A Color Debate
May 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

When color doesn’t add to the content, feeling or mood of the photo, removing it allows the viewer to concentrate on the emotion. This picture of the late John Wooden in his den was originally shot in color (inset). © Photos by David LaBelle

People often ask if I shoot in color or black and white.

Actually, I do both.

When I began my newspaper career, except on rare occasions, we shot and reproduced photographs exclusively in black and white.That changed as advertisers demanded color.

Early on, there were times I had to choose between black and white or color film, or chrome (slide film). Often, the choice was dictated by money. Chrome was expensive to shoot and even more expensive to process.

Though difficult to edit, color film soon replaced black and white and chrome. Like black and white Tri-X, color film had greater exposure latitude and, therefore, was more tolerant of exposure misses.

At the Sacramento Bee, we carried lights and were expected to make proper exposures. Shooting color film over transparency allowed us to focus more on the content, on storytelling moments. We converted color to black and white for publication, when needed.

Shooting slide film and lighting it helped me make the transition to digital, which poses the same challenging contrast and backlight problems we faced with slide film, until raw came along.

For me, the difference between shooting in black and white versus color is as different as using a 4×5 film camera and a cellphone.

As crazy as it sounds, I see in either color or black and white, depending on the film I have in the camera or the digital setting I am using—the same way I have learned to see the world through whatever focal length of lens is mounted on the camera.

It is as if I have an invisible mental switch that connects my brain with my eyes with each change. I even dream in black and white sometimes.

I feel black and white is about the past. Color feels more like the present or future.

While both have strengths, I generally photograph people in black and white and use color for nature and landscapes. Naturally, there are exceptions.

With digital (DSLR or cellphone), I mostly shoot in color and convert to black and white when the color distracts from the message, doesn’t add to the content or is too difficult to manage, as happens with many mixed-light sources.

My Great Picture Hunt books are in black and white. Most images were shot on black and white film or converted from color or transparency. The lessons—the images shared—are not color-dependent. Besides, color is more expensive to reproduce.

For those of us who cut our teeth on black and white photography, the world will always be richer and more dramatic in black and white.

For the purist, there is a difference between shooting black and white in camera and using software to convert files after the fact. Some photographers shoot exclusively in black and white, with no chance to change to color later. Others shoot in raw and jpeg simultaneously—the raw files holding color data and the jpegs the original black and white.

If you have access to a film camera, buy a couple of rolls of 100 ISO black and white film, or change the settings on your digital camera or cellphone so you shoot in black and white. Trust me. You will see the world differently.

Some photographs communicate information, even mood, almost equally in black and white or color. Others clearly offer greater impact or aesthetic mood with or without color. It is your choice. You are the artist.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.