Case Study: Going Black and White

Color is often the most striking element a person would notice in an image. From your peripheral vision, you wouldn’t be sure what it is you’re actually seeing. But chances are, color will be the first thing you’d be able to identify.

So, what happens if you literally take color out of the picture? You might actually get to figuratively add more to it. Take the picture below as an example.

Salzburg, Austria (2014) ISO 100, f/8, 1/250sec
Salzburg, Austria (2014)
ISO 100, f/8, 1/250sec

It wasn’t a particularly good day. The clouds and drizzle took away from the visibility of the Austrian alps from the viewing decks of the Salzburg Fortress. The couple in the picture seemed to be enjoying their time, nonetheless. And who could blame them? Who among us wouldn’t want to be at that same spot with a loved one? But I digress. The dull colors of the picture doesn’t exactly depict romance and emotion particularly well. However, I found that a bit of cropping and applying a high contrast black and white effect brought about a dramatic change to the scene.

Salzburg, Austria (2014) High contrast black and white
Salzburg, Austria (2014)
High contrast black and white

A LOT more details became visible. They also took a bit of attention away from the pedestrian attire of the couple. It’s still hardly fluffy pink fireworks, but there is now a more powerful, if not more laid back depiction of romance nonetheless. It certainly looks better than it did before.

Many photographers and viewers love black and white photography because of its classic, timeless vibe. Mainstream color photography, after all, did not come to full fruition until the 1970’s. But just as importantly, going black and white gives the chance for the other elements to take center stage.

Osaka, Japan (2015) ISO 100, f/4, 1/60sec
Osaka, Japan (2015)
ISO 100, f/4, 1/60sec

This array of jade statuettes made for an interesting subject, with a richness of elements to look at. However, I think the colors were particularly weak so much so that it’s not even the second or third thing that jumps at you.

Osaka, Japan (2015) Black and white plus film grain
Osaka, Japan (2015)
Black and white plus film grain

I feel that going for a high-key black and white look, and adding some film grain effect serves the picture well. Removing the colors provided more emphasis to the leading lines, forms and patterns which are far more interesting elements than the colors. Simulating a little bit of film grain was a subtle touch to reinforce the old and vintage feel of the scene.

Black and white is actually just an example of a more general term called monochrome. Black and white, or grayscale makes use of different shades of one color, black (yes, I know calling black a color is precarious). But one can make use of other colors for a monochromatic effect. For example, I can apply what is called a sepia tone (one of the many shades of brown) effect instead of black and white and achieve a similar feel:

Sepia Tone
Sepia Tone

Black and white photography has been masterfully employed by the likes of Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Anton Corbijn. Along with a  number of other notable photographers, they built their portfolio in black and white even when color photography had already become more commonly available.

Its effectiveness is perhaps what makes going black and white (or for that matter, monochromatic) seemingly overused, at times. There are even instances when I exert a conscious effort to NOT do it. I think what I did with the Salzburg picture was necessary, but I am also guilty of applying a black and white effect as a quick fix or bad pictures. Like any other technique or effect, going black and white should be done in a meaningful manner, not as a means to habitually compensate for lazy or sloppy shooting.