Color photography may be the standard in this day and age, but the classic and dramatic look of black and white still has its place in photography. In fact, sometimes black and white looks and works better in a photo than color, and thanks to digital post-processing, we’re easily able to change a color photo into a black and white one long after the photo is taken.
But how does one know when to either shoot in black and white or turn a color photo into a black and white photo in post-processing? There are a few factors that can help you determine whether black and white is a good choice.
When Color is a Distraction
Images with a wide tonal range (definite blacks and whites with varying degrees of gray), tend to do well in black and white, as well as images with scenes that have compelling light, form, and texture.
When the hues of the subject matter distract from the message you want to convey or if they are less effective than the competing light or the subject’s textures, the image may be the perfect candidate for the black and white form.
To Bring Out Details
Using black and white in photos is a great way to bring out shapes, textures, lines, and high contrast details. The fine details in the image will stand out more because the eye won’t have to focus on colors.
Also consider black and white when there are patterns in the foreground and background of an image. Removing the color will allow the patterns and textures to play off of each other in a whole new way.
To Create a Mood
Black and white has a way of changing and creating moods in a scene. You can instantly add more drama to an image by removing the color and a sad scene can invoke more emotion when changed to black and white.
Landscapes and stormy skies can also do well in black and white. Look for cloud coverage and thunderstorms - basically any kind of texture in the sky - to create an interesting black and white photo.
To Capture Emotion and Connectivity
Do you feel a deeper connection, or at least a deeper curiosity for people in black and white photos? There may be a reason for that.
In his article, “Why It’s Still Important to Shoot in Black and White,” David Geffin writes, “Looking at someone’s face, or into their eyes, without the distraction of color can provide a stronger emotional connection to your subject.”
And how true that is, because although a person’s eye color can be interesting, there is something about a black and white photo of a person that evokes a deeper emotion and connection. With the color stripped away there is little to distract from the human being, or even an animal, in the scene.
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To Highlight Beauty
Consider using the timeless look of black and white to highlight a subject’s beauty. Deep blacks and striking whites create tonal ranges that colorful makeup just can’t. Plus, a person’s discoloration or skin distractions will become less obvious in black and white, making it a favorite choice for beauty and fashion photographers like Peter Lindbergh who has said, “I have problems taking portraits in color because color reacts differently to the light. With black and white, you get the feeling of transcending the skin, until, if you’re lucky, you might see a tiny bit of something, what could be the soul of that person, right in front of your camera. Color seems to stop the transcending process right at the skin’s surface.”
When the Light is Just Right
Pay attention to the direction of the light because it’s particularly important when deciding whether an image will work in black and white. Light can be used to reveal detail and enhance texture. You can use side light to create small shadows, which in turn can reveal textured areas and boost height and shape. When the light is right, black and white can pop more than color and create a three dimensional look.
The wonderful thing about digital photography is that there is no wrong choice if you save a copy of the original color photo. Shoot in color all you like, then convert to black and white. If you like what you see, great! If not, just change it back to its original state and work with the color photo. The flexibility of modern, digital photography should free you to experiment with both color and black and white.
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