In our societies the ‘colour’ black has a range of meanings, from sad and mysterious to elegant and stylish.
For some of us it’s the colour of funerals while for others it’s the go-to choice for everyday wear.
Culture and perceptions aside, the issue of whether black is a colour or not is interesting here. What do you think? Is it a colour or not?
Let's take a look…
When we talk about light or additive theory, the colours of the spectrum can be refracted out of white light. It is when light rays bend we can see the colours as that of the spectrum. Hence the name, white light is the addition of all colour wavelengths together.
But where is black in this scenario? Our eyes need light to see colour wavelengths and in the absence of light, there is no colour. In fairness we probably shouldn’t call it black, it’s really darkness.
So if we need white light to see colours, why can we see black in bright daylight?
It’s really all about reflection and molecules.
The surface of every tangible object is covered with molecular colouring agents or pigments visible as specific wavelengths to the receptors in our eyes. Let’s use an apple for example, when light bounces off the surface of the apple, only the red wavelength is reflected, making the apple appear red to your eyes. The rest of the coloured wavelengths are simply absorbed by the molecules on the surface of the apple, tubes of paint, or anything you like.
Something different happens when an object appears to be black.
The surface of the object is made up from a collection of molecules that absorb all of the light wavelengths, reflecting none. With no light reflecting back to our eye receptors, there is no colour to be seen.
Think about when you wear a black shirt in the sun. You will heat up more quickly as all light wavelengths are absorbed into the surface of your shirt, making it hot to touch.
Strictly speaking, a colour is only a colour when the receptors in our eyes process coloured wavelengths reflected off a surface. Since black absorbs light and does not reflect wavelengths, it is not a colour.
With all that in mind, how do you photograph black objects or the absence of light (darkness)? Black objects shouldn’t present any extra problems provided you have adequate light (Ha! That sounds silly but true).
If you’re shooting in darkness or low light, you need to consider a much slower shutter speed to allow maximum time for any available light to hit your camera sensors. Naturally, it follows that if you’re using a slow shutter speed, you need a tripod to prevent blur from accidental camera movement.
Although black is technically not a colour, it lends itself as a great photographic subject. Try these tips;
Colour theory is about how we see light reflected as different colours. Never forget that photography is ALL about light too.
Surfaces that appear black are best photographed with a contrasting colour, shape or tone (see last week’s blog on contrast)
Black objects are visually strong so be sure to balance your compositions with other elements.