It is no particular secret that black and white photographs usually stay in vogue a lot longer than their full-colour cousins. Anybody who has been around photography for long enough can probably name 5 famous black and white photographs for every colour photograph that stands the test of time.
And it's not that difficult to see why. I mean, a black and white photograph from 50 to 80 years ago STILL looks pretty good on a wall when you compare it to some retro colour photos. An Ansel Adams, a Robert Capa, A Henri Cartier-Bresson – the images are just… well, cool.
And let's face it, almost anyone who calls themselves a photographer likes to think that at least a shot or two will survive them. Maybe a print on their grandchildren's wall in a few decades from now. A black and white shot is probably the top contender for that in reality. It's a nice thought, anyway.
The Problem With Choosing Shots for Black and White
The problem is, how do you know when you have a great option for a black and white photograph? Just using the old “Black and White” conversion button in Lightroom can be pretty disappointing – to the point where we don't even bother trying too much after a while.
Even though I LOVE black and white photography, I have to admit I have always struggled with judging when my colour images make the grade for a good black and white. To be honest, I have often been a bit frustrated with it.
Recently, I was (re)browsing through the Photzy guide to black and white photography and the author came up with a very simple way to predict when a photo would look great as a black and white (which also suggests how to shoot them when you're out in the field).
How to Choose a Good Contender for Black and White
Now, this is more a guideline than a rule, and one with a lot of exceptions (like anything else in photography really). And it is only one way while admitting there are plenty of other ways.
But two keys you might like to watch out for are:
- Directional lighting
- Surface texture
The first (directional lighting) can really be summed up as having a lot of highlights and shadows within the image. This gives you a lot of natural contrast to play with in the context of black and white tones.
To judge this, you probably want to keep an eye on your histogram. A histogram that is slanted to one side is probably not great (note: probably, not definitely). A histogram that is spread out (indicating a spread of tones) will probably result in a better black and white conversion.
Now, the second part (surface texture) is probably a bit more self-explanatory. You want detail in surfaces (which tends to look better when converted to black and white than in colour). Think things like craggy rocks, bushes etc – things that don't look smooth per se.
Now just these two little tips makes going back through your catalogue of images a little bit more rewarding if you're looking for good candidates for black and white conversion. Scroll through, keep an eye on the histogram and look for that texture.
Of course, that really only covers choosing those good candidates.
Doing a good black and white conversion in post-is a whole other kettle of fish (with many many solutions), but it is one covered very thoroughly in Photzy's guide to Better Black and White.
Take a look at the guide if you want to set down the path to making those timeless images.