By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE LOUDEST ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE USE OF COLOR in photography have, over the past sixty years or so, been turned on their heads. Before color film became the dominant medium for amateur shooters, roughly after WWII, elites within the fine art community, that is, the people operating at the Ansel Adams level of control and command, frequently debated whether color was of any value at all. Part of their argument stemmed from the primitive processing technology of the time, which made many photographers feel that color either exaggerated reality to an intolerable degree, or, worse, that really great color work looked flat or inaccurate in magazines or prints.
As I say, though, two thirds of a century can make a big difference, and for some time now, color has been such a prevalent default choice that it’s the decision to work in monochrome that is now questioned. Certainly b&w has not vanished from the earth, but, while it was thought of as a medium of imagination and fine control before color, it is now seen by some as limiting, “less than”. And that’s too bad.
Black and white invites speculation, an additional layer of interpretation on the part of the viewer. He or she must supply, out of their own imagination, something which is not stated in the original. Nearly everyone has some mental concept of colors, personal palettes so ingrained that we can seem to “see” them even when they are not shown to us in an image. That is, we have an internal way of visualizing color where there is none.
I keep detailed presets for both color and mono shots stored in my camera, so that I can switch back and forth between modes with very little delay. As a result, some of the images I shoot in color have an almost 100% compositional convergence between the b&w and color versions (see examples here), giving me the ability to shoot and evaluate quickly in the field, while the subject is before me in real time. If a subject is important to me, I nearly always ask myself whether it is better served in one medium or the other, and usually shoot it in both as a mental insurance policy against my own indecision. I mention the presets because I believe that sculpting the precise degree of contrast, sharpness, etc. in camera is far superior to merely desaturating a color shot later in post-processing.
Eventually, it’s freeing to arrive at a place where neither color or mono are “givens” for every situation but have to earn their use in each particular frame. All tools can be used for anything, but no tool will work for everything.
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