Why Do Photographers Use Black and White?

As an art form, photography has undergone remarkable transformations since its inception in 1826 when Nicéphore Niépce produced the first-ever photo, a black-and-white image of his garden in France. Since those early days of low-resolution renderings, photographers have continuously experimented with techniques, styles, and formats. Fast forward nearly two hundred years to the modern digital era of smartphones and social media, the timeless appeal of black-and-white photography remains a firm favourite for both seasoned professionals and photography enthusiasts.

Evoking Emotion

One of the primary reasons I often choose black and white is the ability of monochrome images to evoke emotion. Stripping away the distraction of colour allows viewers to focus on the subject’s essence, revealing its emotional depth and subtle nuances. Black and white resonates on a visceral level, transcending the limitations and distractions of colour. This is why I often convert the images to black and white that I take straight after wedding ceremonies when the couple are being congratulated. They are always images of heightened emotions, and converting them to black and white enhances the mood and feel.

Timeless Quality

I remember when some photographers produced black-and-white images with selected bits of colour. I resisted that trend, but many of my peers were doing it, and I was almost tempted. Then came the ‘film look’ trend, which was simply editing presets that adjusted colours and made digital images look like they were shot on old film cameras. They were all good and fun, but the timeless quality of black and white photographs has a certain nostalgia and a feeling of sophistication that is lost when viewing the same image in colour. They possess an enduring aesthetic quality that transcends time, maintaining a classic elegance regardless of rapidly changing trends.

Composition and Form

In the absence of colour, black-and-white photography emphasises composition and form. I rely on the interaction of light and shadow, contrast, and texture. Placing light sources at angles that emphasise shadows motivates me to take a more intentional approach to composition and can result in dramatic images. It also challenges me to pay particular attention to the arrangement of elements within the frame. The result is often a refined and visually striking image where every detail contributes to the narrative.


The absence of colour can simplify the image, allowing viewers to focus on the essential elements without being overwhelmed by many conflicting hues. Black and white photography can strip a scene to its core, highlighting the subject’s form and telling a story. It also lends itself well to abstraction, encouraging me to explore the interplay of light and shadow in a way that transcends the literal representation of the subject.

Universal Appeal

Black and white photography has a universal appeal that transcends cultural barriers. By eliminating the specificity of colour, monochrome images become more accessible to diverse audiences. This universality enhances the communicative power, enabling us to convey messages and evoke emotions that resonate with people from all walks of life. Every human can identify with an image that conveys profound love, sadness, or joy, regardless of culture or background.

Technical Considerations

Beyond the artistic qualities, practical and technical considerations also contribute to the preference for black-and-white photography. In some situations, lighting conditions may be challenging, and colour reproduction may be almost impossible. I once shot an elopement wedding ceremony for a couple of adventurers inside a cave on a game farm in South Africa. It was a beautiful and unusual location, with a mixture of lamps and candles lighting one side of the cave and streaming natural light lighting the other. It all presented me with a host of decisions to make. I converted many of the images to black and white, which allowed me to work around those limitations. I relied on tonal variations and genuine moments to create visually compelling images in a less-than-ideal environment.

So, regardless of whether you’re driven by the desire to evoke emotion, embrace timeless aesthetics, emphasise composition, simplify narratives, or address technical challenges, you can find inspiration and expression in the simplicity and elegance of black-and-white photography. As technology advances and trends come and go, the classic appeal of monochrome images will continue to resonate, proving that in the vast landscape of vibrant colours, there will always be a place for the opposite – the quiet and thought-provoking elegance of black and white photography.