#1206. Why shoot in monochrome? Why shoot in colour?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jun 03

How we react to one, to the other, and how to blend the two for even more powerful images.

My default
 

A lot has been written about the respective merits of b&w and colour photography, about the importance of colour science, about intellect vs emotion. To me, all of this is either too scientific (and hard to apply in the field) or understandable but too generic to really be useful. If a simple, actionable and founded theory of how/when to use either exists, I’m eager to read it πŸ™‚ My goal with this post is to provide actionable information that sits in the middle of those two extremes.

Famous photographers have tried to bridge the gap between the two. For example, Ansel Adams published work in colour and Saul Leiter published work in b&w. It’s fair to say the number of famous photographers who are able to work equally well in both media is very low. To my eyes, Leiter succeeds where Adams fails.

And it’s tempting to say that Leiter’s photographs look similar in both colour and b&w, with colour making some ideas/moments in his images even more obvious, whereas the use of colour in Adam’s work merely makes it more ‘ordinary’ (a personal point of view). So what’s the reason for this?

 

I’ve commented in the past, about my own photographs, that they include colour only if they are largely about the colour itself, b&w being my default setting. While largely true, that’s a bit vague and probably not entirely helpful. Besides, images focusing purely on colour “accidents” such as the one above, can easily become gimmicky. They can form the basis of a single project, but probably can’t constitute the backbone of anyone’s work or style.

So, how do we decide whether to use colour or b&w?

An empirical way of working is to make two versions of a same photograph and live with them for a few days or weeks to determine which you like best. In the case below, both please me and the colour version may even edge the b&w, but only because it is largely monochromatic itself, while still adding information and feel. Colour makes it look out of time, almost like a theatre set. That colour isn’t neutral, I altered its contrast and hue in PP, but it is still believable and realistic. Here’s where master colourists have a field day.

Bikes, bikes, bikes
 

So, for me, a colour photograph is valid if the colour adds something to the feeling conveyed by the image, or makes my intention more obvious/powerful. It would take a more experienced photographer than me to reliably anticipate that while making the photograph, and it is something I personally decide in PP.

And I’m not alone.

Watch videos about film photographers using colour film (akin to digital presets, in that they lock you into a single style) and you’ll notice the film’s colour bias matches some subjects wonderfully and not others. Only a very experienced photographer focusing exclusively on a very limited set of films and lenses would be able to predict what subjects will work with the chosen lens/film combo and which won’t.

Realistic contrast and colour. You are there.
 

And that’s the problem with the empirical approach suggested above. It is merely a version of spraying and praying, and takes time to build any form of intuition to guide you in the field. So, for my attempt at a more general and usable framework, let’s first see how monochrome and colour impact us.

How the eye scans images

A neurologist would have more interesting things to write than me here, but let’s still examine these two versions of a same photograph, one with intense contrast and no colour, and the other using the opposite slider positions : no contrast and intense saturation.

 

Neither really works, but it’s how we react to both that’s interesting.

In the colour version, the eye doesn’t have anywhere to settle down. We tend to scan more, particularly in the bottom of the scene, full of details. In comparison, the stark monochrome version feels more static and guided towards the central statue. Impressionist painters discovered this effect and their paintings used strong colours but very little luminance contrast to induce this “forced inspection”. A desaturated photo of “Impression, soleil levant” reveals that the sun is the exact same grey as the surrounding sky. It is only the differences in hue that make it pop so much.

So that’s one point to consider. Flat, colourful images will make the viewer’s eye roam more freely, while stark monochromes impose the composition with more authority. So you can mix and match, to various degrees.

My Eggleston forgery
Room with a view
 

Here, I believe light and gear play a crucial role.

A vertical sun on a torrid mediterranean summer day isn’t going to help create a low contrast colour shot. Predawn, post sunset and overcast conditions will be more suited.

And wide dynamic range camera will also help. Apologies for sounding like a broken record, but this is where film cameras, particularly of medium and larger format walk all over digital, regardless of price. Negative film can have such huge latitude (16 real stops) that their colour and tonality of highlights is unparalleled in the digital world (13 stops, real-life, and hard shoulders that clip easily). See the videos on the Grainydays channel for many stunning examples of this pastel effect in highlights.

This is a flat-ish photograph of a 3D scene.
This is a 3D photograph of a flat-ish scene.
 

Contrast and PP

The natural extension of what is discussed above has also been used extensively in painting, notably by Rambrandt and Caravaggio: chiaroscuro.

