The Power of Black & White Photography

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

Don't get me wrong; I love color. While writing this article in a coffee shop, I saw sunlight streaming through a large yellow table umbrella. I dropped what I was doing and went outside to photograph the golden glow on the underside of the fabric.

But as much as I enjoy color photography, my heart has always been drawn to Black & White. Here’s why.

Black & White is Timeless

When photography was discovered nearly 200 years ago, the only way to capture an image was in Black & White. Even after color reproduction became possible, B&W was long considered the only true medium for serious photographers. In many corners of the fine art world, this belief persists today.

For the photo below, I stood in the yard of a small bed & breakfast in Ireland. The fresh linens flapped in the wind as the rain clouds rolled in. This moment was made for Black & White.

Black & White is Real

If color photography is a rich foamy latte, then B&W is a good strong shot of espresso. It’s straightforward and direct, looking you right in the eye while it shakes your hand. There’s a certain confidence and candor. Paradoxically, while B&W photography doesn’t show the world as we see it – filled with color – in many ways, it’s as real as it gets.

Black & White Adds Mood

B&W can be light and airy as a snowflake, or dark and mysterious as a moonlit alley. It can be quiet, poetic, dramatic, elegant or seductive. With a skillful use of light and shadow, we can evoke feelings the way a composer evokes mood through a film score.

Black & White is Simple

A peacock can dazzle with its color, but a raven doesn't have this luxury. And so it is with B&W photography.

When we can’t rely on color to add visual appeal, the other elements in a photo need to work that much harder: line, shape, texture, etc. I believe this invites us to seek simplicity in the frame, devoting full awareness to the composition of our images.

Black & White Makes You Work

Whether you're processing in the film darkroom or using software like Lightroom or Photoshop, you need patience and persistence to coax the best out of your B&W photos. If you're working digitally, you could snap your fingers to create a basic B&W conversion with one click of a button. But as you see in the "Instant" version below, this often produces a flat, lifeless image -- like a bland soup with no spice. Compare that to the "Custom" version, where I spent time dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) specific parts of the image, and fine-tuning the tones and contrast.

Nowadays, you'll find an array of digital effects filters that can automatically simulate different B&W processing styles for you, from low-contrast to film noir. If you're serious about the craft, however, you'll still spend time making the image your own.

It takes work. But as one of my creative mentors used to say, "Nothing hard is ever easy."

If you're someone who consistently gravitates to shooting in color, I encourage you to try this challenge: For the next month, focus exclusively on creating Black & White images. See if it changes your perspective, trains your eye and deepens your appreciation for light and shadow. Have fun -- and let me know how it goes.

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~ Paul