Just about every photographer experiences those moments where they decide their photograph would be better suited monochromatic. How and when to convert it can make a critical difference.
It’s a simple enough question without a simple answer. Why would someone make their color photograph black and white? For many photographers, when they get started, myself included, most every photograph felt better in black and white. Well, maybe not most every photo, but at least the ones that would otherwise be boring. Nowadays, I shoot black and white film with intention and occasionally convert my color photographs to black and white (that's not to say that I've moved on from taking the occasionally boring photograph) if I think they would benefit from simplifying the image.
I would argue that beyond the "why not?" of black and white photography, I believe it's undeniable that some photographs are absolutely gorgeous in black and white and would not reach their full potential in color. I'll admit that this does not often happen, but it does happen. It's true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as such, what photographs are best monochromatic versus color is up to you. In this article, I will lay out the considerations that I make when I evaluate one of my own images. Further, I will go through the steps that I take to implement any conversions. Lastly, I will go through some of the considerations that I make when I evaluate whether or not a photograph improved in its monochromatic form.
For me, there are multiple considerations to make when trying to decide. First and foremost, are the colors properly messed up? In my limited experience, where I’ve come across this, it was usually the case that there was low, mixed lighting that resulted in improper white balancing. In those situations, it seemed like no matter how much work I put into one photograph, the result never really panned out to anything I found acceptable. So, when the white balance is all out of sorts, going monochromatic can save you a lot of headaches. For those shooting film specifically, the considerations are still much of the same. For color negative and slide film, the majority of options are daylight balanced, so if it’s a bit cloudy out, your photos can get a weird cool tint to them, which may or may not be easily corrected. There are definitely techniques to properly white balance your scans, but sometimes, things just don’t always feel right. This is rarely the case, but it does happen.
In addition, in situations in which there is minimal variation in color, a photograph can take on a sort of boring quality that may be improved by converting to black and white. This is particularly true if there is a decent to large range of lightness values or isolated, interesting focal points with nice out-of-focus areas. Lastly, and this is the primary reason I convert my images, if the image was pretty dramatically underexposed, black and white images can take the exposure being pushed beyond belief far more than color images. If you shoot film, as I do, you are not able to up the ISO just because it starts getting a little darker out, and raising the exposure in post becomes necessary. In these circumstances, shooting wide open with the slowest shutter speed you can reasonably shoot becomes necessary. If it is still too dark and the photos are underexposed by more than two stops, color shifts are virtually guaranteed, and converting to black and white may be the only way to salvage the image.
This is definitely the fun part and why I will occasionally convert my images to black and white. Truth be told, I convert almost all of my color photographs to black and white just to see what they look like. Sometimes, rarely, I end up liking the monochromatic version of my photograph more than its color counterpart even if it looks great in color!
Personally, I prefer to use Lightroom for some of my simpler edits and Photoshop for most of my editing. As such, I’ll lay out a couple of ways using these programs. In using Lightroom, the way that I’ve found to work best for me is to mute the saturation. And just like that, you have muted all colors in the photograph, and the resulting image is left monochromatic. I should note, though, that this particular method usually leaves the resulting image low on contrast. This doesn’t matter that much, however, since you can always crank up the contrast later on.
Using Photoshop is significantly easier than Lightroom, and I tend to like the end results much more. Simply apply a gradient map from black to white. Done. This method, compared with the method mentioned above for Lightroom, seems much more natural to me. I also prefer to do most of all other editing in Photoshop anyhow. Typically, I use bright/highlight and dark/shadow luminosity masks with Curves adjustments layers.
The timeless quality of black and white photography can definitely leave a photo feeling a bit drab. Indeed, by simplifying your photograph, you may well be taking away from part of what makes the photograph interesting in the first place. Conversely, the simplification may highlight the best attributes of the photograph, leaving you something better than its color counterpart. Some of the considerations I like to make when I critique my work include the use of negative space, lines, contrast, and the presence of emotion. The final characteristic of that list is often what I look for in my monochromatic work. For me, the je ne sais quoi black and white photography is that it's more transportive compared with color photographs. They are more capable to convey a time, place, and emotion — the attributes that make up my favorite photographs. It's for this reason that if I'm photographing/documenting visits and/or trips with friends, I often gravitate to black and white film or converting my photos to black and white.
Converting to Instead of Shooting Black and White
Film photographers such as myself know that there's a benefit to shooting black and white film over the color positive or negative film. Primarily, it's cheaper, and you can easily process it at home. The downside, of course, is that you can always convert a color image to black and white, but you cannot easily add color to a black and white image (this is a point my fiancée reminds me of every time she sees me load black and white film into my camera). As it happens, one of my favorite films for black and white is actually Kodak Portra 400. Yes, yes, it's a color negative film. When it's converted to black and white, however, the result is gorgeous.
What about you? How often do you shoot in black and white or convert your photographs to black and white? Is there something you look for in a photograph before you make it monochromatic?