Colour or black and white? (part I)

above images ⓒ SWS

If I’m forced to choose, black and white images almost always win out for me, although I’ve posted the above example because I’m less sure here… I keep wavering!

I think Diana Eftaiha sums up the appeal of mono images well when she says:

Vibrant saturated colors can very easily steal the spotlight away from the more important elements of a particular image, while working within a more restricted palette means putting more emphasis on the true nature and value of a given image.

Black and white photographs often have more impact, especially in a world some may say is already over-saturated with colour. I think portraits in particular resonate more powerfully in mono, which adds a layer of complexity and timelessness to the subject. A black and white portrait seems to better convey the story of a person’s lived experience somehow.

For me, the following portraits from the Immediate Family series by Sally Mann, for example, just wouldn’t be as strong in colour…

Candy cigarette (1989)

Naptime (1989)

As an aside, I’ve long admired the second image, Naptime… the wonderful tones, the play of light and shadow, the gaze directly engaging the viewer, the froth of tulle – so evocative of the hot, lazy, soporific summer afternoons of childhood when all you wanted to do was nothing at all…

But I digress.

Do tell… which resonates best with you – colour or black & white?

12 thoughts on “Colour or black and white? (part I)

    • Yes, I think for me, when they’re viewed together the colour version’s somewhat distracting, but when each is viewed in isolation, the black and white image seems to be the stronger of the two. It’s good of you to take the time to view and comment – will be popping over to peruse your blog soon!

  1. The colour one for sure. While I often desaturate colour photos, it seems to me that people often automatically think bw is more artful – it is more abstracted from reality, but I love colour, especially with film, and usually keep it.

    • It’s interesting how the question tends to generate such polarised views, isn’t it! I see from your great blog that we share an appreciation of lomography, and I certainly agree that the quality of colour achieved with a Holga, Diana, Polaroid etc is uniquely special. As mentioned, for portraiture (especially social documentary/environmental portraiture) I tend to prefer black and white. Perhaps my taste here is influenced by the long tradition of mono documentary images, which I have a particular interest in. It’s great to get an alternative viewpoint on the two images I posted, because I wavered between the two choices myself! Thanks so much for your interest and considered response…

  2. Hmmmm… I think colour for street and b&w for portraits.

    There is something really compelling about b&w (making a face look more like a landscape by Cézanne), while colour conveys the energy of a busy street (the bustle of Chinatown or the blur of a taxi, for example).

    You’re right though, the polarised view makes this one of the great questions, along with film versus digital, Canon versus Nikon or zoom lens versus prime…


    • Yes, I can see your point about colour conveying energy in a street scene – I can imagine the classic New York cab zooming by in a yellow blur as I write! Although I’m not sure they’re actually yellow anymore – only in old movies I think. However, I doubt there could possibly be any debate about Canon versus Nikon, surely? Clearly Canon wins hands down. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your impressions, Axel – it’s much appreciated!

  3. Hey Susie. I am usually a black and white girl. I do like colour photographs for every day, simple shots – especially when the colours in the shot are beautiful and vibrant, but for a portrait or a photograph that is supposed to instill emotion – a photo that I want to look at more closely and for a longer period of time, it’s black and white all the way for me!

    • Yes, I agree… a black and white image can’t rely on colourful vibrancy to engage the viewer – its impact instead centres on the capacity to communicate the fundamental essence of its subject, which for me is what encourages a more considered viewing…
      Thank you for your thoughts, Rae!

  4. I like both. In recent years I have been particularly interested in shooting colour and have done a little B&W as a token gesture. I think many people who have passed through my studio in recent years liked B&W because they had been conditioned by popular opinion, and not because they understood the medium. This was evident at the time of ordering images when they opted predominately for colour and either a token B&W order or none at all.
    Having said that, when I first opened my studio in April 2000, I was shooting B&W almost exclusively. During the period 2000-2002 I shot around 30,000 images with about 5% of those in colour. Think I am due for a B&W phase about now actually !!!

    • I mostly shoot digitally, and sometimes convert colour digital images to mono, but it’s when I shoot with black and white film that I’m especially reminded just how much I love the medium, especially when the images are printed on fibre-based paper. And yes, it sounds like you’re definitely due to run a roll of black and white film through one of those lovely Leica cameras… enjoy!

  5. Love the timeless feeling of black and white images, but through my experience, color photography is much tougher. If I have taken a color photograph that I didn’t like the way the light or colors turned out, but I liked the photographic composition, I turn it into a black and white image. So in the Lifeguard Shack image above, I prefer the black and white.

    • Yes, I’ve also found that converting a less than satisfactory colour image to black & white can often result in a more pleasing photograph. Thank you for your interest in my post and for taking the time to comment… it’s much appreciated!

thoughts? let me know what you think!

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