Turns out I shot a lot of photos at Trostle Pond the other morning. And I was going through them in post, I stumbled upon a situation where I couldn’t decide how I’d best like to see the final product. For me it happens like this: an image comes up on the monitor and I think, “Hey, that could look really good in black & white.” Most of the time it also looks really good in color. So I go back to Bridge, duplicate the RAW file, and process the original as color and the copy as b&w, with the intention of seeing which looks best in the end.
Most of the time they both look best, and so I keep both and end up with posts like today’s, where I’m sharing matching pairs of color and b&w images with a curiosity for which is better, or if it’s even possible for one to be better than the other.
I started this post with a color version and that was a conscious decision, brought forth from the fear that if I started with a b&w, would people still click on it? Do readers respond to the art of b&w, or to the eye-catching-ness of crisp autumn color? (Or does anyone bother reading this to begin with?) My point being that there’s a psychology at work, at least in my own mind, where color is mainstream, expected, and a way of engaging people. Black & white, on the other hand, is artistic – few people go out and shoot in b&w intentionally, or all the time. So when we see b&w images, often portraits, I think we tend to immediately see them as “more artistic” (whatever that means) simply because they are presented in a medium that’s different from what we are otherwise bombarded with online.
I believe that our reaction to b&w has a lot to do with our personal history as well. There is a definite generational thing going on as we engage with images and I think that those of us who may have grown up looking at b&w images, or who spent many years as a photographer working with b&w, have a more native draw towards the medium. There is something familiar there.
Those of us who grew up in the world of color, and perhaps especially those of us who grew up in the digital world. take it for granted that color is the norm and that’s how it’s always been. For many of my contemporaries, I think it’s a little shocking to them when they pause, think, and realize that once upon a time film – yes, film – came in b&w and that’s how photos were made. It wasn’t always an Instagram filter to apply on your phone.
I began my journey into photography both with color and digital, and it wasn’t until a few years in that I stepped sideways and picked up a film camera and some Ilford HP5+ film. It opened up a whole new world for me as a photographer and, taking several classes with an old war photographer who deeply valued photos of people, properly exposed and printed in b&w, I emerged with not only a new skill set, but a much deeper appreciation for the art of b&w photography.
Which is why, in my own mind, b&w registers as more artistic. Because a b&w photo – eschewing color for form, flow, and content – has to stand on its own two legs without the crutch of color to captivate a viewer and tell a story. This shit just got serious. And this is why when I look at a b&w photo, my own or someone else’s, I make an immediate judgement: it’s either a well-crafted b&w image, and therefore worthy, or it’s crap that should have been sent to the recycle bin. B&W either works or it doesn’t, and without the crutch of color no amount of whining about artistry will salvage a poor b&w image.
That experience is also why, to me, b&w looks best – or at least most natural – when it was made with HP5+ film. Sadly I sold my film camera in a fit of stupidity, and haven’t shot any HP5+ in several years now. But I do have the VSCO Film pack that includes a digital emulation of it, which I find to be rather accurate. So I’m able to go back there when I want to. The photos in this post were made using another VSCO emulation, Afga Scala 200. I very much like how it renders contrast in the image (and even back in the darkroom, I was a slut for contrast).
Having written this, it seems strange that it’s a post about b&w that uses landscapes as it’s examples. My film photographer professor is probably spitting out his coffee somewhere, subconsciously aware of this blasphemy. But the truth is that among other things, I am still a nature and wildlife photographer, and I am still passionate about good landscapes. And landscapes render well in b&w, at least sometimes.
Of course b&w is very much at home with portraits, and especially smooth, well-crafted portraits. And we’ll talk about those someday as well. But for now these are my thoughts on b&w and a short series of images that I just can’t decide if I like better one way or another.