Robert Frank, now 93, the great Swiss-American photographer once said, “Black and white are the colors of photography.” Another famous photographer, Walker Evans (1903-1975), went one step further when he dismissed color photography as vulgar.
It is a fact that the most iconic photographs in the history of photography were shot in black and white. Some of the finest photographers like Ansel Adams (1902-84), Robert Capa (1913-1954), Henri Cartier Bresson (1907-2004) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), shot exclusively in black and white. Pakistan’s leading photographer Arif Mahmood also shoots mostly in black and white.
Interestingly, even today, the black and white film (as opposed to digital) is considered the gold standard for serious photography. However, the convenience of the digital media has lured away most professional and art photographers to digital photography.
When using a digital camera, most black and white photographers shoot in color and then convert it to black and white using post processing software like Photoshop, Light Room, or dedicated black and white software like Nik Silver Efex.
I feel that color can prove distracting when a photographer wants to depict the essence of an image. Limited to just shades of gray, the image strongly draws the viewers attention to the what picture is about. Also, black and white strongly emphasizes the play of light in the picture; which besides the composition is the most powerful ingredient of a photograph.
Black and white is definitely most effective in portrait photography and street photography. Photographs of buildings with their clean lines and sharp contrasts also look particularly elegant in black and white. Generally, landscapes are still shot in color. This is not to say that landscapes do not look good in black and white — and Ansel Adams photographs of the Yosemite are ample proof — but it feels unfair to rob a scene of the fabulous color endowed to it by nature.
One quality of black and white is that it tends to emphasize a sense of gloom. In pictures of run-down locales and the down-and-out, the misery seems accentuated.
Even though I shoot mostly in color and keep them in color, some of my most favorite shots are the one that I converted to black and while. Here are some examples.
Click on the camera icon to view the photographs.
The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.