Color vs black and white photography – What makes sense and when?

Color vs black and white photograph

Color vs black and white photograph

Shortly after photography’s monochromatic inception in the early 1800s, enthusiasts began experimenting with color photography. Once color film reached the masses, many photographers eschewed the new development and remained loyal to the black and white image. Now, though color photography is clearly the standard in the modern world, photographers still face the dilemma of deciding whether to present their images in color or black and white.

A photograph’s impact on a viewer can be aided or hindered by the choice of using black and white versus color. Making a deliberate decision about color requires a critical eye. Think about the benefits of color and the benefits of black and white before deciding which works best for each of your images.

The Benefits of Color Photography

Color catches the eye. A bright hue that highlights an image’s subject will draw a viewer in right away.
An image’s setting and time is inferred from its colors. Warm colors give context to an autumnal portrait. Cool colors portray winter. Lush greens show the viewer that the photo was taken in the spring.
Mood can be communicated based on a photo’s color scheme. For example, a cold tone can elicit a feeling of sadness or loneliness, while a warmer tone might suggest tenderness or joy.
Elements of color theory attract a viewer’s eye when used effectively. The ability to use complementary colors or analogous colors, for example, to emphasize relationships between subject matter is lost with black and white photography.

When to Use Color

Opt for color images when color is a key element in the story your photo is telling. A photograph of a child eating the season’s first red, ripe strawberry on a golden summer evening, for example, probably benefits from deep colors.

When the relationships between distinct hues in your image are important, color is often the best choice. Contrasting color tones don’t always translate well to high contrast in black and white. Green and red, for instance, are quite distinct in a color image, but in a black and white image they may appear to be rather similar in tone.

The Benefits of Black & White Photography

Black and white images appear to be more timeless than color images. As evidenced by the color schemes produced by particular types of film or by trends in digital processing, color can sometimes suggest a specific era. Removing the color makes it more difficult to put an exact date on a photo. A lack of color in a photograph often accentuates the light and shadows. Backlit subjects and dramatic shadows are brought to the audience’s attention quickly in black and white images.

Many fine art photographers prefer black and white images for their tendency to distance the subject matter from reality. Humans see the world in color, and a rendition of the world in monochrome makes us pause and look closely. Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction.

When to Use Black and White

In short, convert images to black and white when the light, form, or texture in the scene is more compelling than the hues of the subject matter. Black and white is a good choice when the color in a photo serves only as a distraction from the message you want the image to convey.

Images with a wide range of tonal values tend to work well for black and white imagery. Most black and white images are most successful when there are definite blacks and whites–that is, the tones in the photo range all the way from the blackest black to the whitest white with lots of varying gray tones in between.

How to Shoot

Thanks to digital post-processing, we have the advantage of deciding to present photos in color or black and white after taking the photo. Cameras usually have monochrome modes that let you preview your images in black and white on the LCD screen. If you use this feature, make sure you’re set to capture the image in the RAW format rather than (or in addition to) JPEG. Shooting RAW gives you flexibility. While it helps to envision your final photograph when looking at a scene, shooting RAW allows you to test out black and white on an image after it’s been shot. If you decide later that the photograph needs color for impact, the RAW file’s color information will be available. If you only shoot a black and white image saved as a JPEG, however, the color information will be lost.

Ultimately, the choice of whether to use color or black and white for an image is subjective. Try looking at your photos in both black and white and color to get a feel for what works and what does not work. No matter which option you go with, make sure you know why you chose it. The color or lack of color in an image should contribute to its impact.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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