Most photographers ask when should a photograph be converted to black and white. Rarely is the discussion around why a photograph should be black and white from the outset, and that’s fascinating. If you spend some time shooting in black and white, you’ll start to notice some changes in what and how you shoot too. These have been the key reasons I’ve seen the change in my own work.
Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson, David Bailey, Karsh, Sebastio Salgado, Albert Watson, Peter Lindbergh, Herb Ritts, Irving Penn, Daidō Moriyama, Sally Mann, Avedon – the list of master photographers, alive or dead, who saw black and white not simply as a technical limitation but as a creative choice, could be an entire article in itself.
Black-and-white photography defined the medium from the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 through the 1970s. Modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams explored its formal qualities in their portraits, landscapes, and depictions of city life, and were instrumental elevating photography to an accepted art form alongside painting and sculpture. Black-and-white photography lost its dominance in the 1970s, when the New American Color Photographers like William Eggleston helped push color photography to the fore.
Creating a monochrome image lets you focus on form, texture, shape and composition. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for my black-and-white conversions, and I’m often surprised how quickly I can produce dramatic results. I can produce black-and-white photos with deep tones and rich contrast in a matter of moments. Having that ability frees me to focus most of my efforts on finding a meaningful image.
In reality a black and white photo can often look even more stunning and captivating than the color equivalent. Color can sometimes act as a distraction in a photo, and removing it can help to re-focus the viewer’s attention on the intended subject.
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” —Robert Frank