Why do we still shoot in black and white? Nobody really shoots film anymore. When do we decide to throw away beautiful skin tones, luscious blonde colors, and late afternoon sunlight? Why would we want to go grayscale?
If you’ve been following my photography, you’ll notice that I rarely shoot black and white portraits, and this is on purpose. Not because I prefer one over the other aesthetically, but I personally feel shooting color is more difficult and challenging, and it is something I constantly strive to practice.
I’m ambivalent about b&w portraits and b&w photography in general. I’m very confident in b&w. Some of my best published works are monochrome. It is striking, it is clean, and it is minimalistic, all qualities in which I love. But a part of me also feels it’s cheating.
Why is B&W Photography so Appealing?
It’s static. We use shutter speeds, strobes, and vanishing points to evoke a sense of dynamism. Much of our technical wizardry is to overcome the limits of a flat 2D image. But color, or a lack of it, really belongs to us.
When was the last time you saw a colorless oil painting? Or a recent blockbuster in grayscale? But for photography, black and white really lives in its own pantheon. We own b&w like no other artistic medium.
There are scientific arguments about the rods and the cones, the birds and the bees, the Camaros and the Mustangs. Our primal brains also supposedly encode color onto black and white images subconsciously. Maybe this cascades some dopamine receptors in the process, who knows.
Then there are plain arguments that suggest we like novelty and enjoy what we can’t normally see. But Pulp Fiction isn’t in black and white, neither is the new Star Wars. Why then did all the black and white movies fade out of fashion?
The best answer I’ve come across, one which I mostly agree with, is the branding argument. We like black and white photographs because for almost a century, there were only b&w photographs and we’ve been exposed to an wide array of stunning b&w photographs from the likes of Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, and Stieglitz.
We have come to associate black and white photography with a certain beauty, a certain class. Chances are, if you show a black and white photograph to the average person, they will associate it with art. Slap a Instagram b&w filter on an average color photo and watch the hearts pile up.
I’m obviously simplifying the issue as I think it is a combination of branding, science, and novelty, but my point is, it is hard to deny that there is some Pavlovian response going on here.
What Are We Losing by Removing Color?
So now we are shooting digital. To my knowledge, with the exception of the ridiculous 18MP Leica Monochrome rangefinder made for the tastelessly wealthy, every digital camera is set to color photography as default. With a flip of a switch, every digital camera can also shoot in monochrome. What are we losing when we sacrifice the color?
We’re losing a bit of authenticity. It feels more contrived, more deliberate, more try hard. It says “Look, this is art, and you should notice it.”
We’re losing sex appeal. The flawless porcelain, the deliciously tanned, and the rich chocolate skin becomes a dull gray. It can feel older, more mature, and less youthful. Can you imagine if pornography was in black & white?
We’re losing liveliness. Black and white photography feels more serious and proper. I can fool around with a color image but I’d rather take a black and white photograph home to see mom. It makes a statement and there is more responsibility to b&w photos.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything I’ve mentioned above but my point is, when we throw away color, that decision has ramifications whether we realize it or not.
What Do We Gain by Going Monochrome?
Photography is the king of black and white. No other artistic medium has quite captured the look and feel of a b&w photograph, not paintings, not typography, not even cinema. It is a powerful tool in every photographer’s tool box, one that should be used deliberate and with a steadfastness of purpose.
We’re gaining simplicity. Colors, especially clashing colors, can be very distracting. An unfixable white balance issue can be remedied by processing in monochrome.
We’re gaining timelessness. B&w photographs will look as vintage and as modern as you want it to be. It takes the latest fads and looks, out of the equation. It is, and will be, as classic as a marble statue.
We’re gaining legacy. We build on the shoulders of giants every time we choose to process in black and white. We’re subconsciously put into the same category as every famous b&w photograph the viewer has ever seen. We ride the coattails of bygone masters to create something new and uniquely our own.
Is B&W Portrait Photography Cheating?
So at the end of the day, is choosing to process your images in black and white cheating? Is it a gimmick? Is it taking a short cut? Are we trying to mask something plain and ordinary into something that’s not by doing away with color? Is it less truthful?
I still don’t know. This piece is especially difficult to write because I haven’t figured out any answers for you. I’ve thought about this idea for a long time and apparently I’m not alone. But maybe that’s okay.
Maybe that’s okay because photography is a lie. It is a beautiful lie because we create what we want to see. We project ourselves into our works knowingly or unknowingly. Photography lies even when it’s telling the truth. We really shouldn’t have to feel guilty, for using every tool in our toolbox. Maybe coming to terms with that, is the first step to shedding the philosophical burden and to making great images.
Model: Peyton Lake
Hair & Makeup: Jordan Takeda
Lighting Assistant: Erik Ng