Whenever and Why to Make a Photo Black and White

I’m a fan of black and white photography . A lot of subjects that flunk in color look evocative and powerful when taken in shades of gray. But it’s not always simple to decide if a photo should be colour or black and white. Today, I’ll explain how I choose.

When the Photo Should Be Black and White

I’d categorize three broad reasons why an image should be converted to monochrome:

  1. When the color within the scene is distracting or unsightly
  2. When the mood evoked by the colors is different through the mood you want to convey
  3. When you wish to depart somewhat from reality

Let me go through each of these in a bit more detail.

1 . Unappealing  Colours

The first cause to shoot in black and white is, simply, that the color of the scene isn’t very good. The photo below is definitely an example of colors that I discover unappealing and distracting:

Photo that doesn't work in Color
NIKON D7000 + 24mm f/1. 4 @ 24mm, ISO 180, 1/100, f/1. 4

First, the yellow-ish ring in the center of the photo looks a bit odd and doesn’t match well with the tan wall behind this.   Second, the signpost on the left-hand side has a distracting, faded circle round the number 30. It’s as if it once was red yet lost all its colour, and not in a good way. The black and white image fixes these problems and draws more attention to the reason I got this photo – what, “They watching us. ”

They Watching Us

Colors can easily be distractions in a photograph, since they’re some of the very first things our eyes go toward in a frame. If you consider the colors in your chance to be ugly or distracting, and you don’t  would like a viewer’s eye to gravitate right now there, black and white is a great solution.

2 . Unwanted Feeling in the Colors

Another way that colors may take away from your image is if they convey the wrong feeling. I don’t hate the colors in the photo below, but they aren’t conveying quite the emotional message I would like:

Street at night in color
Sony A1 + FE 35mm F1. 7 @ 35mm, ISO one hundred, 20 seconds, f/11. 0

The mood I’m trying to express in the image above any of emptiness and solitude (hence the composition along with high harmful space ) in addition to a bit of a disconcerted feeling (hence the  imbalanced structure ). My choice of framing is in sync with that message, but the colors in the image aren’t contributing towards it. They’re a bit too hot and inviting; I’m aiming for a colder feeling.

In other words, it’s not which i think the colors in the photo above are unsightly. It’s just that they carry emotions that I don’t desire in the photo. Converting in order to black and white for the image beneath fixes this impression and better evokes the mood I want.

Street at night black and white photo
Exact same image as above, transformed into monochrome in Lightroom

3. A Departure from Reality

It’s an obvious statement that the world is not, in fact , black and white (although perhaps it was before the 1930s ). In some feeling, I’d even consider it surprising that black and white images seem as “natural” as they do. They don’t immediately strike us as strange in the same manner that a posterized or upside down image might, for example. Even so, black and white is still a departure from reality.

I find this reduction to be an useful artistic device. At times, it can nudge a viewer to consider the beauty behind the image instead of viewing it as a straightforward chance of a literal subject. According to the scene, black and white can also have an old-fashioned feel – or timeless, if you prefer – where the image seems like it might have been taken long ago.

Maybe this is the quality that leads some photographers to consider black and white photography a gimmick in today’s digital globe. The argument, as I understand it, is that black and white is like another Instagram filter: the “fake” old-timey appearance slammed onto the photo in hopes of getting more clicks.

Of course , I don’t talk about this opinion.   I believe that as photographers plus artists, departing from reality is an essential part of the creative process. Other than narrow genres like medical photography or checking paintings, photography really should get around rather than just capture a subject accurately and present it straight. If accuracy is all we all ever aimed for, so much of the photographer’s vision plus artistry would be lost.

Mist in Yosemite black and white 8x10 Photo
A departure from reality is inherent in monochrome – and often, that’s good.

Nevertheless , as much as I enjoy black and white photography, there are cases where this simply isn’t the right choice to have an image. That’s what I can cover next.

When the Photo Should Be Colour

Like just before, I think the reasons to avoid monochrome photography can be boiled down to three main categories:

  1. When the subject needs contrasting colors in order to be comprehensible
  2. Once the colors in the scene fixed the right mood in the picture
  3. When realism is essential (or the client/project demands color)

Let me explain each one with some examples.

1 . Useful Color Contrasts

Color contrast is when two different colors – and especially opposite colors – are placed adjacent to one another. Both colors may have similar brightness ranges, but the image will still have a clear impression of contrast between them.

Here’s a good example of color contrast. Below, the saturated orange colors have nice contrast with all the desaturated gray-blue behind it, giving the sand a fascinating pattern of stripes:

Color version of sand dune abstract
Sony A1 + FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS @ 70mm, INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 100, 1/15, f/16. 0

This photo doesn’t work well in black and white, though. As you can see, this loses almost all semblance of a pattern and contrast:

Dull black and white photo of sand dunes with no subject separation
Same image because above, converted to black and white in Lightroom

Unless you’re a fan of (very) low-contrast work, I think you’ll agree that the second photograph is weaker than the first. Color contrast was necessary to making this subject  an actual subject . It would get an unreasonable amount of post-processing or in-camera filtration to split up the tones enough to obtain an usable monochromatic image here.

