To B(&W) or not to B(&W)! That is the question! Or is it!

As far as eternal battles go, this one is going for gold: Color or Black & White…

Is one inherently better than the other? Is one more or less suited to specific genres of photography? Is it more or less “artistic”? Is one easier or harder to master?

As is the case with most such photography related questions, (a) the answer is somewhere in the middle and (b) it doesn’t really matter. Let me start from the second, which will also serve as a disclaimer.

Photography is a hobby. It can be a profession as well and in that case the photographer shoots what the client wants / needs, so the question becomes moot in that case. For us common folk, i.e. lovers of the art of photography, things should not be as complicated. You love photography, you may or may not have a vision of what a particular image should look like, just go out and make it already! Do what you want, do whatever makes you feel better, happier, taller, skinnier, sexier, whatever trips your trigger! If that is B&W or color, then so be it. Just have fun creating visual maps of your mind’s escapades! Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk shop.

In the old days, there was just B&W photography, so it does have a leg up on color in terms of age or maturity as a medium. Furthermore, the development / printing process for B&W back in the days of film, was something that the photographer could do at home in a darkroom, whereas color development and printing was left to the specialty photo shops. This meant that all editing (“retouching” as it was called back in the days of film) was the domain of the B&W photographer and it was indeed an art, much like today’s post processing is a different beast altogether than digital photography. These factors led to a whole generation of great photographers creating solely in B&W, thus giving B&W its artsy appeal and legacy.

Having said that, none of these factors matter much in today’s world of digital photography. Both B&W and color images have come of age, the development is gone since images are files on a computer, printing can be done at home for both and editing is the same for both; in fact one can switch an image from B&W to color and back and check what works – more on this later though!

The world is a colorful place to begin with, so if you are after depicting reality as best you can, color is indeed the way to go. If you are trying to depict a colorful reality in shades of grey, you can do it, but your job is a lot harder since you are limiting the tools you are using. You need to have a greater understanding of the nuances of light and shadow in order to do this – hard but doable.

If you have a vision, this can be most likely articulated both in B&W and color, although it is true that some things are better said one way of the other. Think of it in terms of a story: it can be narrated, sang or told as a poem. Each has artistic value, but depending on the theme, one may be better suited and make the vision clearer to realize. My personal rule here is simple: if color adds to the story I want to tell, I use it; otherwise I shoot in B&W. Having said that, the kind of images / stories I usually want to share has a lot to do with color, so I end up shooting about in color about 70% of the time, if not more, but your mileage may vary.

I (and I am sure that you have too) have seen incredible images in color and incredible images in B&W. I know what “feels” right and what works for each image and, given time, any photographer gains that same knowledge. We can all name iconic B&W images (any HCB image would suffice!) and iconic color images (check NatGeo – remember that green eyed Afghan girl?) and you describe them as such without giving the B&W / color question much thought.

Digital photography is a beautiful thing and dealing with B&W / color is one of the reasons. Go out and shoot, try shooting one way or another, fire up the ol’ computer and your favorite editing software and switch back and forth; see what makes you say “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” and use it for that particular image. The beauty of it is that you are not asked to commit to one or the other “camp” for life or decide a priori how you shoot and stick with it.

So, in a nutshell: Color is good, B&W is good, love is in the air, just go out and shoot and make beautiful images! Jeez…