I’m going to take a break from all the New Zealand talk (goodness knows, you won’t shut me up about it over the next few weeks) to talk a bit about black and white. Why are some shots better in black and white? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.
Here’s the same image in it’s original, untouched color state.
Perhaps with a bit of contrast and sharpening, it would pass as acceptable. Perhaps. But I think the black and white version is more compelling. To me, it suggests an entirely different mood.
Traditionally, I’ve considered images that run a broad gamut of tones, from clean whites to stark blacks, as good candidates for conversion. The more gray tones, the better. I’ve also thought in terms of the feelings of nostalgia that black and white can prompt. There’s something in black and white images, with a dose of film-like grain even, that reminds us of earlier times. If you’re old enough, then black and white can remind you of your own youth. In my case, I’m old enough to remember the “downstairs television”, a hand-me-down from upstairs, replaced by the family room color RCA console set. The downstairs black and white was strictly for me and my brothers and it was most typically relegated to the Bobby Orr era Boston Bruins and rerun after rerun of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Buddy cracked me up.
Here’s another, this one taken with a 10 stop neutral density filter to allow for a 30 second exposure. It’s ethereal and, to me, calming… and it simply works better in black and white.
Again, I feel the black and white version is best.
But as I’ve contemplated precisely why, I’ve been increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s because color distracts. We’re all drawn to color; I’m particularly oriented to deep shades of red. I’ve not conducted any scientific experiments on this, but since I’ve become more aware of the phenomenon, I’ve concluded that images with lots of red tend to be the ones I like most.
What happens when we remove the color completely? What happens when there’s no color to distract? Do we consider the tonal ranges, the contrasts, the shapes and leading lines? Do we notice what’s really there?
Sometimes black and white… is best.