Even though the illustration above is unusually exaggerated, color contrasts appear constantly in photography and give construction to color images. Allow me to present two more situations. First is an image of a far more standard, “classical” landscape:

Vertical landscape dead sea color photo
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1. almost eight G @ 20mm, INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 100, 1/160, f/11. 0
Dead sea landscape photo black and white version
Same image as above, converted to black and white in Lightroom

I like the lighting here; the brilliant sidelight does a good work sculpting the foreground, which includes in black and white. The problem is the particular mountain in the distance. Since the top of the mountain peak isn’t illuminated, the mountain mixes into the clouds too much and loses lots of subject splitting up in the monochromatic version. (It might be possible to add some separation with local edits in post-processing, but the fact remains that the peak is within shadow. )

Compare that to the image below, which I took while the sun was still shining on the top of the distant mountain

Successful black and white photo of landscape
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1. 8 G @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/25, f/16. 0

To me, this is much stronger than the other black and white photo. Similarly, I think it’s a more interesting foreground – but more importantly, the mountain plus sky actually look like separate objects!   This is a situation where I might display one image in color as well as the other in black and white, and surely not both in black and white.

2 . Colors That will Add to the Mood

Color is one of the single greatest contributors to the mood of a photo. Sometimes it’s such an important contributor that the whole photo could be considered the picture  of  that will color . In cases like this, the black and white variant might still look good in its own correct – but it would be missing the extra “oomph” that the useful, moody color is providing.

I’ve taken a lot of photos with this effect that it’s hard to choose just one to show below. But the very first example that comes to mind will be the following photograph, where the deeply color blue adds the somber, ominous quality that will sets the entire foundation of the image’s mood:

Mass
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1. 4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 8 mere seconds, f/16. 0

Meanwhile, the black and white variation still looks threatening. And there aren’t any kind of significant color contrasts within this scene, so there’s no issue with subjects blending collectively in the photo below. But because it lacks that effective contribution of the color azure, it just looks more shapely and doesn’t convey because powerful of a mood.

Unsuccessful black and white edit of a blue photo
Same image since above, converted to black and white within Lightroom

When taking a picture (and editing it), always consider what emotions the different components in the frame are conveying. If the colors convey an emotion that helps your photos’ mood, it’s usually best to keep them rather than converting to black and white.

a few. You Need Realism

Whether for personal reasons or even for some outside client or even project, some photos simply need to be in color. For example , if you’re making a print for a wall structure in your house, the colors (or lack thereof) in the print will need to complement the room’s existing decor. Or, maybe you’re simply doing something like real estate photography where the client requires color images for his or her listing.

This situation is self-explanatory, so I won’t spend any further time on it. You be the judge, but sometimes you just need a color photo, no matter if the black and white version looks good delete word.

Ambiguous Instances

Naturally, not every photo will fall clearly in one of these directions or the other. I’ve taken some pictures where the color appears muddy or uninteresting, though provides an useful color contrast that gives the subject its form and texture. Other times, both variations of the image – color and black and white – both look good but just suggest different moods. It is left to me to choose which usually mood I prefer, and it is not always an easy decision.

Here are the examples I tend to show in order to illustrate this point:

Color version of sand dune death valley sandstorm photo
NIKON D800E + 35mm f/1. 8 @ 35mm, ISO 100, 1 . 3 seconds, f/16. 0
Monochrome variation of sand dune sandstorm photo Death Valley
Same picture as above, converted to monochrome in Lightroom

Which do you choose?

I like that this color image does a more satisfactory job separating the sand dunes from the mountain in the range. That same degree of separation isn’t feasible to capture in black and white, because I would need to brighten either the dunes or the mountain too much, harming the photo’s intense disposition.

But Really dont like some of the specific shades in the color version, especially the tones in the sky. We chose to decrease the sky’s saturation to preserve the feeling of a dark storm cloud, but it’s made a few of the colors a bit too dull. (If I increased saturation plus got a brighter, bluer sky instead, the photo’s mood would be harmed again. )

Ultimately, my preference is usually to display the black and white variant of the image, in part because it seems more “primal” to me plus evokes more of the mood which i want. On the other hand, a majority of those who view both images (at least in my past experience) have preferred the color version, perhaps because of the stronger issue separation. So , the “better” image here is up in the air.

It proves that much of photography is subjective and down to the photographer’s own choice of interpreting  a subject. In ambiguous cases like this, I encourage you to definitely go with your gut – and, further, to not be afraid to re-evaluate which difference you prefer over time as your eyesight changes.

Summary

I hope this article gave you a sense from the decision-making process behind black and white photography. Of course , these decisions don’t always need to be made consciously. Sometimes it’s as simple as flipping between the color version and the monochromatic edition of an image and having an immediate, obvious preference for one of them.

Yet I think it still helps you to approach this process with an innovative, deliberate eye. For instance, if you don’t like the black and white version of a photo at first glance, maybe the actual reason is that there isn’t good subject separation. Upon realizing that, you can perform local adjustments (including altering the photo’s B& W mix) to get some splitting up back, and maybe you’ll choose the B& W version after all.

I find that I go through steady phases where my pictures leans more toward colour or more toward black and white. At this time I’m in trending ın the direction of black and white. So , if you have any thoughts to share about black and white photography or how you get this decision either way, I’d love to hear from you in the responses section below.

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