I watched the third season of Sky’s series ‘Master of Photography’ recently and while I’m getting a little bored with the format, one thing consistently made me laugh. One of the finalists, a very talented street photographer called Wayne Crichlow took a varied selection of photographs, carefully hitting the brief, and then without fail converted them into high contrast black and white in the post-processing stage.
In fairness to him, he has an aesthetic and he sticks to it, but what is the fascination with black and white processing in street photography?
I think it boils down to a few things, which are true for lots of photography, not just street:
- It’s dramatic.
Put a colour photo in black and white and it’s instantly more dramatic. It conjures images of old horror films, heavy shadows, dark nights.
- It’s forgiving.
It’s a lot easier to hide a technical deficiency in a black and white image. Grain looks better, you have no issues with colour clashes, composition is a much simpler task. This is especially true if you are using a mirrorless camera that allows you to turn the EVF to black and white – it’s easier to see how light falls and easier to block out tricky bits of an image by underexposing the shot.
- It helps you focus on the content.
Strip away colour from an image and it can prevent your brain getting distracted quite so easily. It’s more difficult to just glance at a black and white image and instantly understand what’s going on or where you are. Colour is a good signifier – there’s a certain shade of brown that will always make me think of rocks in Iceland, there’s a certain pink that will always make me think of candyfloss. Monochrome strips all of those associations away.
- It’s traditional.
There’s a long line of photography masters who shot in black and white – some by choice, some because that was all there was. Whether it’s Ansel Adams or Vivian Maier, if you shoot in black and white you are riding the coattails of some of the greatest photographers that have ever lived. I don’t know of any photographer that has explored the work of those classic shooters and not wanted to try black and white for a while – it’s inspiring.
There are probably countless more, but these are the ones that stand out most to me. Personally, I try and shoot in black and white fairly regularly. I think it’s a useful tool for changing your perspective, and I’ve used it more than once to get out of a bit of a rut.
Here are some black and white images from the last month or so: