Color in photography has been with us practically since the earliest days of the medium, as has the debate over whether one’s photos should be in black-and-white or color. Early on, it wasn’t a very difficult question, since color in the early days usually meant the hand-coloring of a monochrome print. When color processes were first introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, their expense and poor color rendition still left monochrome at a distinct advantage. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that color fidelity and pricing improved enough to make color a viable mode of photographic expression, rekindling the debate in earnest.
Along with considerations about the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and composition, from time to time we all have to make the color vs. black and white decision. Here are a few things to bear in mind when making that decision for your own work.
First, let’s consider whether you should shoot in color or black and white. If you’re shooting in digital, this one’s a no-brainer. Always shoot in color.* The reason for this is that you can always convert a color image to black and white. If you’ve shot in black and white, on the other hand, it’s possible to convert to color, but not with the same degree of fidelity you’d have had if you had shot it that way in the first place. Shooting with film is a horse of a different… well, you get the idea. Since you can’t generally just change film on the fly (though some of the more advanced film cameras will allow this, most don’t), you’ll have to decide in advance which to shoot.
Color photography works best when the color itself is one of your stronger compositional elements, or tells a vital part of your story. Take autumn leaves, for instance. That blaze of color is many a photographer’s weakness (mine included), and your typical autumn scene, at least if the foliage is front and center, doesn’t have quite the same feel to it. Color also influences mood, or can give us visual cues that might otherwise be lost in a black-and-white image.
Black and white also has its uses. If you’re photographing something that’s aged (like a building, or an old object), B&W tends to emphasize the aging (since many people associate it with older photos). One of its best uses is when the color is a distraction. Sometimes you’ve got something in the frame that you can’t crop out without ruining the overall look, but that same something, because of its coloration, draws attention to itself. Other times, it’s good when you want the lines or texture of something to tell your story.
These are, of course, personal choices. Some photographers prefer one style or the other nearly exclusively, while others take the decision on a case-by-case basis, letting the photo’s contents and the story they’re trying to tell dictate whether or not the image should be in color. Black and white is no longer strictly the province of “art” photographers, although for some people — photographers and viewers alike — it can be a kind of shorthand to signal artistic intent.** Conversely, color is no longer only the stuff of vacation snapshots. The debate will likely always be with us, but between you and I, it’s really nothing worth worrying over. It’s just another option, another tool; treat it as such. If it’s the right tool for the job, use it. If the color is a big part of what makes the shot, use it. If it looks better in black and white, use that instead. In either case, start with your composition, and let your eyes and your own good judgment be your guide.
*Well, almost always. If you’re shooting using a color filter (as is commonly done for infrared photography, and to get specific effects in B&W), you’re better off shooting in black and white, unless, of course, you’re trying to give your photos a specific color cast.