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 black and white. 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 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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