Not long ago, photographers were divided into two camps: color photographers, and black-and-white photographers. Sure, there were some people who did both, and even some who did both well, but they were rare. Most photographers specialized in one medium or the other – and I use that word deliberately, because it almost seemed like they were different mediums, not just different palettes.
Part of this was the materials. You had to decide, before you put in a roll of film, whether you wanted to photograph in color or black and white, and then you were committed to that choice for the next 36 frames. This encouraged you to stick with what you liked and knew best.
Also, color and black and white required different skill sets. Apart from the ability to “see” in color or black and white, processing and printing color film was (and is) difficult, and most color photographers, even serious ones, avoided it by using transparency film and outsourcing the processing and printing to labs. You could do that with black and white too, but getting the most out of black-and-white film required (and still requires) doing it yourself, with access to a darkroom, and possession of considerable printing skills.
That divide has largely disappeared. With digital cameras, you don’t have to make a 36-image advance commitment to one palette or another – you can switch back and forth from one frame to the next. In fact you don’t even have to decide in the field: you can capture in color, then try both palettes later in software. And the processing skills are virtually identical for both color and black and white.
With film, I photographed almost exclusively in color. That’s the way I saw things – I looked for color and built compositions around it.
I still look for color most of the time, but I’ve been using digital cameras exclusively for nine years, and over that time I’ve gradually learned to see better in black and white. Sometimes there isn’t much color to work with, and sometimes color is just a distraction, and stripping out the color helps focus attention on more important aspects of the composition.
Last Thursday I rose early and drove up to Yosemite Valley, hoping for mist, and light, and clearing storm conditions. I found some great mist over the valley from Tunnel View, but skies were overcast, so there was no sunlight, and no color. That was no problem, however, as I knew these scenes would work beautifully in black and white.
I spent 30 minutes happily photographing the shifting mist, then decided to head back down to the Merced River Canyon near El Portal. I had seen fog there while driving to Yosemite Valley, and the redbuds were blooming, which seemed like an intriguing combination.
Unfortunately the fog had lifted by the time I got back to the canyon, but I still found some interesting redbud compositions. The next morning I drove back to the canyon, hoping for fog again, and found it. Luckily this time the fog lasted longer, and I was able to spend several hours looking for redbud-and-fog photographs.
In the redbud photographs (below), color was obviously a primary, essential ingredient. The whole point was to show the magenta blossoms set against the gray fog. These images wouldn’t make sense in black and white.
To me, and I think for many photographers, this ability to fluidly switch between color and black and white has been liberating. I can choose the palette that suits the situation, or that helps clarify an idea, without having to use different materials or techniques, or even change film.
I’ve been gratified to see more and more photographers doing great work in both black and white and color. Maybe they aren’t different mediums after all, but just two different and equally beautiful palettes. Perhaps we’ve finally reached the stage where we don’t have to label someone as either a color photographer or a black-and-white photographer. We can be known for our work rather than defined by our materials.
How about you? Do you prefer photographing in color or black and white? Has that changed since you started using a digital camera? Please post a comment and let me know.
– Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.