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Black and white or color?
My feeling is that color can often be the great leveler. Rather uninspired work can be a little more pleasing in color, while some strong images are weakened by color that takes attention away from other elements, especially in news and documentary work. For a long time, all my family snaps were in color and most of my “serious” work was in B&W.
But digital makes it much easier to control color than the old days of printing film on dye, Ciba and C. Digital makes it easier to make color appropriate to the subject. Digital is either color or B&W, whatever you want to make it. With the greater ability to control the color that digital affords, I find myself printing more and more pictures in color, but spending more and more time controlling and manipulating that color.
I think those are truly different worlds... Color itself can be used to emphasize emotions, and black&white is per se an abstraction (from the colored reality) that "cleans" reality on print and leads us to deep, bare concepts -clear or hidden ones- involved on images...
Even though digital offers the advantage of converting color to b&w and the advantage of treating both of them to any precise and desired point to add strength to a composition, I don't feel like -never, honestly- shooting digital to see, afterwards, if an image works better in color or in b&w... I was taught for years to think in b&w, and then to think in color, and to do just one of them every time I shoot... Indeed when I shoot b&w I consider contrast (light) mainly while composing, but with color, the cleanness of composition tends to rely more on color contrast than on lights and shadows: in color it's the cool and the warm tones and their separation and juxtaposition what helps us tell a story in a more intense and emotive way.
Of course sometimes we have little time and all we can do is shoot... And yes, I print in color more than 15 years ago and I use for it more time than then manipulating.
"spending more and more time controlling and manipulating that color." That seems to be a common phrase among digital photographers especially with still lifes & landscapes. I wonder if it is necessary. Does the average viewer know see anything more. With "street photography" the image is predominant whether it is in color of black and white.
I no doubt prefer digital processing when doing color... Filtering color with enlarger was a slow process taking lots of time too, and I don't miss it at all: color digital manipulation is vastly superior to me... For black and white yet I feel wet printing is a powerful, easy and fast tool for the best printed material...
I really wish digital color prints could be commercially lab printed at much more than 300dpi, though... The difference in front of enlarged prints from a good negative is so noticeable...
For me I prefer B&W in film (TriX) and digital in color but sometimes converting to B&W. I do this when I can not seem to get the "color just right" then lo and behold B&W is the shot. Alas it doesn't always work out this way.
I think you've put your finger exactly on a modern photographer's conundrum. Shooting for myself in the past, I would decide on a project-by-project basis whether to do color or BW. After shooting, the die was cast and I didn't think much about alternative universes.
As you've pointed out, digital processing has changed all that. Now my decision is effectively delayed until post-processing. For individual images, it can be a pretty easy decision as usual. For a project, however, I find it can be maddening, because some images of the take are strong in color but others clearly want to be BW. With either choice, one can wind up with relatively weak images which can't be dropped without diminishing the story. (I never seen a successful mixing the two!)
I suppose such indecision sometimes stems from a lack of clarity in my mind about a project's central purpose or from a stubborn regret at not having made more or better photos with which to tell the story. I believe, however, that there is another factor at work. Like you, apparently, I still tend to believe that BW is more appropriate for "serious" work and that color is somehow second class for all but very rare serious projects and is most suited to landscapes, wildlife, casual amateurs, etc. Thus even if a project can be reasonably successful in color, I have a tendency to favor BW, thereby hoping perhaps to better-establish its seriousness. In any case, this tendency can distort my decision-making and make it more difficult.
Now there is something very inescapably real about the "seriousness" or "gravity" of BW for the documentary and journalism subjects that I appreciate most. I've heard many attempts to analyze this fact and have often tried myself, but all fall far short; it remains a mystery. Although it grates, I'm resigned to never having a valid explanation. Perhaps, as has been said about music, "talking about photography is like dancing about architecture". That said, such "philosophy" doesn't yield much practical guidance in dealing with my digital project files.
Colour. Black and White. Colour. Black and White. Colour. Black and White. Colour. Black and White….Colour... I go back and forth.
Obviously for some subjects and for some reasons I will use one or the other. Occasionally both.
To establish a fixed set of conditions would seem to me to place a constraint that I would later regret or at least find indefensible.
Black and white does resonate on some level, and the personal work of trying to determine the underlying decisions that lead to the choice of B&W over colour occasionally lead to a reversal.
If I detect a nostalgia, for instance, for a time or "look" I am forced to question that. Why am I nostalgic for a particular "time" or "look"? Does it have anything to do with the piece? If the answers aren't readily forthcoming, I'll print both or at least finish a full-size screen version and live with both for a while.
The pictures that wind up in this area are occasionally inward-looking and not necessarily appropriate or even interesting for other viewers. Rather they form some sort of tool of self-analysis; the results to which I wouldn't subject anyone else.
