It seems like with digital photography on the rise and the advent of full-color images available to everyone, there’s no longer any need for black and white photography, but you might be surprised – this classic style of photo isn’t ready to die yet, and it’s still just as striking and alluring as ever. Full-color photos are beautiful no doubt, but black and white images show perfectly the contrast of light and shadow, they frame the subject in a very straightforward way, and some of the most famous photographers in history worked mainly in black and white photography, from Ansel Adams’ evocative and mysterious nature photos to Robert Mappelthorpe’s fun, bold and daring photos of punk rock queen Patti Smith.
It’s Where It All Started!
The black and white style is readily available in the digital age, but back when photography first began, way back in the early days of Eastman Kodak and even before that, black and white was all there was. In the late 1800’s, photography was a mysterious art – it trapped a moment in time that previously had to be painted, drawn or written about to be captured. Without color (though hand-coloration with dyes and inks was also trendy at the time), photographers were drawn to the vivid shadows and highlights that could be caught with the right tools, and though at first people were somewhat doubtful that photography would go anywhere, it soon caught on as an amazing art that bordered on magic.
When color film was first developed, it became all the rage, not just for photography but also for the movie industry (movies back then were also done on film in a manner very similar to film photography). By the 1950’s, Eastman Kodak was manufacturing handheld cameras for the average consumer, giving more people access to a fun and exciting hobby, but though the 1950’s and 1960’s were popular eras for the bright rainbow hues of Kodachrome film, black and white pictures were still a favorite, and they also remained very popular with many photographers.
It was also a money-saver. This was especially true for journalists, police departments and other professional instances, and black and white film also had the advantage of reflecting the raw emotion and the subject of a photo without obscuring it or fading. All the way into the digital age, black and white photography continued to progress. In the 1960’s, the Kodak Instamatic was developed, a small handheld camera popular with kids and amateur photographers, and it could use both color and black and white film.
Super 8 movie film was also booming around this era, which used both types of film, and in the 80’s, Polaroid cameras began to replace Kodak’s cheaper handhelds. Many people at the time preferred color film for Polaroids, but black and white was still available and still frequently purchased. By the 1990’s, VHS tapes and later digital video replaced most of the need for home movie film, but black and white photography still remained quite popular.
Isn’t Color Photography All the Rage Now?
So, why should you consider black and white photography? Is it worth it, or is full-color where it’s at? That’s entirely up to you, but black and white photography is a great way to really capture your subject at face value. Whether it’s a forest of lanky white birch trees or a mysterious woman standing in the pouring rain, black and white photography has a brilliant yet simple way of using the contrast between light and shadow to give pictures a timeless, fascinating appearance that never goes out of style, drawing the focus of attention to the subject you want to share.
Convert Your Images to Black and White!
Some photographers even utilize digital computer software to create a mix of the two – for instance, say they take a picture of a child in a bright yellow rain slicker, playing in the urban streets of some big metropolis somewhere. Using Photoshop, they can give the photo a black and white background by tracing parts of the image they want to remove the color from, leaving only the main focus of the picture in color. They can also do it the other way around and give a black and white image a colored background. It’s all about how you choose to express yourself and your craft.
Photoshop and Lightroom are great pieces of software for converting a regular color image to black and white. By adjusting the light, shadow, saturation, contrast and hue, you can create any number of effects. Film is still readily available too, having recently made a comeback for its sharpness, natural organic look and longevity. A lot of online vendors, thrift shops and photography stores still sell film cameras and film itself, and the darkroom developing experience can be a fun and interesting way to expand your work and knowledge of photos in general. The trick with black and white photography is to find a good subject and make it the focal point of the whole picture. The more sunshine and shadow you have, the more striking your pictures will be, for example the bars of a playground swing set in the late afternoon, a family picnic or the tall skyscrapers of a city. Black and white photos can work very well with indoor subjects too, especially in the realm of portraits and modeling.
Not everybody enjoys the black and white look, but if you’re always working with full-color shots and you’re looking for a way to try out a new angle, this type of photography is a simple, quick and classic way of taking your skill to new horizons. Click here to check out our Black and White Photoshop Actions.