Why shoot black and white film for documentary photography?

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I’ve already written about using film in general to achieve specific goals in the genres of Street and Documentary photography, which is my chosen pursuit. However, I haven’t gone into much detail on the specifics of why black and white film specifically appeals to me currently for storytelling imagery.

The association of black and white photography for many lies in the historical application of monochromatic film for all photography, before any real choice existed. Today nearly all digital cameras in production render in full colour, and all kinds of colour/false colour/infrared/red-scale films are available to film shooters.


The decision to shoot in shades of grey, therefore, is one possible direction out of many, and deserves as much consideration and defence as any other choice. Deciding to use any tool for photography simply for an aesthetic would not be enough for me — I believe that function is more important than form, especially when an image has a purpose beyond aesthetic. When making reportage photography I think it’s valuable to be able to explain the decision behind each step of my process, even if people don’t agree with them, in order to maintain transparency and clarity in my process.

With the understanding that I concentrate on the function different techniques fulfil rather than the form they offer, then clarifying my use of black and white film for documentary photography becomes very straightforward. To paraphrase Joel Meyerowitz, if the function of a photograph is to describe then what a black and white photograph does differently to a colour photograph is it describes less.

This means that the decision lies with the photographer: what detail is necessary to include in order to describe what is happening in front of me?

My view on documentary photography is not that it must describe everything possible, but instead describe everything essential in as few steps as possible. This way a story can be told across multiple frames, each with an essential fragment which is communicated as simply as possible to an audience, ideally through effective and well considered semiotics in order to make the gist understandable and hopefully relatable to as wide an audience as possible.

This minimalistic approach allows a photographer to really focus on the essentials of whats unfolding in front of them. I find that combined with my minimalist visual style I am able to really finesse my images to convey one strong idea at a time; one moment, one concept. I don’t see colour as an essential part of most photographic stories, so by removing it I allow myself to focus on everything else – to not worry about what matches or clashes, and just on the pure movement and timing of the situation – the shape and form of the event.

The simpler presentation of images containing less information means something easier to interpret by the viewer – storytelling with as little work or projection from the audience as possible, which I think is an important aspect of communication, as well as something that can contribute to the iconographic status of a piece of media. I think that by reducing down images through use (in my own work) of limited colour palettes (even when shooting in colour), and minimalist compositions then what’s left is the real heart of an image; and that’s what I think is important to leave an audience with. Not thinking about the techniques/gear used, not mulling over little details or gimmicks: just one hopefully lasting emotion per frame is enough for me.


I can think of many many wonderful and haunting examples of colour photojournalism, but I don’t think any of these would have less potential to have the same emotional impact if the colour were removed. Conversely of the numerous black and white journalistic images I can name I can’t think of any that would be massively improved with the addition of natural colour.

I don’t think people look at the Burning Monk (Malcolm Browne, 1963), or The Magnificent Eleven (Robert Capa, 1944) and wonder what colour things were, or even think about their absence at all — the content and energy of the images as they are is enough to communicate the events they depict.

In photojournalism, the role of the photograph is often as illustration and is often accompanied by a long-form prose article, or at the very least a caption which provides context. This means that the specific storytelling function of an image can be augmented by context, which can be enough to fill in any storytelling gaps that may occur – but again, this will rarely be needed to contextualise specific colour related elements.

When producing my own work I feel comfortable in giving credit to my audience, which means less hand-holding in explaining exactly what’s going on in my images. Either I have made a photograph which communicates effectively, or I have not, and that’s what I look for in the feedback I receive. I don’t need to use colour photography to show that fluorescent jackets are fluorescent, grass is green, and skies in London are usually grey. People know these things, and my work is almost never a study of objects and artefact – if it were then colour would maybe have more of a role.

When I receive feedback on my images I sometimes have people saying something along the lines of, “wish I could see this in colour!” which implies to me that they hope to see that frame in terms of aesthetic rather than emotional merit. The way people perceive photography is personal and deeply subjective, and it’s entirely possible that for that person seeing my images in colour would have more of an impact, but making that compromise for the benefit of a specific type of aesthetic is just not for me. There are enough other working journalists shooting in that style, enough that colour doesn’t even really need to be justified in long form op-ed’s like this one.

My response to people who want my work to possess certain aesthetic qualities is that I don’t think the qualities of my photojournalism should be based around the visual aesthetic. This goes back to function > form, and the function of my photojournalism is to first and foremost communicate. I don’t think that having a different aesthetic would change the way that kind of work is enjoyed – I don’t think the destination for many photojournalistic images is hanging on people’s living rooms; people are more likely to want to look at a peaceful landscape than something from the Vietnam War on a daily basis, that kind of subject matter/theme makes more sense to me in a book.

Black and white photography is mythic. It doesn’t result in images people can immediately relate to, without spending more than a moment to interpret the tones, shapes, and content. Something like a full colour landscape can be looked at and something about the space and context can be imparted — black and white is that one step more removed from reality, and encompasses its own set of meanings. I use it for images I don’t necessarily want people to be able to or even want to step into but as more of a window into a certain collection of elements that encompass my story. This combined with contextual/transitional images is my currently preferred way to present a photographic essay.

My ideas, when presented in black and white, have less potential to be influenced by the potential colours can have to inform mood. In removing the colour I feel a real pressure to compel myself to fill my frames with action, gesture, and emotion, relying entirely on exposure and shapes to convey those situations. I have to consider only the what and nothing really more intricate than that — but from that simplicity, I am able to add layers of depth in terms of including other elements, or composing to emphasise certain aspects.


Sometimes — and for me this is not often — the story may call for colour to be involved. I felt obligated to shoot some slide film in India because of the way the colour in the results would inform the characters — but honestly, I don’t think that many of those slides would be that much worse as black and white photographs. Unless the story is specifically related to the colour I don’t think it’s removal will affect the audiences ability to understand the message, if the other aspects are well executed. Genres including fashion photography, some landscape work, maybe food photography are places I would consider choosing to use colour, along with any assignment with a brief specifying colour requirements.

However even in my fashion photography the way I prefer to tell my stories and frame my narratives means that it is more driven by the world the fashion inhabits rather than anything inherent to the designs themselves. Of course if I’m commissioned to capture still life of that fashion artefact then I’d be more likely to utilise colour, but I don’t market myself as a still life photographer, and ultimately if I were hired it would be something I negotiate with the client during the interview, and not something I’d leave to spontaneous inspiration unless it was really necessary.

My choice in black and white ultimately invokes a touch of the classics, but this is definitely not the limit of what the aesthetic offers. It helps refine my concepts down to their core, essential moments, and allows me to value the emotional energy, gesture, motion, and character. When describing my stories in photography black and white photography gives me these fundamentals; in contextualising a sequence of events without elements I feel are extraneous.


Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on shooting in black and white for documentary photography! If you enjoyed my photographs here please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

~ Simon

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1 thought on “Why shoot black and white film for documentary photography?”

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful article, Simon. I like your stress on aesthetic vs emotional responses leading to our choice of colour or b&w films. Been enjoying your IG feed immensely, too!

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