Reader Question: B&W and Colorblindness

by Joseph Linaschke

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Reader Tim Learmont asks:

One of the reasons why I’m attracted to B&W is that I’m ‘color deficient’. I have always known that I see things differently because of that, and when I shoot (and process) color images, I have no idea if people viewing my images are seeing at all what I am seeing. My question for discussion is twofold.

1) Are there other color-challenged folks out there who find B&W easier for making images that resonate with everyone?

2) How many ‘normal sighted’ folks realize that *everyone* really sees differently if only because of the experiences they bring with them? Have you found B&W images a better way of reaching folks because the color information doesn’t lead the viewer into a place you hadn’t imagined?
— Tim Learmont

What an interesting and compelling question!

Personally, I know of course that not everyone (even people with "normal" vision) sees colors the same way, but probably even more drastically, no two computer displays are the same, so regardless of someone's vision abilities (or disabilities), my photo will look 100 different ways on 100 different screens. It's for this reason that when I'm adjusting an image, I make sure the image is technically accurate (i.e. has good levels, white is actually technically white if that's what the image calls for, etc.), and set my colors so that they are pleasing to me on a variety of displays, but other than that, it's largely a crapshoot. Of course when you print, then the viewed image at least has the same starting point, but even then that's only if it's viewed in the same conditions.

As far as choosing to go B&W vs color on an image, I have to admit that my thought process isn't quite as deep as you're suggesting. It's more abut how the image resonates with me personally, not how I think others will perceive it. Some images just work in B&W better than color, and of course vice-versa. I have however given lectures on the ability to change the emotional impact of a photo by manipulating the color, and the ethics that go along with it. For example I have a photo of a child in the African bush that in color, is pretty tame. If I boost the saturation a bit, the kid is basically a bit dirty and wearing shoddy clothes, but otherwise, pretty healthy looking. Convert that same photo to B&W, add some grain, crush the shadows, and bam it's a tear-inducing, wallet-grabbing, I'm-on-the-next-humanitarian-trip-to-Africa kind of image. We talk about ethical manipulation (i.e. the famous photos of cloned in smoke, added missiles, etc.) and how you can't do that as a journalist, yet we don't often discuss that the choice between color or B&W can make just as much of an impact. In the days of film, you made the choice before you shot the photo (if you even had the luxury of time to choose). Now you can make that choice after — but that doesn't change the fact that it's a choice. And one that has the potential to change the emotion and impact of the story dramatically.

Anyway that's a bit of a tangent… so, let's hear what the rest of you think about Tim's question. Post your responses in the comments below!