"Why do you choose to shoot black and white?"

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A few days ago, I submitted a question to Nick Mayo of Nick Exposed for a Q&A he’ll be publishing soon. As I asked him the question, I realised that I didn’t have my own answer to the question, and so I have written this JUST A THOUGHT article outlining my thoughts.

The question I asked Nick was “Why do you choose to shoot black and white?”. When I asked him the question, I provided two quotes where photography greats referenced their view on the subject.

The first comes from a video that Joel Meyerowitz did with the BBC. If you don’t know who Meyerowitz is, I’d really recommend checking out his work. He has produced many excellent street photography images over a number of decades, though the images are timeless. Now the reason I bring him up is for the following quote: 

“If the world is in colour, why shoot it in black and white?”

The next quote comes from a book that I’d highly recommend: Henri Cartier-Bresson: Interviews and Conversations, 1951-1998. The particular quote is in response to a statement by Yves Bourde in 1974 titled Only Geometricians May Enter. Bourde comments on Cartier-Bresson’s rare use of colour, and in response Cartier-Bresson states:

“Colour, for me, remains painting’s domain.”

Before I share what I think about this whole concept of whether one should shoot exclusively colour or black and white, I want to take a moment to recognise both of these photographer’s work. I am by no means challenging them or their work (I couldn’t if I tried), but I think it’s important to look at the approach of other photographers, and to consider it in relation to our own practice.

If you’ve followed my work for a while, you’ll probably know that I’m predominantly a monochrome shooter. Sure, I share the occasional colour image, but you’d be foolish to bet against Ilford HP5 Plus being in my daily shooter. Now there’s many reasons why someone might shoot black and white over colour, and I don’t think any one of these is enough to explain my stance on it, but as a collective the picture comes a bit clearer. 

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Let’s start with the immediate: I prefer the aesthetic. Before you colour shooters begin to judge me, I respect that there is a place for colour images. In fact some of my favourite images are shot on colour, but most of my favourites are black and white. I find myself liking more monochrome posts on Instagram than colour ones, and that’s just the nature of my preference. I think that there’s a desire to replicate the work I like, and if that happens to be black and white, then I’m more likely to shoot black and white. 

Secondly, I haven’t mastered the beast. If you’ve seen my colour work, you’ll also know that I certainly haven’t mastered colour work (in fact, I’d say it’s worse than my black and white work), but I find myself wanting to refine my black and white work more than my colour work. I genuinely still get excited when I open up the developing tank and see a balanced and contrasty negative. Then, when I see some ugly looking negatives, I have an urge to get back out and work on my technical weaknesses. I just don’t have the same feelings when shooting colour. 

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Developing and printing is the next reason I prefer black and white. Granted, you can develop  and print colour at home, but I haven’t ever attempted it, and the two aforementioned reasons have meant that I haven’t even considered it. Developing is genuinely one of my favourite things to do; having an hour on my own in my makeshift darkroom is just brilliant. I’ll put on some music or a podcast and just be. It’s my opportunity to get some personal time for something I enjoy, and I often reflect on life. In a world that is becoming more and more digital, it’s simply bliss to just step away from it all. If you haven’t tried developing before, I’d highly recommend it. You won’t regret it. This is also an extension of the ‘mastering’ point. I love that I’m forever learning in the darkroom - long may it continue.

Another reason is the price and convenience. Now many people with think this is a poor reason to choose black and white over colour, and maybe you’re right. However, I want to shoot everyday, and black and white film makes that easier. Not only is it my preferred aesthetic, but it’s also cheaper, so I can happily shoot 3 rolls in a day and not feel too bad about it. Granted, I’m not shooting 3 rolls a day regularly, but I like that I can if the day warrants it. Furthermore, if I just can’t wait to see the images, I can get home and immediately develop them. There’s no sending them off to a decent lab, and waiting a week for them to return.

The following reason might be the one I feel strongest about: accessibility. I love that monochrome work is understandable by almost everyone; the way in which people perceive black and white images are almost universal, whereas colour can have huge discrepancies. There’s two types of discrepancies with the interpretation of colour: the medium and the perceiver. I rigorously colour manage all my work, I calibrate the screens - I have done it all, but you cannot account for the devices people view your work on. Someone’s phone display may differ to the next person’s monitor. You have no control over their colour management, and the way in which they’re rendered on these different devices can completely change an image. As for the perceiver, everyone views colours different. Whilst studying in 2017, I conducted a survey to see what people thought about when they saw a particular colour. People would list a variety of things from emotions to subjects for each colour. As you might expect, there was “happy and sunny” for yellow, and “love and hot” for red, but there was also “sick” for yellow, and “rage and war” for red. These are quite different interpretations of the same colours, right? Another great example of this is the blue & black/white & gold dress. The same image, interpreted two different ways. Of course, the rest of the image may tell you the context for the colour, but I almost want to remove that confusion in my monochrome work. I want there to be a universal language to the image. I do want people to read what they want into the image; to have their own life experiences influence their interpretation, but not the colour. I have found that this approach has made me more intentional with my colour work too. By adopting this approach, I’ve found myself consciously reflecting on the impact of a certain colour in the frame.

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Now let’s reflect on the aforementioned sources. The first is Joel Meyerowitz’s question of “If the world is in colour, why shoot it in black and white?” Frankly, I think this is utter nonsense. Is this really any different to “If a camera captures things properly, then why do people draw or paint?” I just don’t understand it at all. Maybe I’m missing something in this logic, but I can’t be the only one. After all, Joel has black and white images on his website and Instagram feed. As for HCB’s response that colour is “painting’s domain”, I also disagree. I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to such things in our art. Part of art is about expressing oneself, so to limit yourself because you don’t want to take on a practice of another visual art form is absurd to me. If this was the case there wouldn’t be numerous musical genres like rock or R&B without rock and roll and blues, for example. That’s right: I disagree with both of these photography greats when it comes to this topic, but that’s okay. You might completely disagree with me - that’s also okay! 

In summary, I prefer to shoot black and white for many reasons: the journey of the craft, to the aesthetics, to the interpretation of the medium and more. I can’t wait to hear what Nick has to say on this topic, but I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this one too! Leave a comment below or attack my Instagram DMs - either way, I’ll reply. And don’t forget to subscribe to Nick so you don’t miss it when he speaks about this topic. You can find his YouTube channel here.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out the other JUST A THOUGHT articles we’ve produced. You can read them here. Alternatively, here you can find every article we’ve published so far.