For the longest time, most painters illuminated all of the canvas equally, providing detail everywhere in the scene, and using colour lavishly because that’s how things were done. This produced flat looking images. Almost abstract in spite of their author’s best attempts at realism. Chiaroscuro painters allowed themselves to throw large parts of the scene into dark oblivion and upped contrast significantly to convey a sense of volume and, therefore, of realism.

The two photographs above attempt to show the difference between the two approaches (though there is still too much contrast in the first to really seem flat).

I sack, stern.
 

DS regulars aware of my predilection for contrasty monochromes will not be shocked to learn that Rembrandt and Vermeer are among my favourite painters (along with Turner, for other reasons).

Chiaroscuro-like photographs, and bad jokes in labels, are a big part of my approach to photography. It therefore comes as no surprise that lenses that accentuate that sense of volume – such as the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM – are also very close to my heart.

In photography, chiaroscuro (or contrasty monochromes, for a less lofty qualifier) has a lot to do with post processing. Blow the highlights, and you can kiss chiaroscuro’s realistic 3D goodbye (now you also know why REAL dynamic range is so important to me and why film is always so tantalising).

A creative photograph
Cheap Douanier Rousseau knock-off πŸ˜‰
 

Colour anchors realism

Of the two above photographs, the b&w if my favourite. No big surprise here. But the colour version is more realistic. No big surprise there either πŸ˜‰

Colour is everywhere. It’s how we experience the world, day in, day out, except for people affected by severe colour-blindness (if you are one of those people and feel OK discussing it, please weigh in on how you perceive the various pairings on this page and the paintings discussed above). It’s how we make sense of our surroundings. Colour conveys realism.

That doesn’t mean all colour images have to be straightforward and documentary.

Better in colour. This feels deliberate.
 

Here, I’m out on a limb, even further out than in the previous two sections πŸ˜‰

But things get really interesting when you incorporate colour into an unrealistic photograph.

That can ground the image, if there is some measure of recognisability in it, or it can make the warp even more intense than the monochrome version. I strongly believe that’s where the (grossly underestimated) genius of Saul Leiter resides.

Close enough
 

This photo, above, is a bit weird (and I love it for that reason). In b&w, it would look a bit more fine-arty, but puzzling. With the colour included and even slightly intensified, it becomes more interesting. While colour helps recognise bits and bobs more, it’s still hard to put a name on everything and a logic to the image.

Our very own Paul Perton ain’t half bad at that. Look at many of his posts and you’ll find a wealth of disorienting images made only even more beautiful and interesting by the strong, but realistic, colour. See here, for instance.

That’s about it. Let’s try to bring this all together in a workable framework.

The DS regulation bicycle. In monochromatic colour with some contrast. 3D pop and atmosphere.
 

In summary

Up to this point, I’ve discussed :

  • How the two impact our interaction with an image
  • The impact of contrast on realism
  • The impact of colour on realism

Let’s end with some notes on what to use and when. Because there are endless combinations of the previous 3 points, this post could go on and on.

So I’ll stick to just a few key ideas and let you fill in the blanks for your own work.

Welcome to the jungle
 

B&W works best to highlight shape. Put differently, b&w is better when you are photographing light, rather than a subject. The photograph above shows interesting shapes everywhere, but only works here because of the quality of light available to me at the time the photo was made. Adding colour would bring some realism into this scene. We’d recognise plants more easily, rather than let the weird shapes evoke a walk through a forest on Felucia. Remember, much of the power of photography is in evocation. Composition is your main ally to seed stories in the viewer’s mind. So, if you enjoy shape, light and composition, b&w is your friend.

B&W works best if you love post-processing and fine art. Some colour work is fine art! Please don’t misread me πŸ˜‰ I’m just saying that fine art (photography) is the manufacturing of a beautiful object via a photographic process. No print (or tactile media), no fine art, in other words. And post processing, particularly in digital b&w, is how you create the subtle tonal ranges, and control contrast that get you closer to a fine art print. With film, particularly in larger formats, darkroom printing (which still yields results that no amount of digital wizardry or money can yet equal) is obviously the equivalent of that post-processing.

And I think that’s one of the keys for making that choice: B&W allows you to go to town on your PP. Colour doesn’t as much. Since colour brings realism to the image, any sharp colour departure from a realistic look can feel terrible. See 100% of landscape photographs with overcooked colours, and tone mapping, for example. Those would look far better in mono. If the colours in the scene are that uninteresting that you need to resort to insane PP to bring them out, stick to mono to – not only save the shot – but make it personal through your monochrome PP. Note the italic emphasis on realistic, not neutral!! We have been taught to equate the two, but that’s a lie. Strong, deliberate colour casts don’t take away realism near as much as blown highlights or messed up tone mapping.

