After a recent trip abroad, I was excited to go through and process my images. I came across an image that I felt looked great in both color and black and white. Unsure of what to do, I started questioning the criteria that I use to determine if a photo should be left in color or converted to black and white. In the process, I decided to ask my colleagues and came up with a guide.
Granted, the end decision is personal and subjective, it was interesting to hear what other photographers do when deciding on what direction to go and what guidelines they use to get to that decision. I expected to find a few obvious answers, but a majority of the answers were really interesting to read.
In sum, here are some points echoed by many people:
1. If color plays no importance for the strength of the image, it should be in black and white.
2. A black and white image typically portrays emotions better over a color one.
3. A stronger tonal contrast sets itself up well for a black and white image. It allows you to fill in the rest of the blanks with your mind.
4. Color should add a point of visual interest through the image, enhancing upon what is there.
5. If the colors cannot be saved, such as strong casts, the fallback is converting it to black and white.
Here are some great answers in specific from photographers who chimed in:
Troy D. Davidson – Black and white allows my mind to fill in the blanks and find a deeper level of seeing.
Keri Luke Campbell - I look at the pre-existing colour content and then consider what the most effective way of getting the emotional response I want out of the observer is. I view colour is a function. Hue adds character and it adds a sense of tone-dependent playfulness, this is very apparent if a scene is naturally very colourful. In Grayscale images there is less visual information for the viewer to deal with and so it's a good way to get people to focus in on a single aspect of a scene. In this instance, the the less visual information, the more striking a scene appears to be with a low range of colour. Subsequently colour images with a high range of colour appear to be striking also. It's a personal judgment and with infinite colour combinations and contrasts, there are no concrete rules. This is just a part of my modus operandi.
Chris Zupo - I believe the determining factor comes in to play when you have to decide between conveying an image, or a feeling. Black and white inherently seems to hold more feeling than color, maybe it's the classic imagery behind black and white and that old world feel, or the ability to play stronger contrast than you can't with color.
Ruben Vasquez - For me it depends on which will have the greater impact. An image rich in detail and contrast that color doesn't add to will likely be converted to b&w. Color is exemplary at evoking mood so images like sunsets or fashion images bursting colors will remain with its color intact.
Michael Beckerman - You process to B+W when the form, shape and lines of an image are the primary elements that are telling the visual story. You process to color when the hues, tones and shades, and how they interact, are the primary elements that are telling the visual story. Simple as that.
Tyler Smith - The composition principle of figure and ground relationship.
The lack of color in a B&W image means reduced complexity and thus emphasizes subject matter without your brain having to spend those micro seconds assessing what is the subject.
A strong figure to ground element where the subject is light and the background dark (for example) can result in almost instant subject recognition, as well as secondary focal point if present as well. The greater the contrast, the greater the emphasis.
I'd like to hear from you. In your opinion, what do you use to determine if a photo should be kept in color or converted to black and white?