Reproducible photography started with forms that would produce a monochromatic image. For a large portion of the history of the medium, this was all we had. Color photography brought about a choice as to which you would like to use, and over time it became the dominant choice of consumers and professionals alike. Even so, in the art world it persisted for much longer as the choice of the artist and right up to the overwhelming force of digital, dozens of different black and white films were still in production. As digital photographers, we have the choice, most of us after the fact, to make a black and white conversion of our files. Today, I’d like to talk about my thought process when it comes to making the decision to go black and white.
For me, both color and black-and-white treatments have a place in my work. My professional work mostly revolves around families and engagements, and thus I can make a decision about how a frame should be treated at my own discretion. My personal work in documenting the world around me and also my "Tattoos of Asia" project gets treated with the same rules I detail below. When looking at an image, I analyze it based on what I was trying to achieve and what is in the frame.
A Quick Way to Check
Before I start choosing a black and white conversion that will work for the image at hand, I like to flip between color and black and white to see if my suspicion that a frame will work best in black and white is true. As I use Lightroom, tapping the “V” key on the keyboard will switch between the two an offer a quick preview.
Let’s dive into the reasons I might choose black and white. First up is emotion. If I want you to focus just on the emotion of the subject and not on what the colors might do to your interpretation of that emotion, I’ll often choose black and white. As we know, different colors can affect the way we feel about a photograph. By stripping an image down to line, shape, and light, we allow the viewer to focus more quickly and directly on just the emotion we’re trying to convey. Sometimes emotion can become stronger simply by stripping away the distraction that color can bring.
Composition and Light
Black and white images have nothing but tone and the perceived lines that this tone creates with which to build a final picture. This means that strong lines and strong light can really stand out when color is removed. A good black and white conversion can help to accentuate composition choices and light in the scene.
When you have the choice to set up a scene and control all elements of the outcome, color can be an extremely powerful tool. However, sometimes out in the world, there are immovable objects or even objects whose shape works for your composition but color doesn’t. When you find a color in your frame that is not working, there are many ways to change it, remove it, or work with it in postproduction. One of these is to simply convert to black and white. If you don’t lose anything else by making this conversion, then you have simplified your composition and made an effective conversion.
Breaking the Flow
When I’m editing a set of images that will be shown together, sometimes color can become monotonous (excuse the pun) when many images are viewed together. If there is a photograph that will work in black and white, sometimes it is best to use it in that way to break up the viewer's experience of your photographs. This can also be used in a family or engagement session when similar photographs work in both color and black and white. By converting one of the photographs, you give a different feel to the scene and offer two different images in your delivery.
Lots of Tonal Edits
One other time I like to use black and white conversions is when I want to push the tones of the image further. Lots of dodging and burning can begin to look fake very quickly in a color image, but we are more likely to accept those tonal adjustments in black and white. We don’t see in black and white, and thus it is one step removed from reality for us. Liberties can be taken in post processing as such that could not be taken in color.
These are just five simple reasons that I may choose a black and white conversion over a color process in my photography. When do you choose black and white? How about color?