The history of various visual media has typically begun with black and white, and as technology improved, altered to color. However, there are exceptions to this rule, including black-and-white fine art photography, as well as many motion pictures and art films.
Most early forms of motion pictures or film were black and white. Some color film processes, including hand coloring were experimented with, and in limited use, from the earliest days of motion pictures. The switch from most films being in black-and-white to most being in color was gradual, taking place from the 1930s to the 1960s. Even when most film studios had the capability to make color films, the technology's popularity was limited, as using the Technicolor process was expensive and cumbersome. For many years, it was not possible for films in color to render realistic hues, thus its use was restricted to historical films, musicals, and cartoons until the 1950s, while many directors preferred to use black-and-white stock. For the years 1940-1966, a separate Academy Award for Best Art Direction was given for black-and-white movies along with one for color; similarly, from 1939-1966 (excepting 1957), a separate Academy Award for Best Cinematography was given for both black-and-white and color movies.
The earliest television broadcasts were transmitted in black-and-white, and received and displayed by black-and-white only television sets. Scottish inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the world's first color television transmission on July 3, 1928 using a mechanical process. Some color broadcasts in the U.S. began in the 1950s, with color becoming common in western industrialized nations during the late 1960s or early 1970s.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) settled on a color NTSC standard in 1953, and the NBC network began broadcasting a limited color television schedule in January 1954. Color television became more widespread in the U.S. by the mid-1960s, when major networks like CBS and ABC joined NBC in broadcasting full color schedules between 1965 and 1967. Some TV stations (small and medium) in the US were still broadcasting in B&W until the late 1980s to early 1990s, depending on the network. Canada began airing color television in 1966 while the United Kingdom began to use an entirely different color system from July 1967 known as PAL. The Republic of Ireland followed in 1970. Australia experimented with color television in 1967 but continued to broadcast in black-and-white until 1975, and New Zealand experimented with color broadcasting in 1973 but did not convert until 1975. In China, black-and-white television sets were the norm until as late as the 1990s, with color TVs not outselling them until about 1989. In 1969, Japanese electronics manufacturers standardized the first format for industrial/non-broadcast videotape recorders (VTRs) called EIAJ-1, which initially offered only black-and-white video recording and playback. While seldom used professionally now, many consumer camcorders have the ability to record in black-and-white.
Throughout the 19th century, most photography was monochrome photography: images were either black-and-white or shades of sepia. Occasionally personal and commercial photographs might be hand tinted. Colour photography was originally rare and expensive and again often containing inaccurate hues. Color photography became more common from the mid-20th century.
However, black-and-white photography has continued to be a popular medium for art photography, as shown in the picture by the well-known photographer Ansel Adams. This can take the form of black-and-white film or digital conversion to grayscale, with optional digital image editing manipulation to enhance the results. For amateur use certain companies such as Kodak manufactured black-and-white disposable cameras until 2009. Also, certain films are produced today which give black-and-white images using the ubiquitous C41 color process.
Printing is an ancient art, and color printing has been possible in some ways from the time colored inks were produced. In the modern era, for financial and other practical reasons, black-and-white printing has been quite common through the 20th century. However, with the technology of the 21st century, home color printers, which can produce color photographs, are common and relatively inexpensive, a technology relatively unimaginable in the mid-20th century.
Most American newspapers were black-and-white until the early 1980s; The New York Times and The Washington Post remained in black-and-white until the 1990s. Some claim that USA Today was the major impetus for the change to color. In the UK, color was only slowly introduced from the mid-1980s. Even today, many newspapers restrict color photographs to the front and other prominent pages since mass-producing photographs in black-and-white is considerably less expensive than color. Similarly, daily comic strips in newspapers were traditionally black-and-white with color reserved for Sunday strips. Color printing is more expensive. Sometimes color is reserved for the cover. Magazines such as Jet magazine were either all or mostly black-and-white until the end of the 2000s when it became all-color. Manga (Japanese or Japanese-influenced comics) are typically published in black-and-white although now it is part of its image. Many school yearbooks are still entirely or mostly in black-and-white.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is in color when Dorothy is in Oz, but in black-and-white when she is in Kansas, although the latter scenes were actually in sepia when the film was originally released. In a similar manner, in Stalker (1979), the zone, in which natural laws do not apply, is in colour, and the world outside the zone generally in sepia. In contrast, the British film A Matter of Life and Death (1946) depicts the other world in black-and-white (a character says "one is starved of Technicolor ... up there"), and earthly events in color. Similarly, Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire (1987) uses sepia-tone black-and-white for the scenes shot from the angels' perspective. When Damiel, the angel (the film's main character), becomes a human the film changes to color, emphasising his new "real life" view of the world.
