Vive La Difference! Photoblogging

4 comments September 22nd, 2007at 02:34pm Posted by Eli

I don’t normally do this, but it’s such a dramatic demonstration of the difference between color and black & white, that I just had to. Except for pictures where it’s immediately obvious that the color doesn’t add anything (i.e., the subject matter is already white or gray, or the color is just flat-out hideous), I always process a color version and a black & white version, because I never know just what might appear.

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This is the first picture I took in La Jolla this year, of tomatoes at the grocery store. Nice orange tomatoes, nice green stemmy things, color all the way, right? Well, maybe I should see what it looks like in B&W, just in case…

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It’s like a completely different picture. The shiny orange tomatoes now look metallic, and the stems are almost the same shade of gray/silver. This is illustrative of one of the key differences between B&W and color, at least for me. For want of a better word, I’ll call it “delineation.” In the color photo, the stems and the oranges are very clearly differentiated by their opposite colors, but in the B&W version, that distinction goes away, and they’re both just shades of gray. And very similar shades of gray, at that.

In B&W, shapes are defined by the contrast between light and dark, not differences in colors. I remember when this was first driven home to me, when I was messing around with the television as a kid (okay, I might have been in high school…). I turned the color all the way down, and then I flipped between a channel showing an old black & white movie or TV show, and one showing a modern show in color. Where the B&W content was very contrasty and easy to view, the color content was very flat, practically a uniform shade of medium gray, because it was entirely reliant on colors to delineate its shapes.

I think that was the turning point for me in terms of understanding the difference between color photography and B&W photography. After a year of my high school color photo teacher futilely trying to explain to me why I shouldn’t be taking the same kind of light and shadow pictures that had worked so well for me in my B&W photo class, it took a little bit of random TV experimentation to make me finally understand.

I still like to punch up the contrast in my color photos, but if the shapes are primarily defined by lights and darks, I’m probably going to go with black & white.

Entry Filed under: La Jolla/San Diego,Photoblogging


  • 1. PoliShifter  |  September 22nd, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    At first glance the color picture blew me out of the water but mostly beause I am used to seeing B&W on your blog.

    I have a nice digital camera and take lots of pictures with some occasional good ones. But I cannot pretend to be a photographer.

    If I had to choose I would choose color on impulse only because it has a much more immediate effect on my senses.

    But after looking closer for a few extra seconds, the B&W has a certain appeal to it in a dark icy sort of way.

    In me the B&W of the tomatos inspires introspection as I try to “feel” the photograph and grasp exactly what it’s reminding me of…an old movie? A poem?

    With the color it’s just “bam!” I don’t think much except “damn those are some red tomatos!”

  • 2. Eli  |  September 22nd, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    I was really, really surprised by the B&W, partly because I don’t think I’ve ever seen any B&W tomato photos before. If I have, they sure didn’t look this metallic. Maybe there just aren’t that many because tomatoes are just so… orange (or red – somewhere in that general spectrum vicinity).

    The weird thing is, I really didn’t *do* anything to the B&W photo to make them look metallic. I punched up the contrast like I always do, but they looked metallic immediately after I clicked the Grayscale button. The other photographic lesson embodied here is that the camera sees the world very differently from how we do, and sometimes we end up with something completely unexpected.

  • 3. whiskey girl  |  September 22nd, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    hey eli–before i clicked on my bookmark of your page just now, my first thought was of my comment about color i made a while back (and how i noticed that there seemed to be more color pictures here after that). so i get here to find this,

    i would say that you rely most on strong compositions and/or unusual viewpoints to make your striking images, so color doesn’t play as important a role, most of the time.

    as a photographer myself (pre-digital age), i spent some years shooting nude self-portraits, always in black & white. when i took a color class at the new school, for my first assignment, i chose my usual subject, but had no idea how to make color a player. so, i painted my body red and draped a light-green blanket over my shoulders (i got a very nice religiousy image out of it).

    what’s my point? heck if i know. no! what i mean is: i’ve always felt that black & white instantly thrusts one’s work into the realm of ‘art’ because it automatically makes us see the subject differently by removing the color. and, pre-digital age anyway, most snapshots were in color, many ‘art-world’ images were black & white, furthering my alliance with black & white.

    but seeing images on my computer, i find saturated color so luminous. and because your compositions are so strong, i love when you inject a little color. i thought that red circle on that plane a few posts back, set at an angle that drew me into the frame, was delightful. the tomatoes here i would say are less representative of your work in general: you don’t seem to me to work in close-up like that, unless you’re using that angle to disguise the subject.

    hey–i’m completely rambling here. get a blog ina. thanks for the photos eli!

  • 4. Eli  |  September 23rd, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Thanks, ina. The other question I always have to ask myself is whether the color really adds anything. If everything in the frame is kind of beige or blah, there’s really no point. But if there are attractive colors, or even just one striking spot of color, then I have to consider it.

    But even then, I sometimes find myself preferring B&W. I’ve taken pictures with absolutely gorgeous blue sky in them, and ended up choosing B&W anyway. It might just come down to personal preference, really, and I like B&W.

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