Most of my photography is of the color variety, as readers of this twice-monthly guest blog have seen, but I do dabble in black and white imagery…or perhaps more than merely dabble.
“Seeing in black and white” is a challenge; while some images work well in both color and monochrome renditions most, in my view, do not. Most of the time, when I convert an image to black and white (and I always capture images in color, even when using a digital camera that has a black and white mode, because color images inherently have more pixel-level data), it’s something that I intended to convert at the time I clicked the shutter. In other words, I’m typically working with an image that I “saw” as black and white in the first place. On occasion, however, I see something about a color image, during the postprocessing phase of my workflow, that suggests it will work well in black and white. These images are what I call happy accidents, and they are decidedly the exception to the rule.
What “works” in black and white is entirely subjective, but here are my thoughts on the subject. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Images where form trumps substantive subject matter often work better in monochrome than color, because the color can often—not always, but frequently—serve to hide the form. If it feels as though the color is masking the point of the image, it’s almost always worth at least taking a look to see if removing color lets the form shine through.
Take a look at the two renditions of this banana tree leaf. I think the image works both in color and black & white, but see how much more starkly the strength of the image’s pattern comes through in the monochrome version.
The black and white image isn’t necessarily better than the color one—that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the pattern certainly is more easily recognized in the monochrome version.
Lack of Color
Perhaps the most obvious situation where black & white works is when there’s relatively little color in the image to begin with, or when color simply doesn’t add anything to the image’s appeal. This is frequently the case with waterfall/cascade images, and I often find myself thinking, in the field, that an image will work better in black and white than in color when I find myself photographing this subject matter.
The images in this section fill that bill. While I think this is one of those images that actually works pretty well both ways, I prefer the black and white precisely because it distills this image down to the core far better than the color version does. This image is about contrast, detail and texture, and I think that’s all driven home far better in the black and white than the color rendition.
One of the advantages of a monochrome approach is that you have far greater latitude to apply extreme contrast to an image without it seeming forced. When an image is in color, strong contrast can appear garish, but with black and white, we’re already suspending our expectations for a “realistic” depiction; after all, we don’t see naturally in black and white (most of us don’t, anyway). Note how the added contrast to the black and white version of the image below completely changes the feel of the shot. Again, whether it’s “better” or not is subjective, and beside the point in this instance. A monochromatic interpretation provides a far broader range of tolerance for artistic expression in photography than is the case with color.
Sometimes when the light is fairly flat, a color image just kind of sits there and does nothing for us. Black and white not infrequently suits a naturally somber mood, and helps bring it to the fore without just seeming blah. I think that reflects the seaside image set below fairly well. The color shot doesn’t do much for me; the only reason I worked the image up in color was for this presentation. But the black & white really captures the moody feel of that damp, chilly overcast day.
Note: I’d be happy to spend a future column discussing black & white postprocessing workflow. If that holds any interest to you, please let me know by leaving a comment to that effect. Thanks.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.