Seeing Better is Black & White—Part 1 (Theory)

Photographers don't see the world the way other people do. We see in moments. We strive to be objective. We observe events and look for the framing which will capture the entirety. We look at color and light through the limitations of our tools.

The process of seeing this way requires two main parts:

  1. having ideas of what we are looking for; and 
  2. using our tools to capture and communicate those ideas in the most effective way available. 

The first issue is discussed in detail here.

The second issue requires a consideration of how a photographer can increase the effectiveness in conveying the meaning in an image.


When our consciousness wants to convey something to another person's consciousness, we must choose a mode of communication (speaking, writing, painting, etc.). The mode we choose will have two factors:

  1. of all the potential ways to communicate the message we want to convey, it will be the one with which we have the most comfort; and 
  2. we will choose the aspects of that mode most likely to be understood by our audience. 

An example might help.

Part (1) might go like this: Japan has many visitors who don't read Japanese, but who use the roads. When it comes to communicating the Japanese rules of the road to someone who doesn't read Japanese, the highway department can go down the list quickly: oral communication may be comfortable, but it's impractical; written communication may be comfortable, but it's impractical; generalized shapes would work, though.

Applying those conclusions, Part (2) would be that not just any shapes will work. There will be situations and indications that a local might understand, but a visitor wouldn't. So, the highway department needs to choose the shapes that will have the most universal understanding.

Road signs from Japan.

Road signs from Japan.

The same is true of art. The artist has an idea which needs communicating. The idea will dictate the best mode with which the artist is comfortable to express it. In using that mode, the next decision is what subset of that mode will best be understood by the largest audience.

For example, Picasso could sculpt, sketch, and paint. Depending upon the idea he wanted to express, one of those modes would work best. But he still had to decide how to use that mode to most precisely communicate. Picasso's "The Bull" is illustrative. In 1945, Picasso did a series of lithographs of a bull. The first three drawings show a progression of detail, until Picasso started removing that detail to reach the idea he felt would communicate the best.


How does this apply to photographers? It applies in the same way as above: we use photography when it is the mode which will work for the idea which needs to be expressed, and we use it in the way in which we are comfortable. But we also have to use it in a way which the audience is most likely to comprehend.

Camera manufacturers, unfortunately, are an impediment to artistic expression instead of an asset, and an easy step toward more effective artistic expression is to reject their default settings and presumptions. The first thing to do is to reject color as a default mode of photographic expression.

Color in the Mind

Color is one of the most difficult aspects of artistic expression because color is what the spectator naturally sees. Color is information which we use to interpret, navigate, and survive in the world. Moreover, as individuals we form emotional associations with colors based on our experiences. Therefore, any work of color is presented in a sea of the experience and assumptions brought by each spectator.

Making it even more complicated, for both the spectator and the artist, color is a creation of the mind. Even in drastically different lighting conditions, humans perceive color in a consistent manner. The brain has it's own automatic white balance settings, as explained by Neurobiologist Semir Zeki:

Colour is a biological signalling mechanism which exemplifies very well the brain's quest for knowledge under continually changing conditions. It is common knowledge that the basis of colour vision is that light—which itself has no colour, being electromagnetic radiation—has many different wavelengths stretching from red (long wave) at the one end to blue (short wave) at the other and that different surfaces have different efficiencies for reflecting light of different wavelengths. What the brain does seemingly is to compare the efficiency of different surfaces for reflecting light of the same wavebands and thus make itself independent of the actual amount of light of any given waveband reflected from a single surface, since the latter changes continually depending upon the illuminant in which the surface is viewed. . . . [T]he brain has evolved an ingenious mechanism . . . to take the ratio of light of a given wavelength reflected from the centre and the surround. Whereas the precise amount of light of a given wavelength reflected from a surface changes, the ratio of light of that same waveband reflected from the surface and from surrounding surfaces always remains the same. Colour is therefore a construction of the brain, an interpretation that it gives to the reflective efficiency of different surfaces for the different wavelengths of light . . . .

Zeki, Art and the Brain, Dædalus 127, 71-103 (1998).