Where the choice has to do with the content and leads to a reduced but stronger formalism, then again, I have to re-evaluate the choice: in making the visual graphic stronger by reducing, or as Juan quite aptly puts it, abstracting the colour palette, have I actually weakened the image as a whole by rendering it "chroma-mute"? Have I silenced an essential subtext?
I have found, in my own work at least, that strengthening the graphic can indeed weaken the whole. Subtlety often carries the message deeper.
Working from memory, and projecting the memory on what I see in front of me, I will often use B&W to represent something archetypal in the Jungian sense. When I choose B&W in this case it is usually long after the fact of the original thought that I am remembering and I am trying to reduce something to its bare essence of form (not media) or gesture - its gestalt using the memory as a template. Then repainting the colour with either a brush physically on the print itself or in PS in the file can flesh out the linguistic aspect. Most often these projects end in failure in terms of publishable work but may wind up in the "inward-looking" set referred to above.
But for what I "find in front of me", lately - the last two years say, it is always colour, and mostly colour as I find it.
I suffer little from the anxiety of influence but I do see the influence of my mentors and others whose work I have studied and they are occasionally loud (and doubtless sometimes nostalgic) voices. All that I am is me but, yes, parts of me were hardened in their kilns and in general I look for those scenes where all the elements are combined, including the colour, and the symbolism or resonances line up to produce the "a-ha!" moment.
I spend rather little time in post, just enough to select, resize, etc. Occasionally I will mess with contrast to reflect the distribution of the colour element of the image as I remembered it; a Quixotic quest at best. It's not that I'm a purist. There are several photos that I've produced where the happy mistake of an incorrect WB lined up exactly with the gesture in the picture. But I would rather shoot and look at the print. Post comes further down the list, somewhere after laundry and compost-turning, so I'd rather have it happen in the camera - or as close to it as I can. Pete Turner is one photographer whose colour work really stuns me and I can only imagine what fun he's having with the Kelvin control.
At any rate, this itself is an abstraction and runs the risk of becoming the foundation of some kind of policy. There are enough photographers that work on that basis for me to not want to add to that number. Every image must be regarded on its own merits.
Perhaps I could reduce it to "Does it look better (in colour or B&W)?"
Thanks for provoking the thoughts.
I'd be unhappy if I could't have both...
I don't necessarily use them for the same thing, landscape in b/w are not easy but can be incredible (deserts, storms...)
This winter have enjoyed the look of leafless trees in b/w.
Digital makes it easier to make color appropriate to the subject. Digital is either color or B&W, whatever you want to make it. With the greater ability to control the color that digital affords, I find myself printing more and more pictures in color, but spending more and more time controlling and manipulating that color.
I feel I'm one of the few who is satisfied with digital B&W. The largest strength of digital is the fact that I get to choose B&W or color later... and that the software to do so is great. I have no regrets about not being able to go to the darkroom anymore. That said, I was more of a color photographer when I used C-prints and cibachromes... I rarely did B&W after learning how to do color in the darkroom. What's funny now is that I do much more B&W now that I am 99% digital. I'd say my work is 50-50% color and B&W. I feel it is a great time to be a photographer.
Color and b&w divide that used to be very obvious in film days no longer applies to digital.
You could have a b&w and a color version of the same RAW image file and yet both will look so distinct that some people won't see the connection right away (you could make a b&w image color, but thats not the point there). Even more importantly each of those images could change as new and more advanced processing software is introduced. And software advances with precessing power, the more powerful the processing power the more advanced a software capability. In other words the RAW files that were shot lets say in 2003 and produced nothing exciting in terms of both color and b&w then, suddenly they get a new lease on life with advances in processing power.
This inevitable trend in still photography means that a photograph (especially digital) is never the final product. Its simply a blueprint for infinite number of future photographs with advancing technology... Today you might like one look and you process a shot accordingly, some years later a new look is hot and you precess the same RAW images differently. Recycling the same RAW file with every new version of processing software.
Film is also no longer safe, with scanners getting more advanced as well as scanning software (and processing software), it would mean that even film rescan becomes necessary with each new advance in scanner capability or scanner software.
But there is a silver lining in this madness of technology controlling photography. Content, its the content that will be the single defining factor in a image, not the tones, the look, the color and other form aspects. A simple image that stands purely on content, becomes a unique photograph worth artistic merit, an image that is about tones and color and depth and other nonsense, is just one version of its current processed variation.
In other words to those who're serious about still photography it would mean they should forget everything that they know about how an image look and should look, instead they should go for the content.
This is at least what I think and i might be wrong; however, recently i have been feeling rather excited about Silver Efex Pro 2 and how I can recycle my old RAW files with this new version of a b&w processing software...
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