The films Pleasantville (1998), and Aro Tolbukhin. En la mente del asesino (2002), play with the concept of black-and-white as an anachronism, using it to selectively portray scenes and characters who are either more or less outdated or duller than the characters and scenes shot in full-color. This manipulation of color is used in the film Sin City (2005) and the occasional television commercial. The film American History X (1998) is told in a nonlinear narrative in which the portions of the plot that take place "in the past" are shown entirely in black and white, while the "present" storyline's scenes are displayed in color. In the documentary film Night and Fog (1955) a mix of black-and-white documentary footage is contrasted with color film of the present.
In a black and white pre-credits opening sequence in the 2006 Bond film, Casino Royale, a young James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) gains his licence to kill and status as a 00 agent by assassinating the traitorous MI6 section chief Dryden at the British Embassy in Prague, as well as his terrorist contact, Fisher, in a bathroom in Lahore. The remainder of the film starting with the opening credits is shown in color.
Since the late 1960s, few mainstream films have been shot in black-and-white. The reasons are frequently commercial, as it is difficult to sell a film for television broadcasting if the film is not in color. 1961 was the last year in which the majority of Hollywood films were released in black and white.
Some modern film directors will occasionally shoot movies in black-and-white as an artistic choice, though it is much less common for a major Hollywood production. The use of black-and-white in the mass media often connotes something "nostalgic" or historic. The film director Woody Allen has used black-and-white a number of times since Manhattan (1979), which also had a George Gershwin derived score. The makers of The Good German (2006) used camera lenses from the 1940s, and other equipment from that era, so that their black-and-white film imitated the look of early noir.
Monochrome film stock is now rarely used at the time of shooting, even if the films are intended to be presented theatrically in black-and-white. Movies such as John Boorman's The General (1998) and Joel Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) were filmed in color despite being presented in black-and-white for artistic reasons. Raging Bull (1980) and Clerks (1994) are two of the few well-known modern films deliberately shot in black-and-white. In the case of Clerks, because of the extremely low budget, the production team could not afford the added costs of shooting in color. Although the difference in film stock price would have been slight, the store's fluorescent lights could not have been used to light for color. By shooting in black-and-white, the filmmakers did not have to rent lighting equipment.
The movie Pi is filmed entirely in black-and-white, with a grainy effect until the end.
In black-and-white still photography, many photographers choose to shoot in solely black-and-white since the stark contrasts enhance the subject matter.
Some formal photo portraits still use black-and-white. Many visual-art photographers use black-and-white in their work.
As a form of censorship when movies and TV series are aired on Philippine television, many gory scenes are shown in black-and-white. Sometimes the exposure of innards or other scenes too bloody or gruesome are also blurred, not just rendered in monochrome, in compliance with Philippine broadcasting standards.
Most computers had monochrome (black-and-white, black and green, or black and amber) screens until the late 1980s, although some home computers could be connected to television screens to eliminate the extra cost of a monitor. These took advantage of NTSC or PAL encoding to offer a range of colors from as low as 4 (IBM CGA) to 128 (Atari 800) to 4096 (Commodore Amiga). Early videogame consoles such as the Atari 2600 supported both black-and-white and color modes via a switch, as did some of the early home computers; this was to accommodate black-and-white TV sets, which would display a color signal poorly. (Typically a different shading scheme would be used for the display in the black-and-white mode.)
In computing terminology, black-and-white is sometimes used to refer to a binary image consisting solely of pure black pixels and pure white pixels; what would normally be called a black-and-white image, that is, an image containing shades of gray, is referred to in this context as grayscale.