How to Make the Call: Color, or Black and White?

All Generations Are Afflicted by Jann Alexander ©2014
Better in black and white? All Generations Are Afflicted iPhoneography by Jann Alexander ©2014

Documentary photography has traditionally been a black and white medium, though that tradition began due to the relative ease of lab processing for black and white film when compared to color film. Among today’s photographers, with film and lab processing mostly removed from consideration, color would seem to be the preference—certainly it’s the most common choice—but is that because our world is so much more colorful, or because the technology is so simplified and so readily available?

There’s another key consideration, perhaps the most important of all for anyone who photographs with the intent of storytelling. It’s this: The most effective medium for telling the image’s story should carry the most weight. Shouldn’t it?

All Generations Are Afflicted by Jann Alexander ©2014
Or better in color? All Generations Are Afflicted iPhoneography by Jann Alexander ©2014

There is no doubt that black and white simplifies, and even strengthens, an image, and hones in on its story. Its ability to clarify comes from its cleansing simplicity. But color brings a rich texture that brings out the deeper, less obvious meanings in an image; and the use of color in a photograph is often the most immediate way for an image to command attention.

The most effective medium for telling the image’s story should carry the most weight.  

When the subjects of my photograph(s) were young, color photography wasn’t much of an option to capture this cross-generational moment. They would have been sharing each other’s company then, rather than staring at their iPhones. And because there weren’t iPhones to stare at, I wouldn’t be sharing their image, captured with my iPhone 5s. Ironically, my iPhone photograph was colorfully vivid when I made it, and to see it in black and white, all I had to do was choose the appropriate filter from my iPhone’s editing app.

But the ease with which I could do all of that, and the pleasure I’m taking in the irony, doesn’t negate the actual question about how photographs are presented: Does my image tell its story better in black and white, or color?

That is a question I leave to you to ponder, and hopefully to answer, in the comments section below. 

Does your criteria for shooting in black and white or color match mine?

Find more iPhoneography tricks and photos HERE.  See more creative ways others are using their smartphones at Sally’s Lens and Pens Black and White Phoneography challenge, where each week is a new smartphone photo adventure. And please get in touch HERE to buy my custom prints, from $45. 

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14 thoughts on “How to Make the Call: Color, or Black and White?

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  1. I’ve also written about this debate (will find the post and send it to you). Photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth century were masters of black and white (it’s hard to compete with film and even SLR). I’m totally enamored with many of their accomplishments. Still, some simply must see the world in technicolor. I certainly have my own criteria in the use of black and white. Usually I’m searching for keys to unlock contrast and tone, emphasize details that are lost in color and much more. Sometimes I know that an object, scene or subject belongs in monochrome. In your images, for example, I really do like the monochrome better. The couple become the centerfold (not literally) of your composition without the distraction of the bright pillows and even the man in the corner. I like the way that their faces and upper bodies are the main subject in the black and white. I can imagine: are they looking at their phones or reading books or magazines or … Happy Photo Challenge.

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    1. Sally, please do share the link here. I’m very interested in how we choose our focus. Your comments are causing me to look at that image in a new way; I am one of those who are VERY drawn to color. But I am coming around to black and white more and more, and I think you are a big influence in that. Thank you again for your feedback, and for the challenge.


      1. You’re right, Jann I’m more inclined toward color in my own photos but sometimes it can draw my attention away from what might be the more important but subtle feature of a photo. Black and white is a great tool to focus me on a subject.

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  2. Tricky! I like the black-and-white photo better as an image, but the IPhones are somewhat lost in it – not telling the image’s story very well. So I guess I’d have to vote for the color – or, as a secret third option, rename the B & W version so that it tells a different story! I’ll leave that up to you 😉

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    1. I think you really hit upon the point I’m trying to make. Though the b/w image is more open to interpretation, the color one offers the details that really share the story I wanted to tell–that the iPhone stare has crossed all the generations to become the new norm. Thanks for your feedback that let me voice that, Lori!

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  3. I think it just depends upon what story you’re trying to tell and where you want the emphasis to be. B&W brings out details that color may keep the viewer from seeing as clearly or starkly, such as shapes. But color emphasizes beauty of its own. As with all photography and writing, you have to determine what your story is.


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  4. Here is one of the posts where I discuss color vs. black-and-white photography: This debate will always be a hot topic, and it should be. Truly, there is no resolution: each of us has our perceptions of reality. Mine happens to include a visit to the world of monochromatic images, which gives me another way to see my universe.


    1. Sally, I’m finally circling back around to you and really appreciate the time you took to share your link. I’m a Meyerowitz fan, so I look forward to reading your post. It’s a great debate, you’re right, that we can all agree to keep debating forever, and happily so.


  5. Wow! I missed the point in both photo’s. I’m so prone to looking at people/expressions that I missed completely what they were doing until you mentioned the iPhones. From the people watching aspect, I liked the B&W shot better. It could also be that my A.D.D. was activated quickly with so many colors, textures and patterns in the color shot. The B&W settled all of that down for me.

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    1. You aren’t the only one who thinks that black and white soothes out the extraneous stuff to allow the image’s real message to come through. And I agree, there is much to be said for that. But once I commit to photographing something for both its color and its message, I have a hard time giving up the color aspect of it. Thanks for the feedback; it’s always educational to hear from observers what they see (that I don’t).

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