Black and White Photographs - How Do You See Them?

December 02, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Do you like black and white photographs? Do you prefer the colour in a scene to be excluded from a picture, to show only lines, forms, contrast and the balance of light and shadow? Or do you dislike black and white images, perhaps as incomplete, even false representations of a subject? If colour is present at the time of being photographed, then it should be shown so that you can see all the features of a composition.


Most of the images I post on my website or social media are colour. I admit that shooting in colour is my default position. But that doesn’t mean I don’t, occasionally, look at a scene and immediately ‘see’ it as a black and white composition.


Have a look at the two images following. While I initially photographed them in colour, I instinctively felt from the start that they were both scenes best shot in black and white. Why was this?


Well, in short, it was what both scenes ‘said’ to me; the way each one looked and felt as I spent time trying to comprehend them. Sound like nonsense to you? Okay, let me explain further.

Quiet Cove in ReculverQuiet Cove in ReculverJust along from St Mary Church, Reculver and along the Saxon Shore Way is this peaceful cove.
On this misty morning and with waters calm, I decided on a black and white image to emphasise the lines and textures of the cliff and stony beach.

Consider the first image. While standing on the pebble beach at Reculver one early morning, the place was quiet and still. The sea was almost pond-calm and a light-grey mist was gently drifting in from the estuary towards the cliff. The flat water and the mist converged to, if not merge, at least intertwine. This nudged my gaze back to centre and then left, to look closer at the pebble beach and the cliff face. I began to take a greater interest, not in their colours but in their textures. I began to take notice of the light and shadows between the pebbles and undulations. And most importantly, I focused in on the lines in the scene; of the beach with both the water’s edge and the bottom of the cliff, and the jagged edge of the top of the cliff as it drifted away into the mist. These became the subject of the story in this image. The sea and elements on one side: the land and its weathered, jagged, contrasting lines and textures formed over thousands of years on the other. Colour was a distraction and, for me, reduced the impact of the scene.

In the second image, coincidentally another seaside scene, I was standing on Hastings pier. Here, my reasons for ‘seeing’ black and white were different but no less important to me. Firstly, it was the end of the summer season. Hastings was relatively quiet, with many people seemingly back to work and children back to school. The tide was on the way out and the waves lacklustre. And the light kept changing as clouds drifted across the sun, making it very dull at times and adding to the end-of-season mood. As for the scene itself, well, apart from one lone family, the whole beach front was empty. The most noticeable subject on the beach became the row of exposed, dark groins at right angles to the town’s seafront road and buildings, taking my eye up to the tall building dominating the skyline in the distance. Like the first image, the scene became one of mood, lines, angles and, in the changing light, a contrast of whites and dark greys, brightness and shadow. Again, in my opinion, colour distracted from the story of this seaside town exhaling at season’s end.


You may not agree with my way of ‘seeing’ these scenes, or my allowing atmospheric mood to influence my preference of black and white over colour in these images, and that’s perfectly fine. All I can say is, that’s how these scenes spoke to me at the time I was there and I felt I owed it to them to tell their stories in those moments in the best way I could.


Does this mean I’m moving towards black and white becoming my start point, and only allowing colour into my images if it adds anything? No.


I’ll continue to shoot predominantly colour images. I love colour in my pictures and, to be honest, get more pleasure sharing colourful scenes than black and white. But whenever a scene ‘says’ black and white to me I won’t walk by. It deserves its story to be shared like any other.