why I choose black and white

Why and When I Choose Black and White

I failed the first photography class I ever took. This was not a learning annex class, or even a class in high school. Nope, this was in college. I was a photography major. It’s a long story (I’ll tell you some day, if you’re really interested, but it included a final project and possible food poisoning). The professor and I started off on the wrong foot and never got on the right one. He opened the first day of class with a proclamation. We were all experts in the technical aspects of photography so the class would cover none of that. We’d work on the art of forming our style.

Wait, what? This was my first photography class. I had no idea what I was doing. Looking around the room, I saw everyone nodding their heads. They were excited to move on from whatever technical training they’d received in high school and into the wonderful world of “exploring their style.” I was behind from the very first day.

The darkroom was a real struggle for me. Chemicals were toxic and smelly, the process took forever, and every step of it was expensive, which put the pressure on me to get it right the first time. This rarely happened. I used packs and packs of paper and bottles of chemicals. After a couple of tries (and a different professor), I managed to finally pass my first photography class.

I also failed the second photography class I ever took.

The third photography class I took was with an adjunct professor who had been a war photographer in Vietnam. He was salty, and tore the filters off his cigs before smoking them in class. Also, he cussed more than I imagined anyone could in one sentence. But he was also the kindest teacher I’d had at VCU. When he saw me struggling (yet again), he took me outside the classroom right then and there and taught me a lesson about light and tones. He showed me how to use classic tones to convey an emotion or mood. It’s the reason I love black and white. That’s why I look for high contrast and deep tones in images and try to see how a story can be told without color. He beat it into my brain and cussed it right into my heart.

Scan of an actual class assignment, 2003(?)

Digital technology has brought so many changes to photography. But none so profound as the ease of switching between color and black and white in editing programs. Before digital, a photographer had to choose if a moment was better captured in black and white or color before they even began shooting. Now you can waffle back and forth after the fact, switching casually between black and white and color in Lightroom to determine if a story is better told with or without the addition of color.

Sometimes I am able to decide quickly and easily that a moment deserves color or black and white treatment. When color helps tell the story, I gladly leave it in. Sometimes it adds warmth or a feeling that you lose when you take the color away. On the other hand, sometimes color distracts from the point of the photo. In those cases, when you remove the color, the image can transform into something else. Those are easy choices, too.

Sometimes the decision is too hard, and I’ll keep both versions in the gallery I give to clients. I’ve never had anyone complain.