Why Black and White Endures

Why Black and White Endures

An older Australian friend in my little Japanese town who I enjoyed meeting for a cup of coffee and chatting with from to time asked me “What makes black and white special?  Why do we regard it as artistic?”  He and another friend had been discussing the topic and trying to quantify why black and white (b&w), photos have an artistic feel to them and why interest in them endures long after the advent of color photography.

This wasn’t a naive question.  The man had worked as a professional photographer in his younger years and had a keen understanding of it all, but hadn’t quite been able to put an answer to this question.  I thought about it for a long time and found myself taking a bit of a scientific perspective to find an answer.

This article is broken down into three short sections with the first two giving background and building support for my conclusions in the final section.
Photography’s Start | Color Vision | Black and White’s Effect

Photo by photography pioneer William Fox Talbot, 1853
Photo by photography pioneer William Fox Talbot, 1853

Photography’s Black and White Start

In brief, while projecting images in pinhole camera-like boxes was described in antiquity, the science and ability to take a permanent photograph got it’s start in the first half of the 1800’s with several French and English inventors who knew that certain silver compounds would darken when hit with light.  Once processes to prevent silver images from rapidly darkening and fading away were nailed down, the photograph was born.  A surface treated with silver compounds and stored in a dark box could have an image projected onto it through a pinhole or lens, then once treated would retain the image which formed where light triggered a chemical change that darkened the silver compounds.

The first technology to take photos was intrinsically black and white.  No matter what color of light hit the silver compounds it reacted the same by turning black.

Layers of color film - William Milberry

While innovative ways of taking multiple black and white images with different color filters then projecting them with color lights were dreamt up early on, it wasn’t until Kodak’s commercial introduction of Kodachrome film in 1935 that color photos started to become more common.  Color films work on a similar concept to black and white, except they have layers with filters between them and different sensitivities, so as light shines through the film, one layer is exposed by blue light, another layer is exposed, by green, and another by red.  The development process dyes these layers and washes away the blackened silver leaving a color image.  Many variations have existed (negative film, positive film, print paper, etc), but this is the general design concept of most color films and papers.

The "Bayer" red, green, blue pixel pattern found on many digital image sensors
The “Bayer” rgb pixel pattern found on many digital image sensors

Digital camera image sensors are similar to black and white film in that they are sensitive to light no matter what color.  To make a digital sensor distinguish colors, rather than having color layers like film, individual pixels have different color filters over them.  A typical pattern of red, green, blue pixels in common use is pictured to the left.  Because these pixel-level filters are integrated into the image sensing chip, this means that all consumer digital cameras are intrinsically color and post-processing is needed to convert a photo taken by a digital camera into black and white.  When a digital camera is set to b&w mode, the sensor still sees in color, processing is just done by the camera’s processor to convert the image to b&w.

Color Vision

Photography makes use of light to create art.  So if we think about the nature of light a little, we might gain some insights into the way we perceive it and it’s role in art and aesthetics.

When you get down to the basics, light only has a handful of properties that are relevant to photography.  Light has intensity (brightness), wavelength (color), polarization, and we’ll also include focus because even though it’s not really a “natural property” of light, it’s essential to photos.  Of these characteristics, polarization is not essential to capturing an image using light so let’s exclude that.  Of the remaining characteristics, focus is necessary because without focusing the light there is no image.  Intensity is also necessary because without distinguishing light and dark we can’t make out objects, their details, or boundaries.  Color however is not necessary to form a clearly recognizable image.  It’s only necessary to focus the light and record its intensity to take a recognizable photo.  This places color into a category of lower importance and essentially makes it “optional.”  Because it’s optional, I suspect that even if the first photographic process had been color, black and white is still something that people would have chosen to work with.  I think this is especially true when you consider the following:

Simulation of mono-, di-, and tri-chromatic vision by William Milberry
Simulation of mono-, di-, and tri-chromatic vision by William Milberry

If we look deeper into color and what it means to vision, we’ll find that humans have better color vision than some other segments of the animal kingdom, (but not all.)  Color vision is determined by how many different kinds of color light receptors (called “cones”), an animal’s retina has.  Some animals only have one type of light receptor, which gives them monochrome ( essentially black and white) vision.  Many mammals have two kinds of color receptors (aka “dichromatic vision”), which gives only partial color vision.  Such animals are often red-green colorblind, but that can vary by species.  At some point in post-dinosaur evolutionary history primates (including human’s ancestors), developed a third color receptor giving us fuller color vision than other mammals.

Even though we have good color vision, the color receptors (cones) in the eye’s retina have limited light sensitivity and are accompanied by another type of receptor called rods.  Rods don’t help to distinguish color, but rather provides us with greater general light sensitivity and supply us with a majority of our night vision.  You may not realize it, but our night vision in very low light is mostly monochrome (although you might interpret low light as blueish.)

“our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color.”

Considering the fact that full color vision is an evolved trait that our evolutionary lines didn’t always have, and that our night-vision is largely monochromatic, it’s reasonable to conclude that our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color.  An image without color is completely natural to us and something our brains process without any quandary.

It’s theorized the enhanced color vision evolved as an improved survival trait in stressful times so that primates could identify ripe (red, orange) fruit, fresh light green growth, and such visually.  Another theory was so that primates could identify states such as anger or illness in other primates by identifying skin color changes (such as blushing).  Either way the fundamental idea of the various theories of color vision evolution all entail giving animals greater detail about the world as opposed to providing the fundamental mechanism of vision.

I think nature’s intended purpose for color vision can help us interpret color’s role in aesthetics and photography.

 Black and White’s Effect

If we take into account the realizations above that color is not necessary to record a detailed image, and that color vision is an evolved enhancement which gave animals (in this case primates and humans), extra information about the world, we can start to look upon color not as a fundamental aspect of light and sight, but rather an extra, a type of detail that is optional.

