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Why are black and white photos more emotive? Or why black and white portraits speak to the soul.

Jul 1, 2020 -- Posted by : admin

Many clients say they prefer black and white over colour portraiture but aren’t always sure why this is.  

I’ve just been chatting to a photographer friend who said it’s time to stop making black and white photographs.  His reason was, we don’t see the world in black and white, more so it was produced in the past because of the limitations of technology and later the prohibited cost of colour photography.  Anyway, I didn’t agree, as you can imagine a banterous discussion ensued.  


Here’s some of reasons why I think Black and White (or Monochrome as is it's correct term) photography is still so important and how it can help nurture your photographic eye.

Famous photographers such as, Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson, David Bailey, Karsh, Sebastio Salgado,  Avedon, Parkinson – to name just seven of the top of my head,  who saw black and white as a creative choice, could be an entire article, so why did they choose it?

A Photographer should think differently when making photographs in Black And White.  Some people ask when should a photograph be converted to Monochrome?  Rarely is the discussion around why a photograph should be black and white from the outset, I find this thought fascinating.

While the “when” and “why” thoughts are related, taking photographs in colour and then wondering whether to convert the image to black and white employs a different approach to starting out with the thought of black and white from the beginning.  In effect working the end product in mind from the outset will always be better.  A world without colour forces you to see things very differently, to stretch your imagination and work out your photographic and artistic eye which in turn pushes you creatively.

When I started my journey in photography during secondary school,  black and white film was predominantly one of the single most important aspects of my photographic development.  Years of developing film and printing in my old dark room helped push not only my digital photography today but it shaped the photographer I am today.   If you look at my current work now you’ll see much of it is still in black and white and in a style which still echoes my roots in film.

I almost guarantee that if you spend some time shooting in black and white, you’ll start to notice some changes in what and how you shoot too.  Here’s some key reason to consider Monochrome Photography.

Colour No Longer Distracts

Clashing colours, clothing, differences in ambient light sources, clashing background tones, cease being an issue.  I always consider backgrounds, but I’ll look more at the relationship between my subject and background, rather than a distracting colour.  It frees up that part of my thought.   Monochrome allows one to think about these key elements,  lighting, composition, textures and elements in and out of the frame.  You might otherwise not focus these elements as much as when you’re thinking about making colours work together, or pop.

I took this gorgeous silhouette of a bride on her wedding day (above) at Ashridge House in Black and White because the colour temperatures were all over the place with light from multiple sources. I concentrated more on using some negative space to separate the bride’s silhouette and played with leading lines from the doorway.

Above: The colour of everyone's clothing here was so distracting. Black and White allowed me to just focus on the interplay with people and expressions.


2. You’ll See Light Differently

What you lose from not being able to capture beautiful golden hour light, you’ll get back with more clarity, quantity and quality of light around you. Learning how to read and play with different elements of light in this way is a fantastic skill.

Light and the relationship with your subject and of the shadows that form as well as other complementary elements, like the  pattern of this model’s hat (above) become the focus, rather than the colour of elements in the frame
Light and dark become the interplay between the contrasting elements.  This can be more interesting to focus on than colour relationships.  The colour of the trees and grass are all irrelevant as the focus becomes the models face.

It Helps Emphasise Emotion

Looking at someone’s face, or into their eyes, without the distraction of colour can provide a stronger emotional connection to your subject. It’s not necessarily always the case, but if like me, you often feel more connected to a person in a black and white portrait over a colour portrait, this could be the reason why.  With black and white it’s purely about the connection you have with the subject.

A Timeless, Classic Quality From Black And White

One of the most important reasons I love to work in black and white is because it lends a timeless quality to photographs. This is because we still think of black and white as being a throwback to the photographic past. Of course, black and white was all there was before colour photography, but this is still a great reason to shoot black and white.
Here the bride has more of timeless look.  In color, background colours would have been jarring.

It Concentrates the mind

I shot this image in the shadows of Grenfell Tower.  Black and white adds impact and also concentrates the mind on the young girl's thoughts.  The colours of the back ground and the girls back pack would otherwise have caused distractions.

Shape, Form and Pattern in an image are often more dramatic.

I tend to focus a lot more than on the elements in the frame, both in terms of their shape and form, but also how they relate to one another. You feel like there's a world to explore when you see connecting elements in the foreground and background. Here colour would be a distracting element. Black and white simplifies the ability to see these elements.

It Amplifies Negative Space

Negative space is the area of the photograph that have nothing in them, are easier to showcase and highlight when shooting black and white. This relates back to minimising distractions from not creating photographs in colour. Concentrating on light and dark areas of the frame,  their inter-relationship, playing with negative space is also useful in separating your subject nicely from the background and give added depth to the image.

Playing with negative space - and the elements in the frame - is much easier to visualise when you see things in black, white and greys

Of course sometimes..... Just sometimes, nothing substitutes Colour!


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