Thompson’s Lane in colour
 

Explore the realism of colour. The image above would have worked in b&w. But the variety of hues in the trees, lawn, bikes and posters make it much more interesting in colour. Your eyes can’t stop scanning.

It’s interesting to include/reinforce colour in photographs that are (deliberately) hard to read in monochrome. In the photograph below, colour would add nothing, and the car might draw attention away from the hard clipped hedge. The photo is perfectly readable in monochrome, the light was flat, and I see no interesting reason to add colour to it.

Clipped edges
 

But in other situations, the luminance information alone may be insufficient to keep your interest high, and the inclusion of colour can add just enough information to make the puzzle interesting. Or the colour might simply add interest. Or the colour might be beautiful in itself and might need no other justification for the photograph to exist. This is where good colourists make us drool, and this opens up a whole other exploration of colour theory (maybe in other posts πŸ˜‰ )

And, to me, a pinnacle of photography is reached when you are able to combine the grounding or misleading aspects of both colour and b&w. Which is, again, why I hold Saul Leiter’s work in such high respect.

Searching
 

Enjoy memories, enjoy natural colours. Not everything has to be intellectualised. Not every photograph needs to have a fine art goal. There’s a lot to be said about simply documenting moments. And in this, the added realism brought about by colour helps recall the memories and enjoy the sensual sides of the events. A nice warm spring day in Bletchley Park, for example (below). This was lovely, with loudspeakers in the bushes simulating conversations and the laughter of children, as a way to convey relief from the complexity of codebreaking and the harsh realities of war, cold nights, exhaustion, fear, tragedy … Nothing soothes like a beautiful tree under a blue sky. Turning this into b&w would have been sacrilege to me. This is not about any deep meaning, but about enjoying and recalling a beautiful moment.

A lovely meadow in spring
One minute later, a few meters to the left.
 

At the end of the day, it’s your choice, there are no hard rules. Only principles which you can choose to judge your photos by, to decide how to take and process future ones. The two photographs above work in their own way. I increased contrast in one (the monochrome) and reduced it in the other. I used a central composition (including strong vignetting) in one (the monochrome) to reinforce that formality, and a more (shall we say) distributed one in the colour version.

Where and when you decide to emphasize contrast over colour, or vice versa, or push/lower both, is what defines your style and brings your vision to (digital) life πŸ™‚

 

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  • Mike says:

    Excellent post, even though I rarely go to town on my PP.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    You make some interesting observations between the differences in b&w and colour images and how you treat them. There is an interesting approach to post processing colour images that I came across the other day. Desaturate the images first and process firstly for light and shadow in b&w before adding colour back via saturation.

    For more details the link is added below.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Ian, I’ll watch the video. Doing this myself, I find that it only works if the mono processing is kept light. If I overdo the contrast in the luminance, bringing back the colours produces a very garish image. Perhaps I’m doing it wrong πŸ˜‰

      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        Hi Pascal, seems you have adapted to your personal style technique and as with all forms of post processing it is sacrilege to overdo or overcook the sliders. After bringing back the colour if you introduce too much saturation then I guess a fine tuning of contrast and luminance is quite in order. I have followed this approach and selectively brought back colours with interesting results – one should not be expecting a realism result but more of a fine art result is my guess.

        Following this method perhaps with adjustments in the calibration area of Lightroom might be interesting – see link below

  • Fred says:

    Brilliant!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    ROTFLMHFAO – and pulleez, no translations!
    Love the bicycle shots – we’re heading back to normal, are we?

    To attempt the impossible and try to be serious for a moment. There IS no “black and white” answer to the question your article poses.

    It might depend on the subject. It might depend on the light. It might depend on the contrast – which has to be assessed both in terms of tone and in terms of colour. It might depend on the film you use – or these days, which brand of digi cam you shoot with – because they don’t all produce the same result, not matter what YOUR skill set is.

    And in my own case, it’s been a life story – for half a life time I couldn’t afford to set up a private colour processing lab, so I shot black and white most of those years – and now, with the ease of processing colour in digi, I’ve all but abandoned B&W so that I can indulge myself playing with colour.

    So I agree with your conclusion – “it is your choice, there are no hard rules”. And yet . . . if you shoot with a Hassy, B&W seems like an excellent choice. I don’t remember which model, but one of the Leica’s is strictly B&W and I’ve seen sensational work with that. Some of my night stuf HAS to lose out on colour, simply because the garish mixtures of different artificial lights making retention of colour a non-viable proposition. Several of your shots in this article make this perfectly obvious. So do your comments on Leiter and Adams.

