Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Colour or black and white?

Click photos to enlarge
Many people question the relevance of black and white photographs in our world of colour. "What's the point?" they say. "We see in colour, we can print and view in colour, why do we continue with this limited palette that derives from old technology and the need for inexpensive reproduction?" It's not just the man in the street that holds this view, but many amateur photographers and quite a few enthusiasts and professionals. Of course, within photography we also have the contrarians who use nothing but black and white, seeing it as a "purer" form, untainted by the glitz of colour, and seduced by its association with "art photography" and some of the medium's masters.

I started my photography in the late 1960s when colour processing for home-produced snaps was widespread but black and white was still readily available as an option. I usually had my prints processed in black and white and when I wanted colour chose transparencies (slides). By the 1970s I was having mainly colour prints when I paid for processing, but I developed my own black and white shots and my own transparencies. Of all the images that I have from those years the black and white prints are the ones that have lasted best, followed by the transparencies (there's no difference between those that were commercially developed and the ones I did myself), with the colour prints a poor third. In fact, so concerned was I by the deterioration of the latter that I scanned them all several years ago in an attempt to keep something of their original qualities.

However, digital files in colour and black and white have equal longevity - and who knows how long that will be? - so that's not a reason for me continuing to convert shots to black and white. Why then do people do it? Well, some see it as the classic form of photography and others like its elegance. Some prefer its simplicity, and there's no denying that there are compositions that work in black and white that wouldn't in colour - often because a patch of a bright hue throws the shot out of balance, or clashes with another colour. Then there's the evocative nature of the medium; the way it can be used to cast the viewers mind back into a recent (or fairly remote) past. Many like the way it changes the emphasis of an image, concentrating our minds on the essentials of a portrait or an urban landscape. Then there's the drama that can be more easily realised through a monochrome photograph.

I often do a quick conversion of a colour shot that looks like it might have more potential in black and white. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong, and other times I just can't make up my mind, which was the case with this image. It shows some houses in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire that date from about 1800. The terrace - called Union Place - forms one segment of part of a circular arrangement of houses that is bigger than a crescent but not quite a circus (both those words being used in the architectural sense). The shadows falling on the buildings from the circular garden that all the houses face adds drama to a shot that I thought would benefit from a black and white conversion (with the addition of the digital equivalent of a yellow filter). But, the complementary nature of the blue sky and orange/brown brickwork also has its attractions. So, as a departure from my usual practice I include both versions for your consideration. Which do you prefer?

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 17mm (34mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/640
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On