Why black-and-white photography remains relevant in the digital age

This story first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Columbus Weddings, published June 2019.

Photographer Christopher Keels has a surefire way of determining whether or not a particular wedding-day picture speaks to newlyweds.

“Feedback comes through what they pick for their framed portrait,” says Keels, whose clients order printed products for framing directly from his website. Most photos selected for printing and subsequent framing, he says, “are a really rich, beautiful, black-and-white moment or portrait.”

Who says black-and-white photography is past its prime? Although we live in a society brimming with full-color images, black-and-white pictures transmit a timeless mood that can be tough to top for an occasion as memorable as a wedding.

“Color is great for its own sake,” Keels says. “I just think that black-and-white kind of cuts through the noise a little bit easier sometimes. … There is the need for something that lasts, and black-and-white, either right or wrong, has been associated with that.”

In filtering out the distractions of color, monochromatic images can help concentrate the viewer’s attention, experts say. “There may be a special moment with Mom and her daughter, and there’s a guy walking through the background with a bright red shirt on,” says Nicole Dixon of Nicole Dixon Photographic. “You might want to just take out some of those other elements until you get it right down to that moment.”

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For that reason, Carmen Hall of Forget Me Knot Photography enjoys rendering candid moments in black-and-white, from moments of laughter to moments of tears. “I love to get those in black-and-white because it’s just more about what’s happening in the image,” Hall says.

Indeed, if a photographer wants to zero in on a particular aspect of a picture, black-and-white can be the ideal medium; instead of being blasted with every pop of color, the viewer’s eyes can be guided to something specific. “Ultimately, I use black-and-white imagery to really direct where I want you to look, first, second and third,” Keels says. “You sort of build some light direction within a frame.”

Even as they are working to compose a shot through the viewfinder, professional photographers appreciate the clarity afforded by black-and-white. Though many of his photographs will end up in color, Keels often previews his pictures in-camera in black-and-white while he is snapping away. “It helps me see a little cleaner,” he says. “It keeps me kind of pure as I shoot.” The process allows the photographer to more easily winnow through images during the editing process, when he determines which pictures to convert from color to black-and-white. “Oftentimes, I have already seen it in black-and-white,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, that really worked.’ ”

But what elements make for a good black-and-white picture? The pros each have their own opinion. “Sometimes, an image will tell me if it needs to be black-and-white,” Dixon says. “It’ll speak in tones rather than colors maybe, and sometimes, it’ll be more about the emotion or the moment.” She adds that strong visual forms in a composition—like leading lines—can suggest to her that black-and-white may be the best choice.

In making the decision to process an image in black-and-white, Keels says that he looks for a range of tonal values—for example, a solid middle tone and rich dark tone. “Sometimes, it’s just about one thing emerging,” he says. “Maybe it’s just one little piece of light in a dark field. That’s dramatic.” For her part, Hall seeks out compositions that feature striking shadows or pockets of light. “Those are the ones that are more dramatic,” Hall says. “I always love doing those in black-and-white.”

On the other hand, high-key lighting—in which the overall image is very bright—can produce equally powerful results in black-and-white. “High-key is great—just enough detail emerging out of a really bright background just sets an evocative mood,” Keels says.

Although black-and-white photography is associated with days gone by, modern digital tools allow for a range of options unthinkable in an earlier era. For example, Hall’s software can make an image grainier than it really is. “It does add more character to it,” she says. “I think that grain, too, also speaks from the old film days.” The photographer can also make a photo slightly softer. “The blacks aren’t as black, and it’s not as contrasted,” she says. “For a bridal portrait of just a bride, she’s the most delicate and the most beautiful on her wedding day, so that’s where I don’t always add those extra blacks and extra contrast. … It’s more of a softer black-and-white.”

Matte, faded and crushed tones are among other options available, but Dixon cautions against the use of online filters to turn an image from color to black-and-white. “For example, in Instagram, there are maybe two black-and-white filters for the average user, and you only get those two single looks,” Dixon says. The pros, on the other hand, have access to a plethora of tools.

“You’ll see a difference in the quality of black-and-white images because there are so many ways to make an image black-and-white,” Dixon says.