Is Black & White photography a filter effect?

Is creating a black and white photographic image today really any different from using any of the creative art filter effects found in entry level digital cameras? Filter effects such as “toy camera” (Diorama), Pop art, or partial colour separation. The stalwart purists would almost certainly disagree, and possibly even become enraged by such a question. But isn’t it?

People on benches watching a field of footballers.

Much of photography today is garbed in a sentimental clinging to the golden age of photography, but that age was golden for so many reasons. Of course our images were black and white because that was all our technology could afford. But that original “technology” was flawed in that it failed to capture the colour of things as we perceived them, as humans.

So why do people (with digital cameras) still shoot black and white today? In my experience I’ve encountered two main types of black & white photographer; Those who convert otherwise boring photos to monochrome to make them look artistic, and the artisan purists who genuinely have an emotional connection and appreciation of a good black and white image and can even tend to see that way.

The real question though is; What does it do and why has it remained such a huge part of photography today? Particularly when you consider the glorious breadth of colour in the world, both within and outside of our human range of vision, that cameras can expose to us. I guess it’s the art factor.

Hyper-realistic painters creating almost photographic paintings have often been heard saying that it’s not art, that they are simply recording what’s there (which I’m sure isn’t a slight against photographers… I hope). Whilst anyone who’s admired a beautiful woman in a neglige might agree that there is a certain pleasure in leaving some things to the imagination, Photography, with its apathetic culling of the frame inherently leaves the wider world to that imagination, and any further dialing down of the senses triggers the mind into action to fill in the gaps of that complete perception that we as humans crave.

That dream-state re-envisioning of the half-image is probably what exposed photography’s creative prospects from the beginning. Rightly or wrongly, the side of photography that is technology, has moved on and improved. But as we continue to fine-tune the camera’s capability of capturing the real, I agree that we need to cling to the quirky tools of the format that keep it firmly planted in the field of art.

A street statue with sunlight shining down on it, while people look up

I suppose “creative filter” is the nature of photography itself. From the lenses we use to the tonal qualities of the film and papers we choose. Kodachrome or Provia, zoom compression or focal range isolation. One man’s HDR is another man’s creative vision.

I personally love a good black a white photo, with deep blacks and startling whites and all the silver shades in-between. I don’t like being sold a dodgy knock-off though, and I don’t think that de-saturating an image turns it into art. For me, I’ll use the tools available to capture what I like at the point of capture. I like that modern mirrorless cameras assist in that vision by applying the monochrome filter during composition, which in my mind, promotes a more appropriate creative process.

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