Black and White photography – An introduction

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Joel Tjintjelaar

We live in a world of color, at least for most of us, even for the ones said to be colorblind. They can’t distinguish all colors but they can see most of them. So why would anyone take photos in Black and White or in any other monochromatic tones? Aren’t color photos more beautiful than Black and white? Why are a lot of people over the years attracted to Black and White photos? Although I’ll try to answer some of these questions and the answers will therefore be very subjective it is no coincidence that all the great masters in photography, past and present, have shot, are shooting and still will be shooting in Black and White. Even in this age of digital photography and Photoshop.

Let’s start with some famous B&W images by the great masters from the past up till present day and take a good look at it.

Henry Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson is regarded as the father of photojournalism and street-photography and he invented a style or better concept that’s called The decisive Moment. This photo is probably the most famous photo of all time and was shot in 1932 just before a series of historic events that led to the outbreak of WWII. It is iconic and symbolic for the political turmoil just before WWII.
Henry Cartier-Bresson

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton was a famous fashion and portrait photographer who also captured several Hollywood celebrities.
Helmut Newton

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is regarded by many as the greatest of all B&W photographers. Adams developed a technique that is called the Zone System and elevated the Dodging and Burning technique from the Dark Room to an art form. Moonrise in Hernandez is one of his most famous photos.
Ansel Adams

Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was a famous fashion and portrait photographer who captured a lot of celebrities.
Richard Avedon

Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna is known for his long exposure photos and a series on Japan and Powerstations. With his long exposure technique he managed to give his landscapes in his photos an ethereal feel.
Michael Kenna

So this is just a small collection of some of the most famous B&W photos. Most of them were shot in a time and age in which color photography was within the reach of anyone. So why were these photos taken in B&W and why did they make such a great impact on the viewers? My philosophy is that with the removal of color the essence of objects, situations, sceneries and people can become more visible. Can become more visible because it’s up to you what you do with contrasts, light, shapes, patterns and lines to emphasize the essence, or what you see as the essence – no colors that will seduce the eye, only emotion that will capture the heart. If you do it right… And I will teach you how to do it right on this website. So check out the next chapters.

To round off this introduction, here are some quotes from other famous or less famous photographers why B&W is so effective and one of the highest forms of art.
For me color records the image, but black & white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.” – Cole Thompson.
Color causes someone to take a look at the photo, while B&W will cause them to take a look into the photo” – unknown.
When I go to photographic exhibits, I spend more time looking at B&W than color prints. It isn’t I don’t like color, I find many color prints strikingly beautiful. However, I almost never go back to look at them again. I often view some B&W prints three or four times before leaving the exhibition.” – Onas C. Scandrette
It’s been said that there is something sexy about black and white photography that you just can’t get from color. I think it’s true. Once you remove the color, it is like stripping a scene down to the bare bones, removing the layers and leaving the form.” – Wendy Folse
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5 replies
  1. Aji
    Aji says:

    Hi Joel…
    Your blog truly inspires me to learn more about B&W photography.
    I have some B&W in my blog. I am still looking for my own style.


  2. titus
    titus says:

    Hello Joel,

    black is no colour, white is no colour – but i think to feel the images, the pictures its more than thinking and transfer into the real coloures, into the life – its just simple, its the emotional aspect, whether black or white or coloured.

    Regards, titus

  3. mike peckett
    mike peckett says:

    joel thankyou
    i have learnt so much from your site having a passion for b/w photography. I have often searched for answers as to why i prefer this medium, the above has helped me enormously. I have noticed that there is much discussion and tutorials on post editing which has also been elevating for me. Recently i have been moving away from too much of this and trying to capture images as natural as possible in b/w. Some use the term ‘Organic’, i was wondering what your views on this are??
    thanks again as i have most definatly bookmarked this page lol!!

    • admin
      admin says:

      First of all: thank you for visiting Mike!
      Now to respond to your question: I have a very strong view on post editing and capturing images as natural as possible. Maybe it’s best to to quote Ansel Adams, the most important photographer from the analogue era, about what he said on postprocessing through his biographer William Turnage:
      “He manipulated the work tremendously in the darkroom. He always said that the negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the equivalent of the conductor’s performance, and the same piece of Mozart is conducted differently, performed differently, by different orchestras, different conductors, and Ansel performed his own negatives differently.”
      In other words: capturing images as is, in-camera, is like performing a piece of Mozart by a machine, a robot…
      I truly think postprocessing is an important part of the artistic and creative process and I’ve just seen an interview with Ansel Adams in which he shows his excitement for the digital future and the opportunities that would give him….

      Joel T.

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