Black & White vs. Color

I photograph in both color and black & white. I do color photography digitally with a Nikon D90, and black & white with film and a Nikon F3. While I’m too lazy to actually develop film myself (and photograph too little on film to make it worthwhile), I do make prints in a darkroom.

I take many more pictures digitally and in color than on film. The reasons are clear – digital is cheaper (if you shoot enough that the cost of the camera is less than the film would cost you), my D90 has features such as autofocus that my F3 doesn’t (I would buy an F100 if I wanted to have these features for film), I can review pictures while taking them (one of the great advantages of digital), and images are easily put on the internet. But what I like about black & white film work is the act of manually “making” pictures (the printing process) and the solid feel and ease of use of a manual focus camera.

Lately I have found that I somehow lack suitable subjects for black & white photography. While it’s clear that black & white is not suitable for pictures that depend on colors for meaning (such as a colorful sunset or trees in fall), many pictures don’t. Still, I often prefer color. Two sets of pictures on the Denver Post Photo Blog from the same, one about WW II photographs (mostly in black & white), one about Farm Security Administration color photographs, made me realize why. We see in color, which makes color photographs look more real to us. There is a certain detached quality to black & white photographs. Which means that color is better suited to documentary photography, where the goal is to let the viewer experience the moment shown in the picture.

This doesn’t mean that black & white doesn’t have its purpose. I find it less suitable for “documentary” photography, but working very well for photographs that don’t follow into this category. Portraits, landscapes that depend on structures instead of color, pictures that are interesting for something else than their documentary value – art?