How Immortan Joe explained b&w photography to me

Have you heard of the Mad Max Fury Road Black&Chrome edition? Well, if you didn’t, you have now: it’s the edition of this amazing movie done in B&W – but not just any B&W, the B&W that was specially designed and edited to be just what the great movie director had envisioned. The BlueRay edition featuring both versions boasts a cover with a gorgeous close-up of the Immortan Joe, half of his face in the Fury Road reds&yellows palette, half of his face in “Black&Chrome” – black and white.

Fury Road Black&Chrome

Now before I saw this picture, I was reading the article linked above and while I was reading it, I was thinking what I’m sure most people were thinking: “but Mad Max Fury Road is a movie with the best color palette ever. It’s what makes it recognizable, it’s what makes it be… itself, it’s the thing that makes it Mad Max Fury oad! What would make it’s actual director – the man behind the color palette – say things like “yeah, but I always wanted to see it in B&W? What the fuck?!”

And then just a single look at this picture answered a question I have LONG banged my head against and wanted to somehow rationalize in my mind:

So what’s with all the B&W photography out there?

No, seriously, haven’t you ever wondered this? Just look at all the social networks: every monkey with a b&w filter on their cell phone occasionally posts a selfie mistaken for a flattering picture in b&w and instantly considers themselves – and is considered –  a regular artist in the comment section. The only thing that is even more annoying is that filter – you know that filter? – which leaves your reds in? The one that has the power to make shitty pictures shittier and really good pictures horribly cliched? Yeah, that one.

THAT filter: misused, abused, misplaced.

To top it all, if you ever wander into a serious photo show or get caught up in a conversation with real photographers, it’s inevitable: you’ll end up being told how b&w is the thing, and if you aren’t doing it in b&w… what are you doing, anyway?

This thing caught my eye even more when my cuz, a very talented and smart young lady started a professional career in photography – showing and working mainly in B&W. What’s the proverbial…?

Yeah, ok, maybe I’m exaggerating this whole thing a bit – but you get the point: at least in my scope, it’s everywhere. And I really failed to get why, when colored photography is so much better, and shows stuff so much more clearly. Because let’s face it, most b&w photos are just grey blotches where you really need to look to see what’s going on. And in my book, that’s not good photography – good photography, for me, is something that draws me in to study immediately by how awesome and special it is, not something that I really need to study to be drawn in by how awesome and special it is. See the subtle difference?

Let me illustrate it for you:

Now both of these photos are very good, and they have a similar idea and use the same tools to guide the eye, but see how the color photo immediately makes you wanna go and explore deeper into it’s content; while the b&w one makes you go “yeah, sea, bank, rocks, whateva”. If you take a good look at the b&w one, you’ll see some awesome stuff in it, but the question is will you look? I’m sorry, but I probably won’t. Color is just so much more catching, and I want you to get me – and I want my work to get people, not sit idly while someone mercifully comes to look at it.

Of course, not all b&w photography is grey blotches. Some of it of it works awesomely, creating truly powerful experiences, much more powerful than color photograph could ever achieve! But just some. No, your b&w or sepia filtered selfie most likely isn’t it. Not even if you left the reds in. I really couldn’t put my finger on why some of it works, why most of it doesn’t, and why should it work in the first place.

Awesome B&W

God dammit, it was eating me alive. I couldn’t settle for simplistic explanations I sometimes got, like “portraits work better in B&W” or “close ups are cool in B&W” or “B&W sets up the mood“. There had to be something more, something fundamental! Something that allows B&W to be this transcendental experience that delivers amazing, shattering visuals… or total absolute bullshit. Honestly, I just couldn’t get the b&w photography!

Awesome B&W transporting you to a whole different universe of existence (by my cousin who I’m very proud of)

How the Immortan Joe changed everything (in my perception)

And then I saw the Immortan Joe Black&Chrome. Let me just show it to you again, just because it was such a mind-blowing experience for me:

Just by looking into this picture I could see exactly what made b&w awesome, why, and when. If you compare the left and the right side of the photo, you can see just how much clearer and more powerful the lines, the shadows, the textures, the details, the expressions, the emotions are. The left side is the Immortan Joe, but the right side is SO much more of the Immortan Joe in the same picture, same frame, same place!

So what happened?

Well, first thing that came to my mind when staring, open-mouthed and stumped, was actually a Network Theory class I once sat in (by mistake). At one point, the teacher has established that there are really two kinds of information:

  • useful information
  • noise

And that’s it. That’s all there was: information that is somehow useful in processing whatever you’re processing, while everything else was actually hindering your processing. In order to maximize your processing, you must retain all the useful information and remove all the noise. OK… so how does that link to the above photo?

Think about this for a moment: if color isn’t useful information, then it’s just noise.

Get it? If you don’t, really, but really think about this: if color isn’t useful information, then it’s just noise. This actually means that if color in your photo serves no purpose like distinguishing between different elements of the content,  emphasizing anything meaningful, or creating something visually special then color is actually in the way of the viewer’s eye. It’s making the photo less instead of making it more.

Fully black&chrome. Awesome or what?