Compounding each individual's mental creation of color, however, is that the perception of color is also dependent upon shape. Dr. Zeki explains:

But to be able to take ratios, there must be a boundary between one surface and the surrounding surface, and that boundary has a shape. Hence the impossibility . . . of divorcing colour, and hence liberating it, from shape. . . . It is obvious that at the ratio-taking, computational, stage there are no "wrong" colours. Making a square red is as good as making it blue. . . . But colours are not viewed in this way normally; they are instead properties of surfaces and objects. When humans view coloured objects and scenes what happens in their brains depends upon whether the objects are dressed in the right or the wrong colours, but in either case is different from the activity produced by colours in the abstract, as in a Mondrian. If the objects are dressed in normal colours a more extensive part of the brain, including the frontal lobes, becomes active, in addition to [extrastriate visual cortex area] V4. But if they are dressed in abnormal colours, as in fauvist paintings, a different set of areas (in addition to V4) become active.

Zeki, Art and the Brain, Dædalus 127, 71-103 (1998).

In other words, a spectator's reaction to color depends not only upon that individual's unique interpretation of color based upon his or her processing of waveband reflectivity, but also upon the form associated with the color. Moreover, these values are different for the artist at the time of creation than they are when viewing the completed work.

Applying Color

Color certainly has its place, and when used by a master, color can have incredible results. The colors and patterns in Piet Mondrian's painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie appear to shift around in a jazzy way.

Broadway  Boogie Woogie (50 x 50"), from the collection at MoMA.

Pulling off a such a feat is very difficult because of the inherent complexity of color. Color has meaning in the mind of the spectator, which is often at odds with—or at least different from—the meaning of shapes the artist used to communicate. Color interferes with our recognition of design relationships. Colors have their own visual weight, regardless of their relative presence in an image, which can easily upset visual balance and distract the spectator from the message the artist wants to convey. Accordingly, in art, color is a distraction to the content unless its use is intentional, and designed to address the biology of color perception.

Color problems are exacerbated in photography because photography represents moments and levels of detail that are evocative of live perception, making an understanding of the effects of color on the spectator all the more important. Especially in a still image, the uses, symbols, and meanings of color do not have the same relevance as they would in real time, or even in a movie. In explaining his decision to photograph only in black and white, Sebastião Salgado told an interviewer: “greys are not a distraction – if I was to photograph this table, this red book would distract you from everything else in the image. The red takes all the power away.”

Roland Barthes wrote this about color photographs:

Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very fond of Color. An anonymous daguerreotype of 1843 shows a man and a woman in a medallion subsequently tinted by the miniaturists on the staff of the photographic studio: I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). What matters to me is not the photograph’s “life” (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with a superadded light.

Camera Lucida at 81.

Barthes' observations are based on human perception. As explained by Carson Graves in The Zone System for 35mm Photographers:

Many people have the mistaken impression that color prints and transparencies produce images that are more real than images in black and white. Quite apart from the difficulties of defining the term "real" we need to understand just how what we see is changed by rendering it as a color image. We tend to confuse the ability to see color in our images with the way we see the world itself. In fact, the added dimension of color often creates just another departure from an accurate view of the world. The many reasons for this have to do with the nature of the color materials themselves, and more importantly the nature of our language and our memory. 

Graves at 98. Graves goes on to discuss the problems English speakers have in perceiving color based on a language deficit:

Margaret Mead observed that Eskimos have 17 words for the color white, each one defining a particular snow condition. In the English language less than a dozen commonly used words describe color. This limited lexicon means that we have no clear concepts for more than a few colors, and this in turn limits our ability to see and distinguish color differences. We see symptoms of this problem in the convoluted adjectives used by interior decorators and car manufacturers in naming colors.
The lack of precision in our language often forces us to make vague generalizations about what we see. Josef Albers wrote that when a room full of people is asked to visualize the color red, everyone will think of different shades of that color. Even when a specific shade of red that is familiar to the audience is mentioned, such a "Coca-Cola" red, the results will be no different. Shown various shades of red and asks dot pick out the one that matches their memory of a "Coca-Cola" sign, invariably there will be a disagreement.

Graves at 98-99.

