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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2005-04-30

It's Not Just A Black & White Matter: Content is the key
By Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante

Photo by Scott Strazzante

Does this picture look better in color or black and white?
(Editor's Note: The practice of changing photographs from color to black & white to entering contests is debated often during and after judging. Questions arise as to whether the photographer's "vision" was in black and white or is it a case of manipulating the judges sensibilities, thinking they will view the entry as "more serious" because it is in black & white. Or is it just simply a matter that photographers want to get around bad color in an image and making it black & white solves that problem? Sports Shooter asked for two opinions on the matter.)

Everyone who thinks that it's easier to win a photo contest with a black and white image than a color one, please raise your hand. When a photographer converts a color image into black and white for contest sakes, does that piss you off? Well, if you answered yes to either of those two queries, then keep on reading, this might interest you.

Back in the good ol' days, when there was only one major photo contest in the United States, I happened to win the Newspaper Photographer of the Year award from the Missouri School of Journalism and the National Press Photographers Association.

My portfolio consisted of two photo stories and nine singles, all shot in color and entered in black and white. All of those photos were published in 2000 in the Herald News (Joliet, IL), with the majority of them, including the two stories, running in black and white.

On the Flying Short Course and while speaking at other various photo conferences that following year, I would inevitably be asked after every presentation, "Why did you enter in black and white?" My pat answer would be - "The consistency provided by an entirely black and white portfolio allows the viewer to get right to the content and prevents them from being distracted by the color. Oh, yeah, and the other reason is that I wanted to win." And the sad fact is that the second half of that statement is closer to the truth than the first half.

The interesting thing, though, is that I've revisited those photos lately and have decided that I like them much better in color. In addition, every portfolio I've put together since 2000 has been in color and I have no plans to change that in the future.

So, is that just be me trying to bend over backwards to please those who looked down their nose at my POY winning portfolio or has my level of skill increased to the point that I'm more adept at making color a plus instead of a minus?

Probably a little of both. This year, at the POYi judging after helping choose an all black and white portfolio as the winner, judge Peggy Peattie of the Union-Tribune in San Diego was asked if the use of black and white played a role in her decision. She quickly answered, "No, I think we've all gotten past that in the past several years." Have we?

Thinking back on the photo contests that I've judged, I don't remember liking more black and white photos than color ones, but I do remember feeling manipulated by photographers who entered singles in color and then turned around and converted the same photos to black and white for their portfolio.

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

As the sun sets on the first full day of competition, a swimmer gets in a last-minute warm-up lap before the start of the swimming events during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
I guess the thing that people like about black and white photos is that they seem more important. More professional. Because bad color can ruin even the most wonderful moment, I'm actually surprised that more photographers don't use black and white in contests.

But why in some people's minds is there a built-in bias against black and white? Is an award cheapened by the fact that you made a conscious decision to go black and white in an attempt to increase your odds of winning a prize? Is it harder to make a great color image?

I don't have an answer to those first two questions, but as for the third, it definitely is harder to make a great color image.

So, what are the elements of a good photo, anyway? A successful combination of composition, light, moment and color sounds about right to me. So, if you eliminate color from the equation, you are only worrying about three variables instead of four.

But you still do need the other three. Just converting your work to black and white will not automatically make you a contest winner. What will make you a contest winner, though, is content. Whether it's a color or black and white photograph, content is king and the rest is all window-dressing.


(Scott Strazzante is a staff photographer with the Chicago Tribune. He won first place in the Sports Portfolio competition at POYi)

Related Links:
Strazzante's member page

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