    But when I look at Glen Cowan’s shot of the sea dragon on the left side of my front door, or my own photo of the facade of Strasbourg cathedral on the other side of the day, I wallow in the colours they present – I adore them – and I’d hate if they weren’t in colour.

    So yeah – no rules – don’t let yourself be blindsided – think! With digi, with the exception I think of Leica’s monochrome model, the decision is not made “in camera”. You have plenty of opportunities later, to switch to one or the other. Actually I don’t believe that’s altogether true – I think if I was looking for a B&W print, I’d switch from colour to B&W before pressing the shutter button. I don’t altogether like those B&W conversion options in programs like Photoshop etc!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, I have a contract with my hosting company. If a certain number of bikes aren’t published every month, he pushes the prices up πŸ˜‰

      I think choosing, rather than follwing rules, is important. But, in order to actually be able to choose, you need to understand how to. So a few guidelines on how to decide and why are important too.

      Cheers

  • philberphoto says:

    Ah, this post is so depressing. It is like reading the Talmud in one respect (and one only). It is that you bring to the fore so much depth, richness and complexity that the likes of me who are more like M. Jourdain ( a character from MoliΓ¨re so uncultured he did not know he spoke in prose) can no longer Jourdainise blissfully and peacefully. Ah, the joys of lack of erudition. And kudos to those in the know! BTW, I’d love to know more about the picture called “searching”. In particular why it wouldn’t work in B&W, which would have been my choice…:-)

    • pascaljappy says:

      Philippe, your self-bashing is only forgiven because of the comparison with the Talmud πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      “Searching” would probably work in b&w, but might look week as the luminosity on the trees, leaves, bridge and clothes is quite similar. So this results in a grey on grey image. Adding contrast would make the leaves harsh. The statue could be singled out using a red filter, but the rest would still be a dull (and dark) mess. With such a popping red on a green background, why not enjoy it? πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

      • Dave says:

        Hi Pascal
        You have given us so much useful information and links and thoughts over the last few months. I want to say thank you for all your efforts and time. All these post go to my archive file.
        Best Dave

  • PaulB says:

    All

    This has become a very interesting conversation. I have to agree with Pete, unless we are using a dedicated monochrome camera, from (Leica, Phase, or Fuji*), we have the option to choose one or the other, since all digital cameras capture raw data as a color image.

    My method is a little different than mentioned so for. First, I generally choose to shoot JPEG and Raw, with the JPEGs set to B&W with a slight contrast boost. This lets me see what the scene looks like in B&W in the viewfinder, and gives me the chance to see the camera’s default conversion next to the color raw version in my processing software.

    Generally, when I select an image to process I try to make the best possible color image that I can first. Once I’m satisfied with the image I make a copy of the finished color image and convert that file to B&W. Sometimes the conversion meets my approval I am done, but most times the image needs adjustment. The thing I try to keep in mind is, the B&W my start from my finished color image, but the two are different and I try to make the best B&W image I can. Even if I undo everything that made the color image good.

    *Why did I include Fuji cameras with the dedicated monochrome cameras from Leica and Phase? My limited experience with Fuji cameras is, they apply the film emulsion profile to the raw data as well as the JPEG data. So, if you select the B&W profile you lose, or seem to lose, the color data.

    PaulB

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      Hi Paul, my experience with Fuji is that although you may shoot with a particular film emulsion profile and when you import say into Lightroom it applies that profile by default , it is not cooked into the raw as you are still free to select any of the other standard film profiles after importing. Sure if you are intending to have a b&w image set it in camera to get the best preview while taking the shot. You will also find that if you shoot raw and jpeg in camera you can still do an in camera raw conversion using any of the film profiles at a later stage. If your Fuji is supported by their Fujifilm X Raw Studio software and you prefer the camera jpeg engine to say Adobes post processing it really matters little how your settings in camera are if you shoot raw – with the exception say of over or under exposure which would make life difficult.

      • PaulB says:

        Ian

        Thanks for the comment about being able to change the profile in Lightroom. I’m not a Lightroom user, so I just accepted the profile when I imported the files into Capture One.

        I will need to look to see if my latest version of C1 will also let you change the profile. I would like to think it should since they had dedicated bundles for Fuji owners.

        PaulB

        • Ian Varkevisser says:

          Hi Paul, even the C1 express version for Fuji allows you to change film simulations.
          In the Base Characteristics Tool if you click on Curve it should present a dropdown with the different film simulations.

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