Why do black and white photographs speak to us? In nature, colors are meant to attract, and cause things to catch our attention. Still, even without color, black and white images are a mainstay of our craft, and are powerful representations of the artistic spirit.
There are many differing opinions when it comes to black and white photography. Some photographers love it, and shoot black and white exclusively, while other photographers absolutely shun the notion and shoot only in color. Then you have the majority of our lot who fall somewhere in between the love and hate poles. Luckily, the digital imaging age allows photographers to decide after the fact whether our images make us happier in full color, or in black and white. However, this ease of conversion can become somewhat of a problem because it is in fact so simple to switch from color to black and white, that it can cause conflicting feelings about which route to take. While there is really no absolute magic formula to determine the best choice for your particular image, there are some guidelines that you can follow to make your decision a little easier.
Here are four tips to help you decide if an image will be more appealing in black and white than in color.
Black and white or color?
#1 Does color have a large impact on the image?
This may seem like an easy judgment to make, but it is not always so simple. Color can be a fickle thing, and can either add to, or unintentionally detract interest from a photograph. Ask yourself, “does this image rely exclusively on color or are there other interesting aspects that can be emphasized?” Just how nice would it be to look at as a colorless rainbow? This not to say that all colorful objects and scenes won’t do well as black and white, but as a general rule most highly or diversely colored subjects should remain just that – colorful.
This image really had nothing to say in the way of color, so I made use of the heavy backlighting to create a strong contrast with the subject.
The original image didn’t have a lot going on as far as color, so I choose to convert it to black and white to really make the patterns pop.
The opposite of this usually proves to be true also. When you have an inherently bland scene or subdued colors, the image will usually do well when converted to black and white and this leads us to tip #2.
#2 Are there interesting light or contrasts?
This is where new photographers tend to encounter a little bit of difficulty because seeing good light or contrasts usually requires quite a bit of pre-visualization. Don’t worry! Developing an eye takes, well, some developing. The more you force yourself to look past what is readily apparent, the more you will learn to almost see in black and white.
When you remove color from the photographic equation, you are left with only differences in tone; lights and darks. These differences are what truly make good black and white images, and the differences in light and shadow bring contrast to the photograph. So, when you see that a given scene or subject presents the opportunity to exploit stark contrasts and unique lighting or shadow, it might be a great opportunity to try black and white. Take a look at this image of the leaf of a house plant.
I used a single flash behind the leaf to really bring out the contrasts within. Ordinarily these details might have gone unnoticed, and the black and white treatment really compliments the lighting.
The great Ansel Adam’s said that he; “could convey a greater sense of color with well executed black and white images using only light, shadow, and even subtleties in texture to express the qualities of the photo”. It’s that last variable, texture, that brings us to tip #3.
#3 Are there interesting textures?
When we think of texture, we can easily describe it in terms of how things feel physically, when we perceive them through our sense of touch. Texture in photography, however, can be a little more challenging to put into words. Texture in a photograph has to be perceived with our eyes and then we determine if it’s smooth, rough, or coarse. Transforming the tactile tangible into a visually tangible image takes practice and a trained eye, and this is where working in black and white can be the best choice. Examples of textures that work well for black and white photos are wood, metals and stone, even plants and human skin. Directional lighting (light from largely one source coming from the side) compliments, and helps emphasize textures.
This image was made with natural lighting coming in directly from one side. This really brings out the texture, imperfections, and grittiness of the photograph.
This last tip goes beyond the physical attributes of an image and delves into the feelings we want to convey through a photograph. This is where black and white photography can really shine.
#4 What is the mood you want to create?
Have you ever looked a photograph, and been immediately struck by how the photograph felt? This is often referred to as the mood of a photo. It could be a bleak and rainy street scene, or an image of a warm and welcoming sunset. In any case, using black and white is a good way to convey a sense of mood in your photography. Admittedly, black and white usually imparts dark, bleak, somber, or an etherial overtone to a photograph, but that does not mean that it doesn’t work well for more upbeat images. Convert some of your landscapes to black and white to see how the mood can change. Experiment with black and white portraits which can portray your subject with a more stoic and brooding persona.
This photo of a hot day on Boston Common had lots of differences in lighting, along with some great coloring especially in the sky. Still, I chose black and white because it simply felt better to me, and matched what I saw in my mind more closely.
Keep in mind that you may run into some different terms if you decide to work more with black and white photography. These terms are usually interchanged, but in reality they are not all the same. It will help you to understand the differences in each so you can know what to expect.
Monochrome simply means varying shades of only one color are used to make an image. This is often thought of as black and white (which are technically monochromatic) but in reality any color can be used. Sepia toned photographs are a good example of images which are monochrome.
This is an example of a monochromatic photograph that is not black and white.
The term grayscale is another one that gets thrown around to label black and white images. Though not completely incorrect, grayscale images use only varying shades of gray (256 to be exact), and no other color. Grayscale can be a very bland when no other edits are used because it tends to leave the entire photo as middle gray. Notice how bland and uninteresting the below image looks when it’s converted to grayscale.
True Black and White
As I have said, black and white images are indeed monochromatic but not all monochrome images are black and white. True black and white photos use only black and white to produce the image although the majority still use a mix of gray tones.
This is the same image as above after it has been further processed to be closer to a true black and white photo. The differences in tones become becomes more apparent, and the photo becomes much more pleasing.
Black and white photography has been a staple genre since literally the inception of photography, and has evolved into a high art-form. Of course there are some people who simply do not like black and white images and prefer everything in color. Still, black and white photography is something that should not be discounted, and certainly not underestimated in terms of artistic expression. Today’s processing software makes converting color images to black and white nearly effortless, so use these tips and give it a try!