If this idea seems unclear, let me draw a comparison:  We live in a rich world of sound with the voices of family, the sounds of nature, the artistry of Beethoven, the voice of your favorite singer, etc.  Yet we hear far less than cats and dogs do with their ability to hear into higher frequency ranges.  Despite knowing that we don’t hear the extra details of higher pitches which exist, we don’t think that we live in a less rich world sound-wise.  Likewise when looking at black and white photos, most people don’t feel that they are having a less rich experience than when they look at a color image.

Since in many ways color can be regarded as a detail, it’s absence frees our eyes, attention, and mind to focus on other aspects of the photo.  Without color, some clutter is removed and other aspects of the content such as shapes, textures, contrasts, and smaller details in the photo are free to step forward and claim more attention that might otherwise be taken by color.    Often, these smaller subjects can wind up conveying as much or even more than colors can.

Below is an example of how what your attention is drawn to can differ between color and b&w.  If you move your mouse cursor over the following image you will see it in color.  In color various items such as the blue plastic in the background (right above the man’s head), the red scroll on the ground to the left of the man, and the yellow reflector on the cement post on the right draw the attention and less time is spent focusing on the man.  (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version. (opens in new window))

Taiwan Fortune Teller, by William Milberry
Taiwan Fortune Teller, by William Milberry

Another way in which color is different from black and white is how visual relationships are set up within the image.  In color both the color hue AND brightness contrast matters, but in black and white there is only brightness contrast.  So in b&w directing attention within an image is a little more simple and direct.  This allows more attention to go to contemplating the subject rather than visually decoding the image and relationships within it.  This alters the impression an image has on us.

It’s important to clarify that categorizing color as a detail and not as something fundamental is not dismissing color’s importance or role.  It plays a critical role when it is thoughtfully incorporated into an image.  Color however does lead us to process the image differently and thus a color and black and white version of the same image can have different feelings and interpretations.

Take a look at the following black and white photo and note which figures your eyes are drawn to and what impression it has.  Does it look like a moment in time?  An action in progress?  Then look away for a moment and move your mouse over the picture to show it in color and look at it again.  Try to notice where your eyes go.  Do you take it in differently in color vs black and white?  (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version (opens in new window).)

Yamaga Lantern Festival, by William Milberry
Yamaga Lantern Festival, by William Milberry

To illustrate how color can affect perception I’ll explain how I see the above image.  In my case the black and white version looks like a moment captured in time.  My eyes are drawn towards the illuminated man with his mouth open near the center triggering me to imagine his voice as he sings, and then my eyes are drawn to the silhouettes of the women with lanterns on their heads which are mysterious and all facing left or right with some kind of order or intent.  These elements take the focus, engage my imagination, and draw me into the scene.  In the color version, the blue’ish screen in the background is a different color from the white stage lights slightly visible above it and the red floor the musicians are standing on below it drawing my attention the fact that the scene is on a stage.  The alternating red and white of the four lighted umbrellas above the stage also draw my eyes’ attention resulting in less attention going to the singer and female silhouettes.  The added detail of color triggers me to analyze the scene more than imagining being there.  This prevents me from entering the moment as deeply.

“color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.”

I describe this (admittedly subjective), experience as “color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.”  Each has its use and I’m by no means saying color is less than b&w.  This is all an attempt to explain why black and white retains a special, heavily used place in the photography world.

Because of differences in how color and black and white are processed by the viewer, black and white shouldn’t be considered a treatment or an after-the-fact editing choice.  A good artist decides if they are going to shoot in color or black and white, then thinks in accordance with that when visualizing and setting up shots.  One of the reasons for using black and white film is, because unlike digital where you will have many options available for how a digital photo looks when converted to black and white, film will lock you into the look and qualities of the film (and development method) that was chosen.  This forces the photographer to think more before the shutter is pressed and this leads to better results than after-the-fact editing.  (Personally, I think limitations make artists work better and more carefully with tools, so in addition to other aesthetic values it brings, I’m a huge fan of film.)

This discussion has been from a somewhat science based perspective.  There are many more discussions to be had about the aesthetics and artistic principles involved in black and white.  For now though I’d like to review the three key points I focused on here:

  • When thinking about the nature of light, color can be viewed as an optional detail which is not necessary to consider in order to produce a clear and understandable photographic image.
  • Color vision evolved as a mechanism to give some animals (including humans), additional information about the world.  Even with this, we retain an undiminished capacity to understand visuals without color.
  • The presence of color alters the way we view and interpret photos and thus the impact that they have.

I would like to leave you with an interesting thought that I had while thinking about b&w.  Unlike the ideas above, I have no evidence to support this and it’s open for debate, but its an interesting topic to consider:  Nostalgia has no counterparts.

Nostalgia has no counterparts:  Black and white photos tend to have a strong nostalgic or old-time feeling to them.  Most old photos are black and white, so many people assume that b&w reminds us of those photos from the past.  The idea that b&w=old is deeply ingrained in our psyche and could certainly be part of the reason.  But could there be an additional aspect to this feeling?  Famed Japanese photographer Moriyama Daido said that black and white photos have a stronger element of abstraction and symbolism, and this can play a role in transporting your mind to another place.  Perhaps because the past can be seen more clearly than the present or the future, we often romanticize bygone eras, and there is no future or present counterpart for the feeling of “nostalgia”, an old-time nostalgic feeling is the default feeling that comes about when a b&w photo successfully draws us in?  Let’s also not forget, that by definition every photograph is of some past event or place, even if it was only yesterday!

To keep my articles a readable size I give just enough background information to make things relevant and understandable.  For more information about some of the topics discussed you might wish to check out the following links:

by William Milberry

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