“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

Art Model, Alethea ©2013 Terrell Neasley

Black and White, aka… MONOCHROME. This is the way things started out. Of course, you already knew that. Actually, monochrome refers to more than just Black and White. Sepia is also monochromatic, as is Cyanotype, Abrotype, Selenium, and Copper. All it really means is one color tonality combined with white. An image is said to be duo-toned when white is replaced with another color

But when we usually refer to making photos artistic, we are mostly referring to turning them black and white. This is a style. And why do we do this? There are several reasons. Mainly its the aesthetic appeal of vintage artwork, which is once again the trendiest way to shoot. Case in point, Instagram. Half the images we see now-a-days are posted with Instagram retro or lomo(graphy) filters overlaid on top of the image to give it an old feel. Old has become new again.

Art Model, Alethea
©2013 Terrell Neasley

Another reason we like B&W is for the simple fact that it is traditional. We used to not have the ability to capture in color. Traditional photography was more comfortable and familiar. There are reasons we like a certain image and that’s because of the unconscious mind’s eye which has a tendency to be drawn to certain things and will overlook others. Light, shadow, shape (especially geometric), patterns, balance…these are all elements that the eye sees and notices more quickly. These things tend to appeal to you or will at least get your attention whether you like them or not. Color will tend to distract the eye away from these elements. Bright colors and primary colors may lead the eyes away by cluttering and confusing your unconscious mind thereby making you miss the aforementioned elements the eyes naturally look for.

Remove color information and what remains are the truisms that make up the photograph. Don’t get me wrong. There are times color information is paramount. Try shooting a playground in Black and White. Information is missing and which leaves the story incomplete. Shooting a redhead in B&W might even be considered a crime. However street photography is big on black and white. Distractions are reduced. You see the raw mood of the scene and are able to interpret the composition without internalizing it. Sometimes what you see can be painful, but you are able to disassociate it from yourself. Ever look at portraits of homeless people? This was a big trend of artistic work at one point. The natural tendency was to convert automatically to B&W. The pain on the faces…the grittiness of the subject…the desolation, all this was captured much the same way we tend to like shots of abandoned buildings and other facets of decay. The addition of color for human subjects might make you feel guilty for admiring the work or for not doing something to help.

“Life is like a good black and white photograph, there’s black, there’s white, and lots of shades in between.” 
– Karl Heiner

“Who-Panda”, Art Model Panda ©2013 Terrell Neasley

What makes good B&W images? For me, I’ll take mine moody and contrasty. Sort of like the women I tend to date which oft bodes ill in the end, but that’s another subject. Its going to be different for everyone. I like rich blacks that contrast well against the whites (Don’t read any other analogies into that!). At the same time, I can go high key on the opposite end of the scale to where the weight of white far outweighs the amount of black in the image. Too many people will let photo-editing software make the decision for them that turn out looking flat. You can even shoot B&W straight out of camera, so the camera makes the decision. The problem here is that these are global adjustments over the entire image and these machines do not have the artistic savvy to render correctly. They may come close. They may give a good starting point, but that control should reside solely with the artist.

I used to develop my own film and prints in a darkroom. There was NEVER a shot that was perfect from capture. Some burning (darkening) and dodging (brightening) was always necessary. It was a craft and a true art. The same holds true in digital. I use Nik Silver Efex because it is the closest software to a darkroom that I have ever used. I’ve tried several. Nik does it best for me.

Art Model, Panda
©2013 Terrell Neasley

And this is a secret I will divulge of photogs. Sometimes, a shot may be messed up and in dire need of saving. One trick… Turn it B&W! Oftentimes, this can be a quick save for a shot that is possibly out of focus, exposed incorrectly, or otherwise just not right. The easy fix…make it artistic, which means go monochrome. If it works, great. If not… bite the bullet and move on.

And then there are the film-purist photogs who do not shoot digital. These guys will stick to film as long as they can still buy paper, film, and  the chemicals to process them. In more cases than not, they are shooting pro-grade B&W film, usually a Tri-X or a TMAX brand. I have no clue what will happen to these guys once film is no more. I am one of those who actually loved the darkroom. It was a sort of sanctuary to me. I’d usually have silence in the near darkness. I’d actually develop my film with my eyes closed most of the time. Doing the prints usually required a light, called a safe light that would not destroy prints during development.

Why do we still like monochrome? In a nutshell, it tells the story oftentimes much better. It maintains a timelessness that is unique to us. And the versatility of it is useful in just about any important situation. Black and White is simple. Its beautiful and unencumbered. And remember, Black and White is not just black and white, but also every shade of gray in between.