of the colour for me just adds to the picture where as the steps at Lake Como were screaming out to be photographed in b&w and that’s just what I did.

Now just to wrap this up, remember that lens quality is more important than camera type, and most of the better brands usually offer good high quality lenses in their better cameras. If you’re into small cameras like my little Fuji gem, make sure they deliver high quality results, for after a great composition quality is next.

If you are committed to it, then your best work will come to the fore. And as the exceptional Brett Weston (who?) once said, “Great photography is 10% inspiration and 90% drudgery”. On that note I am in need of a rest. Cheers!