All these issues apply in color photography, and show themselves in the frustrating aspects of color correction and matching in post processing. After a lengthy discussion of the limitations of both the capturing and presentation of colors in digital and print media, the great Richard Zakia addressed the issues of editing digital images:

One should not overlook the broader aspects of how the visual field can influence color. For example, assume a person is looking at a color image on a computer monitor. If the field of view is restricted to just what is on the screen and nothing more, the image will have a certain look If the visual field is now extended to include the frame of the monitor, the perceived image will look a bit different, depending on the width and color of the frame. If the view is extended further, to include the area around the computer, the perceived image will again be somewhat different, depending on the surround. . . . Another factor to be considered is the level of the ambient light in the room and its color temperature. Is the lighting tungsten, fluorescent, daylight, or combinations These same variables exist for viewing images in a gallery or a home. Color is a slippery chameleon and changes as the viewing conditions change.

Richard Zakia, Perception and Imaging, at 131-32.

A very public example of the vagaries of color perception occurred in February 2015 when Scottish musician Caitlin McNeill posted a picture of a dress on her Tumblr with the caption, "guys please help me — is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can't agree and we are freaking the f*** out." Over 21 million people looked at the image in a matter of days, with strong disagreement. More curious still, many media outlets attempted to provide scientific explanations for why the perception the color of this dress could vary so widely, but none of them provided a definitive answer. Instead, the conclusions were along the lines of Jay Neitz's. According to Wired, Neitz is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington. Wired quotes him: “But I’ve studied individual differences in color vision for 30 years, and this is one of the biggest individual differences I’ve ever seen.” (Neitz sees white-and-gold.)

This color perception problem was true for photographers at Wired as well:

Even WIRED’s own photo team—driven briefly into existential spasms of despair by how many of them saw a white-and-gold dress—eventually came around to the contextual, color-constancy explanation. “I initially thought it was white and gold,” says Neil Harris, our senior photo editor. “When I attempted to white-balance the image based on that idea, though, it didn’t make any sense.” He saw blue in the highlights, telling him that the white he was seeing was blue, and the gold was black. And when Harris reversed the process, balancing to the darkest pixel in the image, the dress popped blue and black. “It became clear that the appropriate point in the image to balance from is the black point,” Harris says.
So when context varies, so will people’s visual perception. “Most people will see the blue on the white background as blue,” Conway says. “But on the black background some might see it as white.” He even speculated, perhaps jokingly, that the white-gold prejudice favors the idea of seeing the dress under strong daylight. “I bet night owls are more likely to see it as blue-black,” Conway says.

Adam Rogers, The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress

But ultimately that's the choice: using your attention on the subject, or deciphering the messages of the colors in a scene and then trying to anticipate how an unknown spectator will react to it. It's extremely difficult to do both. More to the point, I don't know that it's worth it. (In those moments when you think color is worth the amount of attention and thinking required to do it right, just remember that it took Mondrian a year to paint Broadway Boogie-Woogie. And just remember those 20+ million disagreements on Twitter over a dress.)

Color Blind

Instead, embrace the truth that a photograph's subjective value to a viewer is almost always based upon an emotional connection to the content—not upon its faithful rendition of reality. Content is better expressed in black and white than in color. As the Father of Canadian Photojournalism famously said:

When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!

― Ted Grant

Black and white images are about the form of a thing. Black and white reveals the essence, stripped of its distractions and artifices. Black and white reveals texture and depth, juxtapositions, contrasts, and allows the viewer to study the magic of a moment which could never have been perceived absent the photograph.

Putting it more bluntly, Henri Cartier-Bresson said this in an interview:

Q. How do you feel about color photography? 
A. It’s disgusting. I hate it! I’ve done it only when I’ve been to countries where it was difficult to go and they said, “If you don’t do color, we can’t use your things.” So it was a compromise, but I did it badly because I don’t believe in it. 
The reason is that you have been shooting what you see. But then there are the printing inks and all sorts of different things over which you have no control whatsoever. There is all the interference of heaps of people, and what has it got to do with true color? 
Q. If the technical problems were solved and what you saw on the page would really be what you saw with your eyes, would you still object? 
A. Yes, because nature gives us so much. You can’t accept everything of nature. You have to select things. It’d rather do paintings, and it becomes an insoluble problem. Especially when it comes to reportage, color has no interest whatsoever . . . .

Pursuing excellence in any endeavor requires stripping the thing down to its most fundamental essence. In photography, that means abandoning color.

In the next part, we'll provide you with a solution that will get you on the road to seeing in black and white.