Colour or Monochrome


When film (or plate) was the way to capture photographs, there were many many debates, just like there are now.  They didn’t debate sensor sizes, they debated film sizes (and that had so many I won’t even start on that), and just like many enthusiasts and professionals now debate colour vs monochrome, so it also went back then.

While there were specific films developed for both types back then, in the digital age we are pretty much guaranteed that the camera you buy, whether the one in your mobile phone, compact camera, mirrorless or DSLR camera, it will in all likelihood take the photos in colour, which you can then convert to monochrome (black and white, sepia, etc) in post-process, whether in-camera or in software on the PC.  This changed when Leica developed their Leica M Monochrom, it was the first major brand to produce a high-end digital camera that produced only black and white photographs, and rumor has it Sony is working on a black and white version of their RX 1.  I don’t want to get into a debate myself over the need or desire to have a camera that only shoots monochrome, I can only say that it is unlikely I would ever buy one myself, but that is probably only my wallet talking.

In the genre of Street Photography, there is usually a preference for black and white images, but there are many many great coloured Street Photographs out there, more than you’d think.  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work in street photography was very definitive for the genre, and all his work was in black and white, he also experimented with coloured film but was never satisfied with the results; of course, he only had access to the types of film available then (the 1950s) and if you look back at coloured prints from those days you’d see the limitations of the coloured film of the time.  I dare say that if he had lived in a later era, he may have at least given the coloured films a chance.

When I first started taking photographs on a slightly more serious basis than just snapshots, I didn’t do much black and white processing, and even when I did, it was more for the novelty than because I knew why it should be done and to which photographs.  Now I do a lot more processing in black and white…

What have I learnt that changed my views?

I’ve learnt that not all photos look good in monochrome, the tonal range and subject matter is very important for an image to look good in monochrome.  Monochrome images tend to showcase textures, shapes and form better, and by removing colour from the image you are left with just the elements that make up the composition, and if those elements are not functioning correctly in the overall composition, it will feel off, or look cluttered.

When used correctly, colour will catch the eye and hold it, this works for some compositions, but for others, that same thing tends to shift the focus of the viewer from the overall composition and have them concentrate almost solely on one portion of the image.

I’m no expert, but this is how I see it; recently I took a few photographs of some Jhandi flags on the Kingston seashore, and I chose two that I liked, and I processed them quite differently, and primarily for the reasons stated above.

This one I chose colour, because the main subject and the focus of the image is the Jhandi flags themselves, the various colours chosen as they contrast with each other, the browns of the sand and the blues of the sky.

The second image I processed in black and white to articulate the relationship between the clouds in the sky with the sands on the ground, the change from dark to light in both the sky and the land as they meet at the horizon, the sharpness of the shadow from the midday sun, and the contrast between the flags on the pole so close to the viewer against what seems to be a smaller post in the distance to the left of the frame.

These are my decisions, they may quite well not be anyone else’s choice.


In the end, these are choices I make in how I express myself artistically now, it is not how I did it a few years ago, it may not be how I do it five years from now.

Click on the images to see them in their respective galleries.

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2 thoughts on “Colour or Monochrome

  1. Nicely put Mike, an interesting ramble, well worth reading 🙂 This is my type of ramble.

    You should see Saul Leiter do colour, he composes in colour. When you see those photos you realize just how brilliantly a master photographer can use colour.

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