Color or not?

Why is it that some things look better in black and white than they do in color? You’d think that color would inevitably be preferable, but it just isn’t (do you hear me, Ted Turner?). Casablanca. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography. The Three Stooges. Color would not improve these; in fact, it would be a distraction, an unnecessary and unwelcome complication. Even some of Your Humble Filmosaur’s modest efforts fall under this classification. To wit, one of the more popular shots I’ve posted; color would not do anything for this photo, and might well make it less interesting:

Ciro-Flex Model D, Ilford Pan F
Ciro-Flex Model D, Ilford Pan F

Apparently a bunch of you lot agree with this sentiment, judging by the responses to my recent “Week’s Vacation” series. I deliberately posted alternating black & white and color photos; mostly an aesthetic choice, but I was a bit curious about which would draw more attention. The net result was an average of 12 likes per B&W photo and 5.667 per color photo. (I am not a statistician nor do I play one on TV, but I’ve got a calculator and I’m not afraid to use it).

Now, you might argue that the color photos were just slightly less than half as good as the black & whites. Fair enough. But extending things out to a slightly larger sample size – all of my “Semi-Random Photo” posts and you get averages of 11.643 likes per B&W photo and 7.692 per color photo. Do my color pictures really suck 1.514 times more than my black & whites, or is something else going on here?

This is fascinating to me. Apparently, in this age of speed-of-light interweb and kajillion-color multi-gigapixel photography, what the world wants (at least this little corner of it) is grainy black & white pictures. Who’da thunk?

Yet color being somehow “better” than black & white clearly does not hold up as a universal statement; some photos are all about color. Just look at this example – first the original:

Canon P, Jupiter-8 50 f/2, Kodak Portra 160
Canon P, Jupiter-8 50 f/2, Kodak Portra 160

And now desaturated:

Canon P, Jupiter-8 50 f/2, Kodak Portra 160 (desaturated)
Canon P, Jupiter-8 50 f/2, Kodak Portra 160 (desaturated)

It’s not that the black & white version is a bad photo (to my eyes), but the color in the original is what makes it stand out.

So what’s going on? I have my own ideas, but I would really like to hear some readers’ thoughts on this, not just as it relates to the photos you see here, but on the whole color vs. black & white question. The “Comment” button is tucked away up there in the header – go use it!