Black and White or Colour?

So which is best – monochrome or colour? And can you simply desaturate a colour image to produce a wonderful black and white picture?

black and white photography

When I spotted this woman in the streets of Venice, I knew the picture had to be in monochrome. It would never work properly in colour. The child’s brightly-coloured hat and trousers pulled the eye right away from the main subject. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Well, as a photographer who served an apprenticeship on local newspapers when glass plate cameras were the norm, I have a deep affection for monochrome, or should I say black and white photography.

My years working for The Sunday Times were spend working almost exlusively in black and white film. My arrangement with the ST meant that I was able to develop my own films and print my own prints. I was in total control of my own images.

Seeing in black and white

I always disliked having to cover an assignment in both black and white – and colour. Why? Well I actually see and hunt pictures differently depending on which medium I am using at the time. When asked to do both, a mental shift is required each time a new subject is recognised. In street photography this needs a mental and visual agility that is very demanding and extremely wearing.

Why not do both?

There are photographers who say it doesn’t matter; that with modern digital cameras they just shoot everything in colour then desaturate what they think might make a good black and white image.

Hmmm.. I’d say that’s okay if you are either a genious or you don’t mind producing mediocre black and white pictures. It just doesn’t work like that – at least not all the time.

You must FEEL and SEE in black and white

When I’m shooting black and white, I’m thinking and seeing tones, shapes, textures, movement. It’s a complete thought process in itself that is entirely focused on reducing all colours into a basic tonal level. I begin to feel the compositions that appear in my viewfinder – and I feel them in monochrome tones.

So, NO, it’s not good enough to just desaturate a colour image and imagine it is instantly tranformed into a black and white masterpiece.

Shoot everything in colour?

This picture would mean very little as a monochrome image. The subject IS the colour. There’s bsolutely no point in giving this the monochrome treatment – it would not work at all. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Shoot everything in colour?

Yes, this is what I do now. This does not contradict what I have said above. I now shoot everything in colour purely for convenience and for commercial purposes – if a client asks me if I have a colour version of a monochrome image, I just hate to say no, and miss a sale.

However, at the time of taking the pictures I know exactly which scenes and subjects I am going to desaturate to produce I worthwhile black and white image. In other words, the colour of some subjects is little more than a distraction worth getting rid of.

So which is best?

There’s no such thing – it depends on the subject. The best advice I can give you is to throw out the idea that any and every colour image will make a black and white image simply by throwing out the colour.

Find out more about One-to-One photography tuition with Philip Dunn

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