It’s only black and white (but I like it)

How important is colour? Satchmo obviously thought it was wonderful and who could disagree.

 I see trees of green, red roses too
 I see them bloom for me and you
 And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

 I see skies of blue and clouds of white
 The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
 And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

This is one of my favourite songs. I love Armstrong’s gravelly voice and the clarity, simplicity of and sense of uplift conveyed by the lyrics. But how would it be if trees were black, roses were grey and skies were always white? Supposing we saw the world as a zone system?

I guess it would be boring if we were used to colour but perfectly acceptable if that were all we had ever known. I tried to get a simple answer to whether non-human animals see only in black and white but it does not seem so straightforward. I was lost in the physics of cones and the switches between diurnal and nocturnal vision and how supposedly humans dream in black and white. There is quite a nice attempt at an explanation here.

For me the question relates to photography. What works better in black and white as opposed to colour and why? I often produce two versions of the same image, one in colour and the other digitally processed to B&W. Here is an example – with only minor cropping differences it is the same image:

When I started I thought this would look better in B&W. I gave it a slightly old-fashioned feel in keeping with the antiquity of the shop. It reduced the annoying glare off the bright lights and somehow it just looked less “busy”. Perhaps the image itself doesn’t work. I was standing outside the shop and didn’t want to disturb the lady. I was using a reasonably wide aperture to keep the speed up but even so it was only 1/25s. I could have used a higher ISO. But there is a lot of foreground distraction and a few paces in would have been better but I am sure I would have lost the chance of the shot.

Eventually I was disappointed with the finished result so I went back to the colour version. On my monitor it looks slightly subdued when uploaded into WordPress but it looks better in Lightroom. On balance I find the colour additive. The red and gold in particular stand out. It still feels cluttered in the foreground but it has more life to it. Getting the colour balance right is tricky under artificial light – this is not too bad but it is more easily dealt with in B&W. Adjusting the tonality is less critical as the zones blend smoothly.

In both images I added some vignetting to bring the focus more into the centre of the image where the lady sits at her table and my personal sense is that this is more effective in B&W. The conclusion therefore is that neither image meets my threshold of satisfaction. I like elements of both but I would not like to be without colour as an option. I have read that to be a good B&W photographer you do have to learn to visualize the subject matter in monochrome and this dual processing helps me towards that goal.

Here is one image I do think worked well in black and white:

I leave you to decide whether you agree.

No doubt it is a wonderful world even if we do our best to screw it up at times. We don’t have extremes of seasons in Hong Kong. A lot more variation than in Singapore where you can rely on a 365 day weather forecast. But our frangipani tree is beginning to shed its leaves, the first reports of autumn migrant birds are coming through and with a bit of luck the temperatures and humidity will start to drop a little. We are coming to the end of the Hungry Ghost Month. And I am coming to the end of this post.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.


I'd be delighted to hear what you think

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