Not everything looks good in black and white

 

[T]hird time's the charm I tell you! I am officially, absolutely pissed at people who think if a picture sucks, black and white makes it better, because hey! everything looks good in black and white. A friend showed my work to someone and that person said I was “cheating” because everything looks good in black and white (You know who you are 🙂 ). I want once and for all to put this myth to rest.

 

The uncle Bob syndrome

I will start my mythbusting by placing this photographic myth under a bigger umbrella, the HUGE myth that if it looks easy/simple, it is. Wowsers, this is a huge one, I call it the uncle bob syndrome ©. Whatever you do for a living, whether it is sewing, photography, business, videography, you most likely use tools to get your work done: you might use a sewing machine, a camera, Microsoft word or other…Now imagine you are meeting a potential employer or client that simply turns you down because his uncle Bob has the same sewing machine you have, the same camera, the same software you do and thinks he can do the job because he has the same tools. How offended would you be? Doesn't the employer know that DaVinci's paintbrush sucks when not in the hands of the master? Everything looks easy, especially photography but it is only because somebody worked hard in order to make everything look easy.

 

If it sucks, it sucks

If you take a picture, and it sucks, well guess what? It will always suck. I remember a long while ago, a design teacher of mind told the class a story of her co-worker that was a layout designer, whatever handmade layout she did were mediocre at best. Then the place she was working for got a brand new Macintosh (it was a while back…), guess what she made? Even more mediocre designs at a faster rate. From 5 mediocre designs to 30 mediocre designs… there was no improvement in her craft. My point is, if a picture sucks, there is absolutely no amount of Photoshop, Black and white, Sepia, HDR, fancy effect that will make it better. This is one of the main reasons I have a huge beef with HDR and Instagram, people who do it think that whatever they shoot, as long as it is HDR or instagramed, its good art.

 

It was already there

I see a in black and white, all the time, always. When I see a color picture, I automatically mentally see it in black and white and instantly judge if it will look good in BW or not. My dad is a shutterbug, he loves snapping away, when I look at his shots, I automatically single out those who would make gorgeous monochrome and simply wish they were converted into  BW. What would happen if he did? He would end up with nice looking images, but he would think that the desaturation made the image look good when the inverse is true: It only looks good because the potential was already there.

 

Intent

There is a major difference between a photographer that had an intention before taking a photograph and another that just snapped away and played around later with effects on the computer. The later will have a tendency to credit his photographic success to the effects (BW, HDR, etc, etc) while the first one to his own vision. To the first, the effect helps convey his vision, to the second the effect makes his vision. I think this is where the myth comes from, photographers that think that the effect makes the photograph. Converting a color image to black and white does not make it artsy de facto, to the same extent that a paint job does not make an ugly house look good. Intent is the fundamental difference between the advanced photographer and the amateur, the first knows what he wants and knows hoe to get it, whereas the other is simply surprised at his results, mainly crediting the camera.

 

The irony

I am a BW photographer for one main reason: to get better at photography. When I looked at the work that is out there on the internet I saw too many photographers that were relied a bit too much on effects like HDR or cross processing, producing really cool effects but uncompelling photographs. I didn't want that, I wanted to be a good photographer, without bells and whistles, so I decided to do exclusively BW work and rely only on the good ol' basics like dodging and burning, vignetting, etc. So my intent was actually to photograph without effects, so I think it is ironic to be accused of using just one effect.

 

Some truth

Every myth has a nugget of truth. Some photos do look better in BW, but it is only because it was already there, BW is not magic! Some photos are better monochrome because I found out that blown highlights / shadows are more forgivable in black and white, and that's about it. besides that I think BW is harder because poor composition will render a BW photograph to a mere snapshot. And as a side note, I think too many people  believe that going in the streets and rendering some shots in BW make it “street photography”, its way harder than it looks.

 

Scientific coup de grace

There was a time were no color photographs existed, what about then? Did eveything look good? Was everybody an Ansel Adams or Eugene Smith? Nonsense, therefore this is historical proof that the myth does not stand. Heck I am pretty sure the first exclusively color shooters were criticised: “Everything looks good in color!”, how ironic is that?

In order once and for all to bury that myth, here's an experiment for you: Take your crappiest photos you have and convert them to black and white and see how many of them actually look good. I am sure you will find some really good ones, but like I said before it is because the potential was already there, BW did not create anything new, it only enhanced the parts that you did not see. It only looks good because you didn't see the potential of the photo, so next time you find yourself saying everything looks good in BW, pinch yourself because you are the one who did not see the potential for it.