Long ago, when photographers were masters of the dark art of the alchemist, skulked around in darkened rooms mixing chemical concoctions and performing manual solarisation, black and white wedding photography images were the only choice! (I look back over the last sentence with a slightly nostalgic glow remembering the smell of the darkroom, the magic of watching an image develop before your eyes and the craft of printing. I also remember my jaw dropping to the floor the first time I saw what Photoshop could do and being enthralled as processes that would take significant time in the darkroom and possibly years of experience were achieved in moments with a mouse! But I digress!)
Then, in the early seventies for most people colour became available to the masses and black and white wedding photography understandably went completely out of fashion. It still is to a certain extent out of fashion with the older generation, I find my wedding client’s parents frequently prefer colour prints to black and white even today.
Unfortunately the colour processing and printing procedure is more complex than black and white and therefore most photographers started taking their prints to a professional laboratory for processing and printing and therefore lost the control and “hands on” advantage that they had previously had in their own black and white darkroom.
We have now come pretty much full circle in that a vast majority of photographers now photograph using digital equipment and the processing/printing stage can be once again done “in house”. There are huge advantages in this in that the photographer can once again have complete control over the look of his/her prints and can develop a personal or studio style/look to the final images.
So, where does this leave black and white wedding photography today? There seems to be a preference for colour images in many of the wedding blogs and magazines however there is still strong demand from clients for black and white imagery. I personally prefer black and white to colour photographs and most of my “signature images” are in black and white. However despite this my wedding albums and full sets of wedding images generally have about a 50/50 mix of black and white to colour images.
There are many reasons why black and white wedding photography can be preferable to colour.
- The multitude of colours in many images can be very distracting. It takes great skill to truly integrate colour into an image so that it remains convincing.
- One bright colour can often distract the viewer form the real subject of the image
- Colour is wholly subjective, one person my interpret colour in a different way from another. Getting a truly accurate skin tone under all lighting conditions is difficult – even for a very experienced photographer.
- Black and white, by necessity in that distracting colours are absent, forces the viewer to concentrate on lines, shapes and the composition of the image becomes more important.
- Black and white images can often be tonally more interesting, it is possible to manipulate a black and white image so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to different places in the image. The photographer can “shape” the image much more successfully than in a colour image.
- Black and white is considered more “forgiving” for portraiture. Skin tone and colouration can look much more even and natural in black and white.
These are all more practical considerations but there is something more important and a little more difficult to quantify in that black and white wedding photography has all sorts of “classic” or “timeless” qualities due to it’s historical connotations but it also, in my view, piques the imagination in a most special and valuable way. …. let me try to explain! Colour, to me, is literal and a colour photograph more or less shows the scene exactly as it was in front of the camera. This sort of spoon feeds the viewer with a very superficial, literal way of remembering the time the photograph was taken. It’s almost like watching a play back of the event photographed and requires little or no real effort on behalf of the viewer. The moment an image is presented in black and white however it leaves reality behind. We don’t see in black and white and it requires a leap of faith by the viewer, the image is a representation of what happened, an impression of reality and is all the stronger for that. Many people can be powerfully transported back in time by a particular smell, or by listening to a song or other stimulus. A black and white wedding photography image is very similar, it’s sort of an aid-memoir and is all the more powerful because of it. There is some leap of imagination required of the viewer, some creative thought. Compare the experience of reading a book to watching a film of the same story afterwards. Very rarely does the film live up to the internal imaginative and creative experience of reading and experiencing the book in the first instance.
You can have a look at some of my black and white wedding photography by visiting my portfolio here.
I have also added a short video below showing how I edit an image in black and white. I sound a bit pompous in it I think but hope it’s interesting!