“The Magic of Black and White Images: History, Art, and Science”, by Attila Szántó

The world of black and white images is much deeper than it appears at first glance. Such a photograph is not just a capture of a moment, but a representation of a story, emotion, and thought. By peering through the lens, we gain insight into a bygone era or an unrepeatable experience. These images carry not only visual beauty but also deep emotional and historical layers.

Differences Between Analog and Digital Photography

The human brain reacts uniquely to black and white images, linking emotional responses and memory with visual stimuli. The world of monochrome photography is interesting not only artistically but also scientifically. The physical and chemical processes of photography contribute to the creation of these images. The various technologies of analog films and digital sensors record and process light differently, affecting the final image’s quality and character.

We love monochrome photos because they differ from what the everyday human eye is accustomed to. Film photographs hold a special place in photographic art. Their unique grain and dynamic range give the images a distinctive visual character. The process of shooting on film – developing and enlarging – offers a unique and personal experience. This hands-on approach provides photographers with a special satisfaction, posing both technical and aesthetic challenges.

A digital camera records and processes light electronically, similar to the human eye. In contrast, analog film records an image through a chemical process. Light penetrating the sensitive emulsion causes various chemical changes, which become visible after development. This process results in unique tones and grains that give a different texture and feel compared to digital images. This is one reason why we might prefer film-captured photos over digital ones.

© Attila Szántò

The Human Brain and Black and White Images

The attraction to black-and-white images is rooted in deeper artistic and technical connections. These photos not only evoke nostalgic emotions but also reveal the relationships between human vision and photographic technology. The similarity between the human retina and a digital camera sensor is particularly interesting. The rods and cones of the human retina and the pixels of a digital camera sensor all function as light-sensitive surfaces. These structures convert light into electrical signals, which are processed by the brain or the camera’s processor.

New stacked sensors bring digital photography even closer to the natural experience of human vision. These sensors consist of two layers: a light-sensitive and a color-sensitive surface. The light-sensitive layer detects light intensity, while the color-sensitive layer helps distinguish and record individual colors. This dual-layer arrangement allows sensors to create more detailed and sharper images, thus improving image quality and performance.

Artistic and Emotional Effects

A well-composed black and white image creates a dramatic and artistic effect. A world without colors encourages the viewer to focus on the faces, gestures, and compositions behind the image. Often, they better express melancholy, romance, or even hope. Through dramatic contrasts and the play of light and shadow, these images provide a more intense and direct emotional experience. They highlight contrasts and textures, resulting in artistic effects.

The emotional impact is further enhanced by the fact that black-and-white images suggest a kind of timelessness. Without colors, the viewer is free to interpret what they see and can more easily experience the emotions conveyed by the image. A black and white portrait, for instance, can communicate deeper emotions, as the viewer’s attention focuses on expressions, eyes, and fine details rather than colors.

Additionally, monochrome images offer photographers the opportunity to creatively play with shapes, textures, and patterns. The absence of color makes composition the most important tool for artistic expression. The interplay of shadows and light can create a unique atmosphere that uniquely highlights the essence of objects and forms. This aesthetic approach is often used in artistic photography, where the goal is not merely to depict reality but to reinterpret it and evoke the viewer’s emotions.

© Attila Szántò

The Connection Between Dreams and Black and White Images

An interesting parallel can be drawn between monochrome images and our dreams, both of which depict a simplified, abstract form of reality. Our dreams are often stylized similarly to black and white photos, emphasizing emotions and moods due to the lack of colors. Studies conducted in the mid-20th century indicated that people more often dreamed in black and white, partly due to the dominance of television and films at the time. People encountered fewer colored images in everyday life, so their dreams were more frequently monochromatic. A 1942 study supported this, reporting that over 70% of respondents experienced black-and-white dreams.*

Modern research, however, shows that most people today dream in color, influenced by the spread of color televisions and digital displays. In today’s world, where we are surrounded by colors everywhere, our dreams have also become more colorful. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that black and white dreams still occasionally occur, especially among those who frequently encounter black and white photos or films. This phenomenon suggests that the colors in our dreams may be related to the colors and images we see in our daily lives.

Our brain constantly processes and reinterprets the visual information we experience during the day, and these experiences influence the content and nature of our dreams. The similarities between black-and-white images and dreams also highlight that both explore deeper layers of human emotions and subconscious content. Whether a photo or a dream, both serve as a window into our inner world, offering the opportunity to discover and understand the emotions and thoughts within us.

Philosophical Approach

Black and white images hold special significance from a philosophical perspective as well. Such images force us to transcend the boundaries of everyday reality and interpret the world on deeper, more abstract levels. The absence of color allows us to focus on shapes, shadows, and structures, which themselves carry the meaning of the image. This perspective is similar to philosophical abstraction, which strives to grasp the essence behind phenomena.

Viewing a black-and-white image raises questions about the nature of reality, the limitations of vision and perception, and how we can understand the world beyond colors. Does the absence of color bring us closer to the essence of things? Perhaps such images better reveal the truth by diverting our attention from superficial decorations and exposing the real essence.

These images remind us that reality consists of many layers and that deeper truths lie beneath the surface. Black and white photos help us distinguish the essential from the non-essential and look beyond what we see. Their simplicity encourages us to pay more attention to details and composition, providing a deeper understanding of the world and its workings.

Black and white photos raise philosophical questions about time and memory. Since the absence of color suggests timelessness, these images are more easily connected to past memories and experiences. An old black and white photo, for example, evokes not just a specific moment but the atmosphere, feelings, and thoughts of an entire era. Thus, monochrome images help us reflect on past events and build a deeper connection with our own history and identity.

© Attila Szántò

The Significance of Black and White Images

Black-and-white images hold a special place in photographic art and the world of human emotions. Nostalgia, simplicity, emotional emphasis, and the highlighting of contrasts and textures all contribute to making these images special and appealing. The hands-on experience and technical challenges of film photography create a deeper connection between the photographer and the image. While digital photography offers immediate results, film requires a slower, more deliberate process.

Monochrome photography is, therefore, not just a technical choice but an artistic and emotional decision as well. Such images reveal deeper layers of human emotions and experiences, allowing the viewer to engage more directly with the content of the image.

In conclusion, black-and-white images suggest a kind of timelessness that evokes not only memories of the past but also relevant messages for the present and future. The absence of color forces the viewer to focus on composition, shapes, and the interplay of light and shadow, enabling a deeper and more meaningful interpretation. These images uniquely capture the subtle nuances of the human soul, the deeper meaning of moments, and the beauty of the world’s small details.

Thus, black and white photos are not only visual artistic creations but also images with deep philosophical and emotional significance. Such images help us understand the past, appreciate the present, and imagine the future while simultaneously uncovering the deepest layers of human existence.

*You can find the 1942 study on black-and-white dreams by Warren Middleton in a detailed paper available at the University of California, Riverside’s faculty website. Here is the direct link to the document.


Attila Szántò is a 40-year-old father, printer, and photographer. He has always loved using photography for his own enjoyment and self-expression and not poisoning it with his financial livelihood. For him, photography, in its purest sense, has value. He believes that the true essence of photography lies in capturing moments and emotions authentically, without the pressure of commercial interests. This way, he can fully immerse himself in the creative process and produce work that genuinely reflects his vision and passion.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

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