How much do we lose in black and white?

This is a guest post by Suzie Eckl, one of Greta's top student writers for Spring 2007

Forget color television.

Before we had color, we had black and white. Before we had movies, we had photographs. And before photographs we had...


i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifPrior to August 19, 1839, the date Daguerre and Niepce revealed that they had created the world's first photograph, artists had all the control in reproducing the world as they saw it. Many artists chose not painting or sculpture but engraving. They carved their images into wood or burned them into metal.

In a fascinating analysis, Danielle Zavagno and Manfredo Massironi have uncovered some key differences between the techniques used by engravers and the photograph. It shouldn't be surprising that an engraving lacks certain qualities that a modern photograph would have.

The most obvious quality is color. Both black and white photography and etchings lack color. However, color may be translated through shades of gray. For example, lighter colors might be portrayed as lighter shades of gray and darker colors likewise.

Check out the following painting The Land of Plenty (1567) by Pieter Bruegel. (Keep in mind that the painting was originally composed in color but has been gray-scaled.)


Through the use of a continuous scale of grays we can infer color differences: the circular shingles appear in different shades of gray, as do the men's pants.

But now take a look at this second image, an engraving that reproduces Bruegel's work.


Pieter Balten, the likely creator of the work, copied Bruegel's piece by engraving it and then flipping the engraving over to print. In this way, it appears as a mirror image. In his reproduction, Balten certainly used different shades of gray, but these shades do not correspond to color. Nor are the grays continuous. Instead, the transition from light to dark is sudden, not gradual. Look again at the shingles and pants. You can see that they appear to be the same color.

In this second image, we see the second way in which grays may be employed in engravings: they suggest brightness, not hue.

Engravers generally preferred using grays as a signifier of brightness rather than color. When worrying about brightness in an engraving, the artists often neglected color information. They did this mainly because of the small-scale nature of their engravings. An engraver's materials were almost always portable. When using such a small area, engravers found it difficult if not impossible to produce dot patterns that would result in color information. Any laser printer today can produce a small picture made up of hundreds of these dots indicating color, but the engravers did not have the necessary tools or space to do so.

Zavagno and Massironi note that with the advent of photography in the nineteenth century, engravers considered their art in a new light. Imitating the subtle changes from one shade of gray to another found in photography, the engravers avoided strong contrasts in their work, therefore including more information about color.

Today, we can watch black and white movies and television shows and become so engrossed that we don't recognize a lack of color. Both color and brightness are translated into shades of gray that captivate us on the big screen.

But here's one more thing to think about: not all color information can be recorded in a black and white image. While brightness is readily preserved, color might not always be. Look at the red and green boxes below.


If we gray-scale these images, we get the two boxes below.


They look the same!

As the squares above demonstrate, you can't keep all color information when using black and white photography, but engravers realized quickly that you can get close. With photography around, engravers found that their realist reproductions were no longer unique; the camera had replaced their work. But it didn't completely replace them. Photography brought about modernist explorations in engraving, Zavagno and Massironi say, and probably in many other areas of art.

As for the camera itself, it too continually evolves. We've all seen what black and white film can do. The small losses of color information in black and white photography are certainly no reason to shy away from it. Even modern photo processing software like iPhoto still offers an option to convert color photos to black and white. And who'd want to watch Casablanca (1942) in color, anyway?

Zavagno, D. & Massironi, M. (2006). Colours in black and white: The depiction of lightness and brightness in achromatic engravings before the invention of photography. Perception, 35, 91-100.

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Interesting post.

The small losses of color information in black and white photography are certainly no reason to shy away from it. Even modern photo processing software like iPhoto still offers an option to convert color photos to black and white. And who'd want to watch Casablanca (1942) in color, anyway?

Indeed. Some deliberately B&W movies during the "colour era" of course use techniques that simply don't translate well into colour, with shots being planned and set up for B&W.

Seventh Seal in colour, anyone? Or to take a more recent example, Young Frankenstein?

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 11 Jun 2007 #permalink

I don't quite get the relevance of the red/green/grey squares. In black and white photography (both film and digital) and in art, the tones represented by different hues is a matter of individual interpretation, so a machine algorithm's interpretation isn't necessarily, or likely, what the creator of an image would use.

Traditional black and white photographers did consciously manipulate the color-to-brightness mapping, using yellow filters to darken a blus sky, or green filters to lighten foliage. Using Photoshop to de-color an image, there is even more opportunity for artistic control.

Brian -- film does to red and green what a machine conversion of color --> greyscale does, which is why the example is relevant. While the chrominance of red and green is different, the luminance is the same, so they translate to monochrome as being identical.

As Murray Bowles notes, photographers have known about this for decades, and frequently use color filters to change the luminance of various objects in a frame, allowing an enhancement of contrast or deepening of detail in B&W images.

Scott Beylea -- the "blood" in Psycho was actually Hershey's chocolate syrup. Try that in color. ;)

Re the post, I doubt engravers felt threatened by B&W photography any more than painters did, and for similar reasons. At first the process yielded images of such poor quality and permanence that they were of little use as anything more than curiosities; and later, as the technology evolved, it became clear that there was plenty of room in the visual arts for photography to exist along with painting, engraving and even sculpture. Though, as noted, the media certainly have borrowed extensively from one another.

There really are things you can do with B&W that simply cannot be done any other way, just as there are plenty of reasons to want to use an engraving technique -- or line-drawings, finger, oil or watercolor paints, color film and so on. It's mostly a question of recognizing what's desired and how to get to it.

Well, certainly the properties of engraving and photography are different. While engraving was used as the medium of mass produced prints prior to photographic processes, artists who specialized in engraving focused on the unique properties of line and contrast that could be produced. Contrast this with Durier's Melancholia for example:

By KirkJobSluder (not verified) on 12 Jun 2007 #permalink

Actually, all artists had better know their gray scale because a painting without value (contrast) is boring. So even when working in color, an artist has to know exactly where on the gray scale his/her colors fit. Example: On a gray scale of one to ten, with one being white and ten being black, a pale yellow would probably be a #2 on the gray scale, and an indigo blue would be a #8 or #9 on the gray scale. It's value (contrast) which gives a painting zing, and so a good artist cannot be confused by color and ignore the values of each color, which is the darkness and the brightness of it.

As for photography, it is simply another art form; and it is definitely an art form depending on whose hands the camera is in. All one has to do is look at an Ansel Adams photograph. He did his black and white photos mainly by manipulating film in the darkroom. Color film is more difficult to manipulate as more chemicals are necessary, which is why a good photographer uses a professional lab, and gives the lab clear instructions regarding the outcome desired. Of course, digital photography is a whole new ballgame, and I've seen some wonderful art in that field also.

By roseindigo (not verified) on 12 Jun 2007 #permalink


Be sure to check out the Wikipedia article on the History of Photography. Turns out a certain French inventor was taking photographs as early as 1825 using, of all things, asphalt. 8 hour exposure times put the kibosh on that.

Be sure to check out the links provided, especially to external sources.

There are supremely great black & white photographs and the same may be said for color. Weston's Pepper#30 need not be in color because it is not the green (or red, yellow or purple) that is the point, it is his amazing mastery of combined pictorial and plastic form that gives life to the image. But if you were allergic to, say, red peppers, ordering peppers from a black and white reproduction that requires you to interpret the color from tones of grey might leave you very disappointed when they arrive if you had assumed green.

By Cary Wasserman (not verified) on 01 Oct 2007 #permalink