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Color or black and white?

We occasionally have discussions among the photo staff and page designers about the respective virtues of color and black and white photographs. It seems there’s been a resurgence lately in the use of black and white images in photo projects, particularly those of the documentary kind.

Personally, I’m a proponent of black and white. Unless and image needs color, it should be in black and white. B&W is more dramatic and gets to the nut of the image’s content whereas color dazzles and distracts.

However, this images works way better in color than in black and white.

However, this images works way better in color than in black and white.

Who knows why? Most of us see the world in color and don’t particularly feel dazzled as we go about our daily business. Perhaps that’s why black and white — by virtue of it being only shades of gray — can be more dramatic: it stands out from the routine. It allows the content to say, “Look at this;” we more easily bring our emotions to a black and white image and the image more easily reflects our emotions back to us. We simply respond differently because black and white is more abstract.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that a boring photograph will be improved if the color is desaturated to a gray scale; quite the contrary, when the color is stripped away a lousy image stands nakedly as a lousy image.

But when color is necessary, black and white is just gray by comparison. Color is another compositional element that either works with or against the photographer. When it works, it works well. Usually, however, we’re just fighting to get skin tones looking normal, resulting in a normal photograph.

Color is just another tool in our toolbox. A skilled cabinet maker will use an assortment of saws, not just one. While we have an advantage with digital imaging to shoot in color and create a b&w image later (rather than change film like in the good old days) we think and shoot differently if we’re thinking in black and white. At least I do. And we think and shoot video differently than we do stills.

Multimillion dollar investments in color presses over the past 30 years has resulted in the proliferation of color photography in print publications. It used to be that a color photograph on a gray newspaper page really stood out; now it’s normal. We use color because we can, and by gosh we didn’t spend all that money on those presses just to keep running black and white images.

Sometimes we’ll compromise by running gray scale images with a sepia tone, and that works for me. Black and white on newsprint usually isn’t as dramatic as it would be on slick magazine paper anyway. But if an image is better in black and white than it is in living color, I believe that’s how it should be printed.

But that’s just one person’s opinion.