Recently one of my techie friends borrowed one of my cameras and noticed that it was set to shoot in black and white. He was puzzled by this and asked why I did it? It seemed irrational to him that I should voluntarily throw away information. After all, if I wanted a B&W image I could always get it by de-saturating the image in post-processing. And if I were really finicky I could use something like SilverEfex not just to desaturated but even to replicate the grain structure of iconic B&W films like Tri-X.
And of course at one level he’s right. But what he’s ignoring is that when you’re shooting in B&W your photography changes in subtle ways because you are forced to see things differently. Some scenes may not work in colour because it may overwhelm or swamp what’s important in the scene. Or it may reduce the intrinsic drama of a situation.
Since we see in colour, B&W is, by definition, an abstraction. As someone put it in a blog comment, “Black and white is a fantasy. When someone sees a B&W photo, they know they’ve been transported into another place and time”. Once B&W was an unavoidable necessity — the only way we could record images on silver halide. And for a time after colour film appeared shooting in B&W was a pragmatic choice, based on economics: monochrome was cheaper. But with the advent of digital sensors, that logic evaporated: there was no longer an economic reason for eschewing colour. It became an aesthetic decision. Which is a long-winded way of explaining why I shoot in black and white.