What Ever Happened to B&W?

If you’re an emerging stock photographer and have never entertained the idea of taking a black & white stock photo, I’d encourage you to try it. But, fair warning though, it’ll be more an experience for the soul, not for the sale.

B&W is no longer popular among photo editors at books and magazines (our targets here at Photosource International). In rare cases (about 5%), b&w still claims attention in commercial photography. And b&w claims even more attention in fine arts photography, where the photographers take a day job to be able to sustain their efforts to produce art photography.

If you flip through current newsstand magazines, you’ll see very few b&w photographs. The general public, it was proved long ago, prefers color to b&w. (Is your TV still b&w?) Editors always conform to management’s marketing research.

The change to color started in the mid-80’s, and by the mid-90’s the changeover was almost complete. Only small publications with limited budgets or a special focus use b&w today.

As an emerging photographer, you may wonder how well b&w fared in the early days of stock photography. In my own case, back in the early 60’s, I put my b&w photos with one of the few early stock agencies called “Photo Researchers.” (The agency still exists today.)

When we moved to our farm in 1966, I began selling my b&w’s via the mailbox. The delivery system was simple, and I encouraged photobuyers at publishing houses to keep my b&w pictures on file at their central library. They would send me a check each time they used one of my pictures. The honor system worked.

When I wrote the first edition of my book, “Sell & ReSell Your Photos,” in 1981, I advised photographers to use the mailbox as their delivery system. The system was easy. I would send off a package of my b&w’s “for consideration” to a potential photobuyer whose photo needs matched one of my specialization areas. If my photos were accepted, very often that meant I’d found a client for life, unless the theme of the publishing housed changed, which rarely happened. From time to time, I updated my collection of photos at the publishing house with new b&w prints, and the photobuyer returned photos that were no longer needed. These I placed in a file in our barn, which my grandchildren one day can sell to PBS or an historical photo archive.

Slowly, in the mid-80’s the preference for color grew. Photobuyers now wanted color transparencies. This gave rise to the age of “lost images.” Many photographers and photobuyers alike, found they were incapable of tracking the transparencies they were handling. It wasn’t pretty. Lawsuits multiplied and photobuyers began dealing only with a circumscribed number of stock photographers who were savvy in their business acumen. Veteran stock photographers who are reading this will well remember the turbulent transparency mess we had to live through before the Digital Era came along and gave us a break.

Superstars began to emerge in the industry. Photobuyers were willing to pay the high fees of certain stock photographers in exchange for “hassle-free” service, knowing it was safe to deal with them and their valuable transparencies. Photobuyers also placed confidence in the emerging stock agencies of the mid-90’s, who introduced overnight transparency delivery to clients.

And then it all changed in the early 2000’s. Digital delivery made transparency delivery obsolete. The line between superstars and gifted amateur photographers was erased. Anyone with a sensitive eye who could produce high-resolution images with their digital camera became eligible to sell their photos on-line.

Yes, b&w disappeared. Color now rules. Even though b&w prints were easy to distribute and sell to photobuyers in the 70’s and 80’s, digital delivery is even easier in the 2000’s…a lucky happening for the independent stock photographer.

Few stock photographers today specialize in b&w. If they do and are successful in their marketing, they are a rare breed.

Who knows? Maybe someday in the future, the public taste in photography may change back to b&w, if only temporarily. Prepare now to deliver and capture some of your digital images in b&w.