Too much of a good thing

You can have too much of a good thing, and sometimes that good thing is color. I was reminded of this recently when I posted here about my upcoming portrait sessions at the Dallas Arboretum. I included a shot from a previous year, showing a lovely mother and daughter, both red-haired. I felt that the red hair was so striking, it distracted from their faces in a photograph in a way that it wouldn’t in real life, and I preferred a duo-tone version of the shot to the color original.

In this post I want to expand on that theme. But this time, I want to talk not about people, who almost always look interesting in black and white, but rather, about flowers and trees. The point I want to make about flowers is that, sometimes, a black and white conversion of photos is actually a more compelling photo.

Color is good, sometimes

Here, for example, is a simple photograph of some flowers at the Dallas Arboretum.

It isn’t a great photo, to be sure, but whatever interest it has comes from the combination of color and depth. Converting this image to black and white would kill it.

But consider this photo:

The center of interest here is obviously the great, old tree, which looks like something you might run into if you went on vacation with Frodo the Hobbit. But the power of the tree is diminished by the colors in the photo: by the young, green grass, and the sunny blue sky. The clumps of green grass are particularly problematic. Green really grabs people’s attention.

Converted to black and white, the tree really comes into its own:

It is still clear, to anybody who is able to see the details, that it’s a bright sunny day. The sky is still bright and only partly cloudy. The young clumps of grass are still popping up from the ground. But the black and white version of the photo emphasizes not just the age of the tree but its gnarled magnificence. The color photo is a nice snapshot of a big old tree. The black and white version is (to my tastes, anyway) a much more striking image.

Taste and interpretation

I’d like to digress for just a second into a couple of points that may strike some as a bit academic.

First, taste. It is true that people’s tastes differ. I bring this up because some people simply do not like black and white photos or, for that matter, black and white movies. If you are the sort of person who simply thinks that a black and white photo of flowers is stupid, well, I pity you, because you’ve shut yourself off from most of the greatest photographs ever taken. But I don’t expect I’ll be able to persuade you otherwise.

Second, interpretation. You don’t have to be terribly clever to make up an interpretation that appears to justify any artistic decision, no matter how wrong-headed. If you didn’t like the black and white treatment, you could say that the green grass represents young life, which stands in contrast to the old, dying tree, and that converting to black and white robs the photo of its meaning. But some interpretations are better than others, and some interpretations are just wrong. This photo isn’t about the contrast between youth and old age, at least not primarily. It’s about the tree by itself. In color, it’s a weak picture of a contrast between life and death. In black and white, it’s a strong picture of an old tree.

Flowers and color

So perhaps you agree that the tree photo is more impressive in black and white. But surely photos have to be in color, right?

Not always. This is a pretty ordinary snapshot:

I think the main problem with the shot is that the flowers are too colorful. I’ve tried here to tone them down a bit, and they’re still too colorful. You have to visit the Dallas Arboretum and see for yourself: The colors of some of the flowers are so vivid, they’re literally almost unbelievable, that is, they don’t seem real.

Here is the same photo, converted to black and white:

Conversion to black and white doesn’t take an ordinary snapshot and turn it into a masterpiece. It’s still an ordinary snapshot, but it’s more appealing, subtler, not so loud. With the colors removed, you can see the light. Viewed at a larger size, the subtle shading of the flowers in the bed becomes more pronounced.

Reality vs photography, prose vs poetry

My guess is that about a third of the photos I take are more effective after conversion to black and white, and perhaps another third really need to be in color, with the third in the middle being able to go either way. The third that really need to be in color, are of subjects that simply could not be well photographed back in the days before color photography. The third that really want to be black and white are the subjects that we miss seeing today, because we too often simply fail to think about black and white as an option. It’s hard to get black and white film processed anywhere these days, and it’s not easy to get good black and white prints made at the usual outlets. And many casual photographers aren’t aware there’s more to black and white conversion than clicking on the “black and white” button in their software. I know it sounds paradoxical, but I spend at least as much and perhaps more time thinking about color when I do a black and white conversion, than I do if I leave a photo in color the way I shot it. Why? Because in the original photo, red is red, and green is green, and there’s no mistaking them. In black and white, however, they may very well be mistaken, and I have to think hard to make sure that adjust the color channels in a way that best represents the contrasts and hues in the shot.

Why does black and white work? Because a photo is not a representation of reality as we really see it, at least not simply. The first fact about any photo is the frame, that is, the photo has a limit, a border, an edge beyond which you, the viewer, are not allowed to see. In reality, there is no limit, no border, no edge. Our peripheral vision is greater than the widest wide-angle lens. And if we want to see more, we simply turn our head a little. The frame of the photo restricts our attention to what is shown, what has been selected by the photographer for attention. In the same way, a black and white conversion, by eliminating color, forces us to view what remains—light, shade, form, texture, depth and focus. I think color photography, because it’s more “realistic,” tends also to be more prosaic. And black and white photography, when it’s done well, because it is more formal and more disciplined, is more poetic.

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