Do You Know These Two Indicators That Usually Mean a Photo Would Make a Great Black and White?


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.

Photo by Tamás Mészáros

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).

Photo by Kat Jayne

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.

If you really want to hone down on your black and white photography, this month Light Stalking projects is going with that theme.

You get 4 black and white photography projects that are instantly downloadable.

Take a look here.

About Author

Rob is the founder of Light Stalking. His love for photography started as a child with a Kodak Instamatic and pushed him into building this fantastic place all these years later, and you can get to know him better here.
Rob's Gear
Camera: Nikon D810
Lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8

Excellent information, as always. Thank you for for your time and generosity in sharing your Light Stalking web site.

That’s a great post. Thanks for sharing this article and hope to get more informative photography articles from you. Loving your blog!

Once again, great tips I can most definitely use ! Black & White photography is my favorite, and I especially love the images captured by Dorothea Lange many years ago. Keep up the good work , as your tips are wonderful and really help me hone in on becoming a better photog!

Thank you for sharing your insight on so many subjects in photography. As in this article you have condensed a basic principle of B/W photography to two basic rules involving contrast (directional lighting) and texture/surface structure, to predict what will work in B/W, where other features (color saturation and luminance) are eliminated from the subject. You have a nice way of condensing the salient features to the basic qualities needed, and I like the way it leads the reader to think more critically about what is needed in a photograph; inspires innovation and gives me another thing to think about in both composition and post-processing.

Thanks for all the info and knowledge that you share. B&W is something of a challenge for most of us, even pros.

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