Photography styles are always down to personal taste, in my opinion. I respect that; people have different preferences, and in the same vein photographers can’t please everybody. This also applies to black and white photos, which will be the focus of this article. I have clients who absolutely do not like black and white images, and clients who want a full set of black and white conversions. Personally I give my clients at least 95% color photos and the rest are in black and white.
But why convert to black and white? Is it ever necessary? When do I convert color images to black and white? Here are five reasons why I do black and white conversions on selected photos.
#1 When the background is colorful and distracting
When there are too many colorful things cluttering in the background and taking the focus away from the subject, if they are not intended to be there, they are more likely to be a distraction rather than an enhancement to the image. It may also be that you have no control over the location and cannot move things away to de-clutter. In the photo below, my intention was to shoot backlit, and this was the only possible spot in a small patio. Light was my priority, and I had no control over the neighbor’s garden. This was a personal snap of my kids and I was not going to spend ages photoshopping the clutter away. Black and white was the way to go.
#2 When colors in the photo or the subject’s clothing do not enhance the image
Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. When you have children, you choose your battles. This photo was taken during a family walk looking at the bluebells. It was hard enough getting the kids out of the house in good time, let alone fighting over which outfits they want to wear. Clearly my son’s outfit does not remotely fit in with the tone of this image. Another hooray for black and white.
If clients turn up during a photoshoot with outfits that are too bold or distracting, then you have the option of offering them a choice of color or black and white. Explain your reasons why you felt it was necessary to convert it, and show them the difference it makes on the impact of the image.
#3 For artistic purposes like exaggerating contrasts and silhouettes
There are no rules in photography when it comes to creative style. It’s all down to your personal taste and vision. Artistic license is a great thing. You can photograph with motion blur and activity blur in mind, or add grain for more creative effect or a film look. Converting to black and white is just one more creative tool at your disposal.
#4 When black and white has more impact than color
Sometimes a scene just looks blah. It’s muddy and the colors seems non-committal; they are neither here nor there, not standing out, nor serving a purpose. Trust your gut. When I see “muddy” I run to black and white. An example would be a photoshoot in a living room with cream walls, a cream settee, and the subjects are also wearing cream. You can bring out more contrast in a black and white image.
At the other end of the spectrum, if the subject are wearing clashing colors that are too much, then converting to black and white turns the colors into varying values of gray, thus giving more cohesion to the overall look of the image.
In this snapshot of my kids below, I blew out the sky and wanted to bring some of the faint clouds back in. Apart from the muddy colors, it was easier to recover the blown out sky which would have looked very gray in a color image anyway.
#5 When the image is too noisy in color
Sometimes there are moments when your camera is not set correctly, and yet you see something you just have to capture in a split second, without having the chance to change your settings. The result would predictably be an underexposed image with unacceptable noise levels, or an overexposed image with plenty of highlights clipped. But the moment was priceless nonetheless. Black and white lessens the impact of the imperfection and makes the photo acceptable.
Perhaps this is because we are used to seeing grain in old black and white photos, and accepting the nostalgia associated with such a photo could forgive such an error in today’s digital image. However, beware of making this as an excuse. It should be a last resort to save a photo that is priceless, but never as part of your normal workflow.
The kids in the photo above were never still, always running in different directions. I looked back and suddenly saw them walking in a row down a shaded path. I took a few successive shots knowing full well it would be underexposed based on the settings of my previous shots. I anticipated they would suddenly disperse, which they did in a few seconds, so I fired away. From the shots I took within seconds of this happening, I chose the one where they had just walked through a sunlit part of the path. There was still visible noise even after editing, but it becomes a non-issue in black and white.
How about you? Do you like black and white images? What reasons do you convert to black and white? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.