When to Shoot in Black and White :: Digital Photo Secrets

When to Shoot in Black and White

by David Peterson 0 comments

When you think about black and white photography - classic black and white photography - you probably first think about beautiful, small aperture landscapes with big, bold skies and lots of natural beauty. But the chances are pretty good that you have also seen plenty of beautiful landscapes that are not in black and white. Have you ever thought about why some photographers choose to shoot in color and why some photographers choose to shoot without? How can you arrive at the best decision when it comes to choosing black and white versus color?

  • Nikon D800E
  • 100
  • f/9.0
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 24 mm

Bowman Lake and a Mountain View (Black & White) by Flickr user thor_mark 

What makes a good black and white?

The decision whether or not to shoot in black and white should not just be based upon what your mood happens to be on any given day. Sure, if you’re in a black and white mood you should go looking for black and white photo opportunities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everything you see is going to make for a great black and white. So how do you know the difference?

Detail

One of the best reasons for shooting in black and white is to show your viewer detail. Sometimes the presence of color can actually distract from the important details within an image—but when you remove color from the equation, your viewer is sort of forced to pay attention to the detail that might have otherwise been obscured by all that color. So one of the most important things you can do first is recognize whether or not there is any interesting detail present in the scene.

Texture is one of those areas of detail that makes for a particularly compelling black and white photo. Let’s consider as an example a macro shot of a parrot’s feather—parrots are extremely colorful birds, and if you shot that image in color you’d have a photo that was really not about anything else but those brilliant colors. But when you remove the color and present to your viewer a black and white version of the feather, you’ve got an image that’s about something completely different. Suddenly, your viewer notices the fine texture in each one of the fibers that makes that feather what it is. She might notice the way the fibers join the shaft of the feather. She may notice the way the fibers become downier as they approach the tip. These are the sorts of details that she might skim over altogether if she became too lost in all those fantastic colors.

When you have a subject that has this kind of detail, you almost always have a good candidate for a black and white subject, provided that you keep a couple of other factors in mind as well.

  • Canon EOS 60D
  • 200
  • f/5.6
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 70 mm

Backyard Flowers In Black And White 10 After The Storm by Flickr user thelearningcurvedotca

Contrast

One of the fundamental hallmarks of a great black and white photo is a contrast. When I was learning to shoot in black and white, one of the first things that was a pounded regularly into my head was that a good black and white image needs to have a complete range of tones starting with white and continuing all the way to black. If you don’t have that good range of tones, you end up with an image that looks flat. So how can you make this determination when you are on site? It can be a little bit challenging, because colors that look very different to the eye can look almost identical once they have been converted to black and white. So you may have a nice, green, grassy field full of pretty pink flowers that stand out beautifully in the afternoon sun—but once you convert that image to black and white the green and the pink look almost exactly the same. So instead of seeing each individual pink flowers, you don’t really see much of anything except some varying shapes within the grass. This is a great example of the sort of scene that isn’t going to make for a compelling black and white photograph.

Every time you evaluate a scene and its potential for becoming a great black and white image—and remember you don’t necessarily have to do this in camera—look for areas of both strong shadow and strong highlight, as well as a broad range of mid-tones. Consider how these areas of contrast and gray tones will affect your final image. For example, if you have mostly mid-tones and only a few blacks and whites, your image may not be a great choice for a black and white. Or, if those areas of contrast are relegated to the less important or less eye-catching parts of the scene, they may not be enough to justify desaturating the shot. So the lesson to be learned from all of this is that not only do you have to have a good contrast in the scene, but it has to make a difference to your composition.


contrast by Flickr user #ZS

Light

Light is important in pretty much every photograph you take. Without light, you can’t even have a photograph. But light is particularly important in a black and white image because of the way that it can be used to reveal detail. When light comes from the side, for example, it can actually enhance texture because it creates small shadows that reveal the varying differences in height and shape of even the smallest areas of texture. So besides showing your viewer the fine detail on the surface of an object, side light also helps make an object appear three dimensional. Overhead light, on the other hand, can actually make an object look less three dimensional because any shadows it casts lie under the object and its textured areas. So overhead light can actually make an object appear to lack detail altogether. So when looking for good black and white scenes, pay particular attention to the direction of the light.

  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 200
  • f/3.5
  • 1/2500 sec
  • 100 mm

005/365 :: Touch The Light by Flickr user matthileo

Tonal variation

“Tonal variation” as I’m using it here refers not to contrast (or having a complete range of tones from black to white) but to the need to actively exclude large areas of the same, unbroken tone. Here’s a good example of what I mean:

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS
  • 100
  • f/5.6
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 23 mm

White Sky by Flickr user Christina Ann VanMeter

The sky in this image has rendered as stark white—that’s because the photo was shot during a time of day when there was too much dynamic range in the scene for the camera to handle. In this case, a bright sky came out as burned-out white because the camera opted to capture detail in the foreground instead of in the sky. You can get a very similar problem whether the sky is cloudless or overcast—you may be able to capture it as a shade of gray but that single area of one tone is going to come off as dull no matter what you do.

Try to look for landscapes that have interesting skies to go along with them. This generally means clouds—you don’t need to limit yourself to just shooting stormy skies but there should be something happening up there, whether it’s a collection of wispy springtime clouds or a looming thunderstorm. If there is texture in the sky, it’s going to make for a much more compelling and interesting photograph.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 100
  • f/4.0
  • 0.6
  • 17 mm

"Sacrifice" (Explored #23) by Flickr user Luke Peterson Photography

Lack of tonal variation is typically a problem for landscape images, but I have seen other unsuccessful shots where there are large areas of a single shade of gray or white, especially in the background. Now, you don’t necessarily want a lot of distractions in the background, of course, but sometimes a plain background can actually make the subject appear dull for the simple reason that that single, unchanging swath of gray makes it appear to lack context. When there’s something happening in the background—even if it’s unidentifiable blobs of gray—you know that that subject exists somewhere, not just in front of a featureless backdrop.

An exception is of course when you’re deliberately photographing a product or another object that needs to be separated from the background, or when you’re composing your shot in a minimalist way, but think carefully about whether or not this approach will work before you decide to take it. Remember that when you take away color the eye looks for something else to draw interest, and it can’t find interest in areas of unchanging gray or white.

Conclusion

The beautiful thing about digital is that you can shoot in color, convert to black and white and then change your mind again later on, so we’ve got a lot more flexibility today than we did a couple of decades ago, when shooting in black and white meant buying black and white film and taking a no-turning-back approach to every scene. If in doubt, I say do the conversion, evaluate your results and then change your mind if you don’t like what you see. The nice thing about converting after you’ve taken the photo is that you can see with your own eyes (vs. your memory) what that scene looked like in color just moments before you wipe the color out of it. This is a great learning tool as well as a handy way to create a black and white—it can really give you a good feeling for how to find scenes that will work well without color. And again, it’s foolproof. Always save a copy of your original and you don’t have to worry that you made the wrong choice.

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