And there was the answer to my question, clear as day and as simple as it can be: why does some B&W photography work so amazingly well, exceeding the power of the colored photography… and some of it is just sorry grey blothes I can’t care to look at. Simple:

  • if the color in your photograph serves no useful purpose, then it’s noise and removal of it clears up the photograph and emphasizes the remaining content, making it much more powerful
  • if the color in your photograph has a useful purpose in terms of creating useful additional visual information, removal of color will leave you with an uninteresting grey blotch

for me, this was true epiphany: I finally understood the whys and the hows of the thing that was bothering me for years! And yes, all that by looking at just that one picture, in the right place, at the right time. If you look to the left side, you’ll see that the color really serves no purpose – it actually to leads you away from the main subject of the photograph, making you study the background maybe, check out what’s the black shadows in the reds. However the right side forces you to focus on the subject, the textures of his skin (he’s old) the wild lines in his hair (he’s wild), the crazy gleam in his eyes (he’s crazee!!), the insane shape of his mask (it’s nuts!), the power that clenches his teeth (he’s hard!). Of course some information is missing, like “he’s blond”, but just look back at the italicized adjectives in the text before: isn’t “old, wild, crazee, nuts, hard” much more important and powerful than “blond”? Sure the B&W version could leave you wondering “hey, is he grey or just blond?”, but it will force-feed you so much more information about the character you’re looking at not by adding anything, but simply by removing the superfluous.

I dunno about you, but to me this was ground breaking. I often heard how B&W photography is “more emotional” or “dark” – both of this is only part of the truth, the truth is that it can be more expressive by containing less noise.

So how to apply this idea

One thing I learned early in photography (and was later reminded of it by many a tutorial) was to always take my best color photos with my actual camera. Never to set the camera on B&W and let it decide for itself, what it wants to do. This is because

  • doing B&W in post-processing allows for much more flexibility and power than what your camera’s inner workings do
  • you can always make a B&W photo out of a colored one, but the other way around is a lot of work

If you read this article so far, you probably realized that B&W will enhance your photos only when the color in the photograph acts as noise. When color is useful information and enhances the picture further, your B&W will be a useless grey blotch.

So basically what you need to do, is figure this thing out: is color necessary to your photo, or is it noise? I’ve applied this principle with trial and error, and I’ve come up with some results that really made my photos stand out from what they were when in color.

Ok, so these photos maybe aren’t very awesome and I used only minimal editing, but each of them is severely improved by the removal of color. In the first picture, the removal of distracting bright greens immediately lets your eye be drawn to the awesome “cloud drawings” in the sky, which are also much more powerful due to the lack of blues. The distracting colors in the second row picture really hide the textures in the water, the rocks, but also the ruffled up hair of the wet dog. In the portrait, the colors distract you from the essence of the image, which is, when it comes to portraits, supposed to be the underlying emotion much more so than the color of one’s shirt.

I deliberately used these 3 photos as examples, allowing myself to debunk a few myths I encountered in the past and that come from the fundamental lack of understanding of why B&W works. You’ll often hear things like “B&W is for close ups”, “B&W is for when there’s fewer things in the frame”, “B&W is for getting a good photo when the colors aren’t right”. Here you can see B&W working very well in both, wide-frame, landscape and portrait photos, as well as photos featuring a lot of things and photos featuring very few things.

The only true principle is, B&W works when color acts as noise.

And that’s it. All there is to it. The contents, the width or even the focus of your frame don’t matter, as long as color serves no useful purpose it’s removal will boost your picture.

Sure, B&W emphasizes textures, yes, but your photo has to contain meaningful textures to be emphasized: if your textures aren’t powerful enough to be the distinguishing factor, you need the color or you’ll end up with the useless grey blotch. Look at the pictures below to understand the difference: it’s not the number of elements in the picture, both are crowded. It’s that the second picture that really works in B&W has a powerful difference between only 2 textures (flower vs. background) that makes all the difference. And what really helps is that the flower has a really interesting texture – it’s hairy, fluffy, powdery.. and you don’t see any of that in the color photo what with all the noise. Noise removal is revealing, but there has to be something to reveal!

B&W emphasizes lines, but your photo has to have meaningful lines to reveal. Look at the picture below, at how much more powerful and monumental the construction and it’s wiring is in the B&W picture, without all the color getting in the way. Also, B&W emphasizes contrasts, but your photo has to have meaningful contrasts to reveal.


So what to do about this thing?

I don’t know about you, but for me, the answer is simple: experiment and don’t force it.

Accept that not every photo is going to be better or even work in B&W, so don’t be a mule and just blindly incinerate all the color there is and ever was in your photos. It’s not the holy grail: there are some photos that are meant to work in color and go ahead and keep them, or improve their colorization and make them even more awesome!

Also, don’t be an asshole and do try and see what your photos look like in B&W before settling for the best version – you might be surprised.

I am convinced that, the more experienced you get, the more easily you’ll distinguish between the two without spending an hour in photo shop. Since I’m just a silly, lazy amateur, I’m just happy with what I’ve discovered and will continue to play.

But a little tip I stumbled on along the way: if your textures aren’t what they should be, sharpen them. But just a bit.

Monkey with the sharpen tool – success varies with size of the image

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