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How Can You Tell When Black and White Is Right?

We see the world in color, and cameras can reliably record the colors we see. Despite this, a black and white conversion will often make a photo better. When does black and white pay off?

The decision on whether or not to convert a photo to black and white is often a subjective one that depends on what a person prefers. You’ll certainly find people who always choose black and white… or who always choose color. Converting a picture to black and white is a way of stylizing it; after all, it’s “normal” for things to be in color. Yet despite all this subjectivity, there are several guidelines that can help you to decide when to go for black and white.

Is Color Important For This Picture?

Try taking a look at some of your photos and thinking about this question: Is color what’s really important here? Would the picture lose anything if it didn’t have any color? If so, then it’s probably not a good idea to convert it to black and white. Imagine you’re trying to photograph a gorgeous, colorful ara macaw. There probably won’t be any point if you’re shooting to black and white.

But that doesn’t mean that strongly colorful scenes should never be converted to black and white. Garish colors can often distract from your subject. And in some cases the colors in your picture can have absolutely no meaning for the mood or topic that you want to express. But when colors are a part of a photo’s topic, that photo should be in color.

The main topic of this photo is the colorfulness of this site, and the main subject is a New York yellow cab, in all its yellowness. Converting it to black and white would rob it of its point—the fact that New York at night is bustling with activity and bursting with colors, with the Yellow Cabs being the most colorful of all. So here you want to keep the colors. Canon EOS 100D, EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM, 1/80 s, f/4, ISO 800, focal length 24 mm

The main topic of this photo is the colorfulness of this site, and the main subject is a New York yellow cab, in all its yellowness. Converting it to black and white would rob it of its point—the fact that New York at night is bustling with activity and bursting with colors, with the Yellow Cabs being the most colorful of all. So here you want to keep the colors.
Canon EOS 100D, EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM, 1/80 s, f/4, ISO 800, focal length 24 mm

Is The Photo Dominated by Geometry?

If your photo uses graphical elements and above all highly visible lines, then it’s ideal for black and white. Use the scene’s lines to get a dynamic composition that forcefully leads a viewer’s eyes. In black and white these lines stand out even more, and they’ll be all the more impressive.

This photo is full of lines that supplement the main line formed by the figure’s shadow. In black and white the clearer contrast makes them more visible, and so they support the highly geometric conception of this picture overall. Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/1.8, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 125, focal length 28 mm

This photo is full of lines that supplement the main line formed by the figure’s shadow. In black and white the clearer contrast makes them more visible, and so they support the highly geometric conception of this picture overall.
Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/1.8, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 125, focal length 28 mm

Is the Photo High-contrast?

High-contrast pictures with rich, full shadows and large, clear, bright areas tend to work superbly in black and white. You see, as soon as you remove the colors from a picture, all that’s really left is the interplay of light and shadow.

High-contrast pictures have lots of black and lots of white, and not so many medium gray tones. And contrast is one of the things that can make black and white photos so interesting. Often colors steal our attention and rob us of the taste of contrast. So if you’re sitting in front of a picture where the difference between light and dark tones is dramatic, then don’t hesitate to convert it to black and white.

The figures’ silhouettes are in fairly clear contrast to their surroundings. But this color picture also distracts with several striking colors and multiple tones. Converting it to black and white gives it a clearer, more compact composition. Canon EOS 100D, EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM, 1/60 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, focal length 24 mm

The figures’ silhouettes are in fairly clear contrast to their surroundings. But this color picture also distracts with several striking colors and multiple tones. Converting it to black and white gives it a clearer, more compact composition.
Canon EOS 100D, EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM, 1/60 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600, focal length 24 mm

Does It Glimmer with Shadows?

When the sun is just above the horizon, it can cast long shadows, which a black and white conversion will then emphasize and highlight. Here as well you’re playing a game of contrast between light areas and the dark shadows that stick to them. Colors bewilder and divert all eyes from these shadows. So if you want to strengthen shadows, convert a picture to black and white.

This picture is built on the way the lines from different objects run parallel to each other. They make it feel calm and harmonious. A black-and-white take makes this effect even stronger; the shadows stand out and small color details hide behind the spectrum of black and white. Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

This picture is built on the way the lines from different objects run parallel to each other. They make it feel calm and harmonious. A black-and-white take makes this effect even stronger; the shadows stand out and small color details hide behind the spectrum of black and white.
Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

Is Anything Brimming with Structure or Texture?

