Why Black and White?

Most photos today are taken in color, but that wasn't always the case. While I'm fond of pointing out that daguerreotypes were actually color photos (in the sense that they had overall tones and were not true black and white), color photography was a long time in arriving after the first photographic images were made by Nic ephore Niepce in 1826 and Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. Some early attempts at color still photography were made by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxell, who understood that red, green, and blue were the primary colors of light, and in 1861 photographed the same scene in black and white through a set of red, green, and blue filters. By projecting the three images on a screen with appropriately colored lamps, he reproduced the image of a tartan ribbon.

However, color imaging didn't really catch on until Kodachrome film was introduced in 1935 and, in 1942, Kodacolor film for prints. Black-and-white images were still favored by amateurs and professionals through the 50s and most of the 60s. Amateurs liked B/W because it was less expensive than making color prints and more convenient than showing color slides. It was only after inexpensive high-speed color photofinishing became available that color prints began to take over.

Professionals often used monochrome for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the publications they worked for didn't publish color; black-and-white photos were standard in many magazines until the late '60s. Pros also used black-and-white images for creative reasons. Color can be distracting or destroy the mood of certain kinds of photos. Professional photographers even had cost considerations when their clients were unable to pay the tariff for full color. In the early '60s, for example, a color wedding album had to be priced much, much higher than the black-and-white version (sometimes with hand-colored images) that had been the standard for decades.

Color photography began to nudge black-and-white imaging out of the picture in the '60s and '70s, when instant-loading cameras and automated processing made color prints virtually as inexpensive as black and white (or, today, even cheaper). Affordable laser scanners at newspapers and magazines made full-color photography more practical for publications. More recently, digital tools like Photoshop, desktop scanners, and Photo CDs have removed the last vestiges of barriers to color photography. It's still possible to take black-and-white photos; many digital cameras have a monochrome setting and black-and-white film is plentiful for conventional cameras. Yet, most photos today are produced in color.

So, why are we talking about black and white? There are dozens of valid reasons for working in black and white. Here are some of them:

• Your destination for the image will display it only in black and white, and you want a fairly accurate preview of what the photo will look like. For example, you may have a photo that will be printed in black and white in a magazine, or included in a laser-printed newsletter. Two hues that are distinct in color may appear to be the same in black and white, providing an undesirable merger. If you know the image will be viewed in monochrome, you'll want to work with it in that mode.

• You don't know how your photo will be used, and want to cover all the bases. I submit two or three photos a month to our local newspaper. I give them color 5 x 7 prints because they publish them in color about 25 percent of the time. But I also preview the photo in black and white to see what it will look like in that mode. Given the vagaries of reproduction on newsprint, this is a very good idea.

• The picture you are working with originated as a black-and-white photo.

• Color is distracting. A big red or yellow blob in the upper-right corner of a photograph may command our attention, especially when our intended subject is a muted pastel. Our eye is attracted to color first, and then to brightness. In Figure 7.1 at left, the big red whatsit at the top of the frame grabs our attention, and it's hard to look away from. In black and white, however, as at right, it becomes just a framing element that surrounds the water and shore.

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