Black & White Concert Photos Are Totally the Best

Jonathan Coulton
John Scalzi

When I was on the JoCo Cruise last year I took my usual literally thousands of photos and intended to post a curated selection of the ones that weren’t blurry, as I usually do. But I went straight from the 2022 cruise into my Kaiju Preservation Society book tour (seriously; I had one day at home between the cruise and the tour, just enough time to do laundry and pet my cats and dog), and by the time I got back the photos had sort of fallen off my radar of things to do. It wasn’t until today that, at the request of Storm DiCostanzo, who wanted to see them, I finally started going through the photos from last March to pick out the ones I wanted to upload. While I was picking the photos and editing them in Photoshop, I also decided to do black and white versions of each of the pictures I selected.

Paul and Storm.

Why? Because black and white is kind of inherently nifty, and also, black and white gives you a lot of options to save photos that might be a bit, uh, messy in color. This is particularly the case with photos taken during a concert, which has tricky lighting conditions to begin with — it’s very dark in the theater, except for the stage, where it is very bright, which is exactly the kind of contrast that confuses a camera and makes for blurry and/or over-exposed photos.

Janet Varney

Modern photoediting can deal with a lot of this – I have an array of Photoshop plugins now that can sharpen and denoise photos to such an extent that previously unworkable photos are now salvageable – but for the photos where the colors are too tricky to work with or the image is so contrasted-out that a color version is never going to look great, switching the photo to black and white to work on it in that (lack of) color space can give you excellent and sometimes surprising results. Mistakes and shortcomings are suddenly transformed into aesthetic choices.

Jim Boggia.

Even when the picture looks perfectly good in color, black and white gives you the opportunity to focus on some things that tend to get overlooked in color photography: textures and contrasts and details that might otherwise elude the eye show up to great effect in black and white. It’s like you’ve taken two images with the same photo; you make different choices in the editing and the two versions of the photo tell different but related stories.

Aimee Mann

Now, contrary to the implication one might get from the headline above, I don’t think black and white is inherently better than color photography. Each has their own strengths. Some photos look better in color. But again, in a situation like concert photography, black and white photography offers another avenue to take a photo that might not fully work in color, and make it shine in monochrome. And doing a black and white version of the photos I’m selecting, even the ones that work just fine in color, is a good practice for me, to find out what’s in the picture I might otherwise miss. It’s fun and educational. And I get some cool photos out of it, too.

Backstage at the Joco Cruise opening concert.

— JS

11 Comments on “Black & White Concert Photos Are Totally the Best”

  1. For those of you who did not look at the alt text for the photos, the photos are of (in order): Jonathan Coulton, Paul & Storm, Janet Varney, Jim Boggia, Aimee Mann, and a silhouette of Aimee Mann looking at the stage from backstage.

  2. Those are all excellent images. For me the two best images are both the head compositions. I also appreciate your use of thin black borders around every image. That makes every one of them look clean and professional.

    I learned the craft of photography in black-and-white film darkrooms, running Tri-X bulk rolls through my Minolta film cameras in the 1970s. So I appreciate a well done black-and-white photo, analogue or digital.

  3. OK, now I feel stupid, How do I see the alt text for the photos? Thanks for running the names in the comments!

    I used to work tri-x film, was so proud of being able to roll the film on to the reel prior to dropping it into the developer. Then I got into color slide film… woah that was some bad chemistry — dark fumes drooling out of the tube the chemicals are in.

    So glad for digital cameras!!!

  4. Don’t feel bad, J R; modern browsers don’t show alt tags by default unless they’re in an accessibility mode, unfortunately. You have to set the title tag to get the old “hover text” behavior in the current browser family without going into a11y settings (or using a screen reader).

    Great photos, John. You missed the Jim Boggia one in the list. The Aimee Mann one is particularly fantastic.

  5. Back in the early days of Photoshop my students had a lot of fun creating a black and whitel layer from a colour photo and then using the blend options to see what they could produce. Sometimes the results were quite interesting. Not to say psychedelic at times!

  6. That last photo is brilliant! Excellent job capturing the silhouette.

    I’m also an old-schooler: started shooting in the ’70s with Tri-X and Plus-X, manually developing and printing my own work. In fact, I just bought a new (to me) film camera: a Mamiya RB67. When it warms up a bit here, I’m going to be heading up to a petroglyph site.

    But I do enjoy converting photos to B&W and having fun with them.

    Old school rules! (though I do enjoy color)

  7. I’m primarily a black and white photographer, though I have gotten back into colour more in the past few years (sadly, just as the cost of colour film has sky rocketed).

    I have almost always photographed concerts in black and white. Part of it is practical, as there are off the shelf options for high speed black and white film that don’t exist in colour. But it also just suites the subject matter for all the reasons you explain.

    My favourite concert movie is Stop Making Sense. It’s in colour, but it very wisely doesn’t use any coloured lighting. Coloured lighting can look great in a performance, but more often than not, it is distracting.

    Nice pics, BTW. :)

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