Black and White vs Color

This is one of the most common questions I get asked, and hence I decided to create a post on this issue.

Black and White or Color, how do you decide? Which do you prefer.

The answer is simple: It depends. I am not one who strictly adheres to the former or later. I’m flexible with the end-product, as long as the treatment suits that particular frame.

Not all photos look better in black and which, and vice versa. How do you judge if a photograph should be in color or black and white? I shall use a couple of examples to illustrate the key differentiating features.

Mama Shop on Steroids
“Mama Shop” on Steroids (Bintan Village Life, 2015)

The first example is a photograph that looks better in color. The first thing we see is that the shop comprises of many different items/ elements. And these elements need to be contrasted somehow.

There are two technical ways to contrast a subject in photography:

  • Using Light
  • Using Color

Most of us would be aware of contrasting using light, it’s what our simpler photo editing tools often offer. However, the color contrast is equally as important for color photographs.

And in certain cases, the photograph simple would not work without the color contrast. The above is an excellent example of this.

Mama-Shop-on-Steroids-1024x683 BW
Black and white version of “Mama Shop” on Steroids (Bintan Village Life, 2015)


As you can see, a simple toggle has made the photo much messier and lose focus. This is because, without the color contrast, the different items in the store blend into a mosaic. This is further exacerbated by the nature of the lighting of this photograph- a primary light source into the shop from the front, with a weaker secondary lamp over the shopkeeper’s head. There is no clear bearing that the primary lighting is falling/ supporting a main subject.


Searching for Demand
Searching for Demand (Bintan Village Life, 2015)

Now this is an excellent example of a photograph which looks better in black and white. The lighting falls from the outside into the shop, clearly illuminating the primary subject more than the supporting backdrop.

On top of this, most of the items (assorted tidbits), actually had very similar color pallets. When this occurs, keeping the photograph in color actually derails the focus from the light contrast. The background becomes blend, and possible a bit overwhelming.

Another advantage of black and white photography is that the treatment of the photos can be harsher. You will generally get away with stronger contrasting, sharpening and individual color adjustments then you would in color photos. This is because if the color in colored photos is manipulated too off- the photograph gets distorted/ torn away from our reality- not ideal for documentary photography.

To summarize, I would conclude that whether the photo should be black and white, or color really depends on the individual photos in question. That being said, color photographs are harder to treat the black and white ones due to the limitation of keeping the colors in tangent with reality.

Perhaps they should be valued more?

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