Imagine this scenario: you've had a productive and enjoyable day out shooting — a couple of landscapes and cityscapes, some architecture shots, a bit of street photography, a handful of portraits, whatever floats your boat; you have finally completed the task of getting those shots off your memory card and into your photo organizer/image editor; you’ve culled together all your keepers. Now it’s time to process these shots. Hopefully you have established an effective workflow to make post-processing less stressful, but for some photographers there is one question that seems to arise with each post-processing session:
“Should this image be color or black and white?”
Of course, there is no objectively right or wrong answer to this, but there are some basic principles to keep in mind that can help with your decision.
Black and White vs. Monochrome
The terms “black and white” and “monochrome” are often used interchangeably. Such usage isn’t always incorrect, but there is some nuance that should be addressed. A monochrome image is one that consists of varying tones of one “color.” The images we commonly refer to as being black and white are indeed monochromatic, but this is just one of many ways to make a monochrome image. The photos below are examples of images that are monochromatic, yet not black and white.
Photo by Dom Crossley
Photo by Michael Miller
Traditional black and white images, as they are typically created in digital photography, consist of pixels that vary across the image from black to multiple shades of grey to white, as exhibited in the photos below.
When trying to choose between creating a black and white or color image, ask yourself the questions that follow.
What Role Does Color Play in the Photo?
This is certainly a subjective criterion, but it is something that should be a priority in your decision making process. It’s easy to conclude that color is always important; if we see in color why shouldn’t photos be color? The fact is color can sometimes be a distraction, or it can be rather meaningless. On the other hand, there are times when color is vital. A landscape photo that prominently features a rainbow is something that you would probably want to present in color, as the rainbow plays an important role in the scene and a black and white rainbow isn’t much to look at. If the essential strength of the image does not specifically rely on color, converting it to black and white will allow you to emphasize other visual or atmospheric qualities of the image. Additionally, if your photo is marred by especially washed out colors or strong backlighting that can’t be satisfactorily fixed in post-processing, converting to black and white may be able to salvage the shot.
Are there Prominent or Interesting Textures in the Photo?
Texture is an important aesthetic component in all forms of art, from music to painting to photography. We commonly relate texture and physical touch, but this association is only one way of conveying texture. When dealing with photography, for instance, texture is conceptualized through sight rather than touch. We look at a subject like a lizard or a tree or a stone and we imagine what those things feel like — rough, bumpy, smooth, jagged. Images in which texture plays a central role benefit greatly from being converted to black and white, as black and white tends to emphasize texture, allowing the viewer to more easily appreciate what the subject “feels” like.
Photo by Vinoth Chandar
Is There Strong Contrast or Distinctive Light/Shadows?
Contrast, in general, is all about differences. Tonal contrast, as it relates specifically to black and white photography, refers to the difference in tones from black to grey to white. Color contrast refers to how colors interact with each other. A high contrast image is one that exhibits a lot of black and white, with few or no mid (grey) tones. Strong lighting and shadows work together to create strong contrast. Once colors are removed, what remains are tonal differences — the sort of contrast that contributes to powerful black and white images. So, when you asses a photo and notice these characteristics of light, shadow, and contrast, you have a perfect candidate for a black and white conversion.
What Mood Do You Wish to Communicate?
Similar to texture, mood and atmosphere are somewhat abstract ideas that can be communicated through photography in creative ways. When you look at a photo showing strong clouds, falling rain, wet streets, and people carrying umbrellas, you are struck with a particular feeling. You know what it’s like to walk in the rain and are suddenly transported, mentally, to that place. The photo has done its job of conveying a certain mood. Black and white photography works especially well for creating a dreary or dramatic moods. If you want to create a somber or mysterious atmosphere around a portrait subject, the right lighting combined with a black and white conversion is the way to go.
Photo by Anne Worner
It is important to emphasize the subjectiveness of this issue. There are photographers who work almost exclusively in color, and those who work almost exclusively in black and white. Many more, however, fall somewhere in the middle and produce both color and black and white photos. Given the relative ease of converting color photos to black and white in post processing, there’s no reason to not try your hand at doing some black and white images. Hopefully, the guidelines above will be of assistance in not only helping you determine which of your existing photos might look good in black and white, but will also help you learn to see in black and white, enabling you to use your camera in a manner consistent with creating awesome black and white shots with ease.