It’s an age old question, since the introduction of color photographic materials people, photographers, and nit-picky mothers having photos made of their kids have debated this point. So which one is better color or B&W photography?
Before I committed to being a full time helicopter pilot I ran my own photography business. I’ve always been drawn to black and white photography because I felt the tones in the shadows and highlighted areas, when mastered, could tell compelling and hugely emotional stories – and to be able to do that in as subtle a form as with shades was exciting to me.
After shooting for a few years though I started to notice I really leaned on B&W photography as my primary staple. I’d started using it as a crutch. I would go there always, and every set I shot would wind up getting black and white treatments in the end. Color photos were scarce in my profile and I made it my mission to remedy that – because lets face it, colors are vibrant and beautiful and explosive and can make as huge an impact emotionally in an image.
I’d often get involved in online conversations, or I’d have people write me and ask, which was better or which one they should pursue. The answer to that question is, simply, both. Sure there are artists out there that are amazing at B&W photography and that’s all they do, but remember that if they shoot digitally, they shoot in color first – there are no black and white sensors.
I recently did a trip to a Camel Racing Club in Kuwait and shot there on my Fuji X100T (fixed 35mm f/2 lens) and when I processed the images at home that evening I made the decision to render some of the batch in black and white – and I’ll tell you this, they had to be black and white. They’re better for the story of the photo. The rest of the batch was color – and they had to be color, for the same reason. So – for those of you looking for tips on how to process your travel/vacation photos, it’s time to dig deep into your feels for each photo.
- Example #1 – This photo had to be black and white.
There’s a lot going on in the foreground of this photo. The railing is red, the mesh is green, the camels legs are brown, but have been dyed assorted colors to differentiate them on the track at a run. The sand is tan, and in the background – our subject – is wearing white robes and a red and white head covering. There was so much color in the foreground that our subject just really was underwhelming in the background. However, you can see now, that we’ve gone to just the shades of black and white – he becomes prominent, and stands out.
- Example #2 – This photo also just had to be black and white
The handlers face is full of expression, creased with age and exposure to a lot of sun. His eyes tell a story as these men prepare a group of race camels for the walk back to the camp tents. There is a lot going on in this photo – the camels have differently colored harnesses and bridles, the men are wearing brightly colored head dressings, all of it would, in a way, take away from the subjects face, which was my intended focus in this photo, in black and white the bright tones around his dark face form a sort of vignette that draws your eye exactly to where I want it.
- Example #3 – Color. It was the only way for this photo.
Although he is not in focus, the young foreign worker in the purple jersey in the background is the subject of this photo. Clearly standing apart from the dishdasha and head dress wearing counterparts in the ring he was one of the busiest workers – making more than a dozen trips to and from the camps and the race arena with camels in tow. The red rail forms a nice vivid leading line that draws your eye to the subject, as does the muzzled snout of the camel in the foreground, his black hat and dark skin tone would have lost much of its impact in the story of this photo had the rest of the image been muted of its color.
- Example #4 – Color telling a story black and white could not.
This lone camel owner came down from the VIP boxes to inspect his camels post race. He walked the line and examined each one while his Land Rover sat running behind him, door open, air conditioner at full blast. His bright white, clean, dishdasha and colorful red and white headdress give away his status, his tribe affiliation, and his role in the race events for the day. The camels all knew him and moved to him as he walked along the railing. I tried this photo in black and white, and it just went flat, the clean crispness of the owner vs the tan browns and dirty netting of the camels and their arena needed to be shown, as the two somewhat “equalize” when we take the color away.
The only thing I have left to say on the matter is this – while I advise that you do both color and B&W photography and excel at both through practice and lots of trial, the single thing you must never do (because it is the worst – and all of us photographers laugh at your photos when you do it) is “Selective color” or “Selective desaturation”. It’s terrible, is gimmicky, and the only people that like it are people that don’t have much of an eye.
Now – if you love it, who am I to tell you otherwise. Really, at the end of the day – if it makes you happy, do it. And if someone tells you not to do it – tell them to screw off. Who are they? Nobody. You’re happiness comes from within, not from without. As in, you don’t need to go without something to be happy. People will probably still laugh and poke fun of your selective desat photos, but at the end of the day, if you don’t care what others think (and to a degree you shouldn’t), the jokes won’t matter to you.