How many times in your life have you enjoyed a colourful sunset? If you’ve lived on this earth for any amount of time and haven’t been completely hidden from nature’s beauty, chances are you’ve experienced hundreds, if not thousands, of breathtaking sunsets. As a photographer, there’s a good chance you’ve captured many of these incredible moments, with the sky exploding into any variation of red, magenta, orange, yellow, and pink magic. These images are impressive because we, as humans, love colour. In photography, colour can be intoxicating. It can seduce, wow, and grip a viewer. Colour in photography is certainly not a bad thing, but it’s not the only thing.
Stop for a minute and imagine some of the images you’ve taken of colourful sunsets or sunrises, and mentally (or physically, using a program such as Adobe Lightroom) convert them to monochrome, or black and white. Strip the image of colour and look again. Does it still hold the same appeal? Without colour, does your composition still make sense? Does it draw you in? Is your image balanced and interesting? Does it have a story, or was the story dependent on the colour?
As a younger photographer discovering and growing into photography pretty much at the start of the digital transition, I found I initially held a quiet disdain for people who had an aversion to change in photography. Take digital photography, for example. Many film photographers then (and still today, to a lesser extent) would point out all the reasons why the digital image would never match the quality of film images, which was something I didn’t accept. Equally contemptible, to me, were photographers who would go on and on about the virtues of black and white photography, expressing its strengths over colour photography, using terms such as “depth,” “power,” “emotional impact,” and “real photography.” I rolled my eyes for many years, thinking, “Give me digital and colour and just be quiet.”
For almost eight years I photographed exclusively colour and essentially rebelled against the notion of black and white photography. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate a strong black and white image, it’s just that I felt, in the earlier half of my career, that it was a medium of yesteryear and for those reluctant to change. Quite simply, I was wrong.
Somewhere along the line, my thinking shifted, and I came to appreciate the power of the monochromatic image that far wiser people than me had appreciated since the beginning of photography. It isn’t necessarily better or worse than colour photography; I now believe that it just pushes viewers to concentrate on particular aspects of the image in a manner that differs from the way we take in a colour image.
Colour, as mentioned before, can be intoxicating. But do we sometimes use it as a crutch. It’s worth asking yourself in many situations when you are shooting colour if you have considered composition, or if the colour is the only reason you’re shooting the image. Take the sunset, for example. We all love pretty skies, but how many images would fall flat from a compositional standpoint if you stripped out the sensational colours? Lots of my sunrise and sunset efforts would be boring if I converted them to black and white. An interesting thing I’ve found through my more recent embracing of black and white photography is that now, if I photograph a sunset in black and white, I pay way more attention to composition and find myself internally asking questions such as “Do I have a foreground?” “Do I have depth?” and “Do I have a story beyond the colour?”
This, in turn, has made my colour photography stronger as well, because I now ask these questions across all of my photography. Black and white has found its way into all of the genres of photography I do: not only my landscape and nature work, but my portrait work as well. For a medium I resisted for so long, I now have a deep appreciation for the emotional impact (yes, I am now one of those photographers) that you can achieve in black and white portraiture. You can achieve emotional impact in colour portraiture, of course, but in black and white portraits,
I find you’re often more likely to immediately connect to a subject’s eye and recognize the expression and mood of a subject than you are in colour photography. Clothing, background, and other details are all still there, and you eventually see them in black and white images, but they’re often secondary to the emotion present. On the flip side, in many colour portraits, your eye may be attracted by a bright garment or a rich green forest in the background before it goes to your subject.
Neither medium is right or wrong, but each can be used in dramatically different ways for different purposes. Some images I shoot I immediately know are meant to be colour images. I understand that sometimes colour itself is the subject. With other images, I know from the second they’re captured that they’re destined to be seen in black and white. Over the years, I’ve made a dedicated effort to try to understand and recognize which images will work best in colour and which will work better in black and white before I shoot them. Now, when I think an image will work best in black and white, I’m most often shooting in monochrome mode on my camera. Being able to instantly see black and white tones (either via your camera’s Live View functionality or by reviewing an image right after shooting it) is hugely helpful to making stronger monochromatic images.
My challenge to all colour photographers is to simply try embracing black and white photography if you haven’t already. Maybe you won’t find the same passion for it as you have for your colour images, but what if you do? At the very least, I think you’ll find that your colour work becomes stronger as a result of understanding the essentials of black and white photography, and it may have the power to open a new world of discovery that ends up sparking your photographic passion further. After all, one of the greatest challenges we face in our photographic journey is not technical, or even emotional. It’s simply finding the inspiration to stay passionate about photography and to continue shooting. My own slow-building interest in black and white photography has been a huge catalyst for my continued interest in photography as a whole. Despite my initial reluctance, I am very thankful for all that it has brought into my life and career.
See more work by Dave Brosha at: www.davebrosha.com