Objects with a palpable structure or texture, or any object with a characteristic surface… these are all promising candidates for black and white. This can mean anything from tree bark to peeling paint or wrinkled skin. Normally you feel texture with your fingers. But as a photographer, you want to make people feel it with their eyes. Your take on a picture should give your audience the feeling they’re viewing something smooth, rough, sharp, or soft. And that’s easier to do in black and white.

In color this picture of a crack-riddled wall feels like an abstract painting or drawing. Black and white gives us more room to feel the individual cracks and the roughness and wrinkliness of the surface. Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/1.8, 1/4000 s, f/3.5, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

In color this picture of a crack-riddled wall feels like an abstract painting or drawing. Black and white gives us more room to feel the individual cracks and the roughness and wrinkliness of the surface.
Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/1.8, 1/4000 s, f/3.5, ISO 100, focal length 50 mm

Is the Photo Dominated by Just One Thing?

Simple compositions look good in black and white. The ideal is to have a picture with one main subject that is set against uncomplicated surroundings. It’s important for it to be a bit isolated from its background, since in black and white, the two could otherwise blend together.

This photo is very simple, and even has a minimalistic feel. A visible figure is set against a simple background, and so the picture also works well in black and white. Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/7.1, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

This photo is very simple, and even has a minimalistic feel. A visible figure is set against a simple background, and so the picture also works well in black and white.
Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/7.1, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

What Mood Do You Want to Create?

Often both the black-and-white and color variants of a photo have their strong points, and so it comes down to what you want your picture to say. Black and white boosts work with a picture’s drama. You can also use it to give a picture a darker or moodier atmosphere. Of course this doesn’t mean that black and white photos are always sad or dramatic. But it’s easier to steer in those directions than it would be with full color.

One nice example of this is any landscape with a sky full of clouds, where black and white underscores the sky’s structure, draws out its contrast, and makes the picture feel more dramatic overall. You can also get some atmosphere from objects peeking out of side streets, or landscapes drowned in fog.

A carnival of clouds was running across the evening sky alongside the sunset. In the color version, what stands out the most is the blue and yellow-orange color combo. In black and white, meanwhile, the structuring of the sky by clouds plays a more important role; thanks to the strong contrast, it looks more dramatic than in the color version. Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/22, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

A carnival of clouds was running across the evening sky alongside the sunset. In the color version, what stands out the most is the blue and yellow-orange color combo. In black and white, meanwhile, the structuring of the sky by clouds plays a more important role; thanks to the strong contrast, it looks more dramatic than in the color version.
Sony A7, FE 28 mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/22, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

When you’re converting photos to black and white, take care to keep your blacks black and your whites white, so that your pictures aren’t just drowning in bland shades of gray. After all, the magic of black and white photos lies in contrasts and in the interplay of light and dark. Even though the decision to convert a picture to black and white is a matter of taste and of the atmosphere you want to create, it’s always true that when you do go black and white, you want a bolder composition.

In any case, don’t worry—seek out clear lines, dominant figures, objects on simple backgrounds, and high-contrast scenes, and you’ll be fine.

 



There are 3 comments

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  1. Jaqueline Pocahontas

    Excelente, alguns anos passados meu foco eram pra cores primárias. Conheci um alemão ( hoje meu marido), que apreciava preto e branco. Então ele postava fotos de mim em preto e branco nas redes sociais. Isso me levou a ter o gosto de ter olhos pelo preto e branco.

  2. ldldjr

    I found the article informative – and it highlighted a thought I had yesterday when taking a photo. The little bit of color was the dominant (but minuscule theme), whereas a couple of months ago I did a similar photo where B&W was the obvious choice.

    Does it matter if the B&W is achieved by using a specific digital camera setting vs. altering the original color photo to B&W via software? Is there a difference?

    • Zoner

      Hello, I can recommend conversion to B&W via software. Not only you can set the channels according to your own (and you see the result on a big screen immedietaly), but you still have a colorful original that you can edit in another way. So you have more options and your work is more precise.


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