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I recently had a play with converting some images to black and white to see how that changed the image. Some baby photos came out particularly well, while others I tried seemed less interesting when in black and white.

I'm wondering what causes things to look more or less interesting in black and white. Are there any subjects which generally look better in black and white? Or are there particular qualities of a photo which might make you think something would look better in black and white?

Things I've thought of from my own playing around:

  • Black and white images prevent the eye being distracted by different colour objects, so the eye may be more drawn to the intended subject.
  • When the colours are a strong part of the image (maybe in a festival or market), they are unlikely to look better as black and white.

Are there generally accepted criteria (or rules of thumb) or is it a purely subjective judgement?

Here's hoping I'm not going to start a holy war - I'm genuinely interested if there are any rules of thumb for when black and white is likely to be a pleasing transformation.

14 Answers 14

25

I don't really have set rules (however I bet some do exist) for B&W conversions, but in genral for me it's:

  • When color really doesn't add anything to an image. For example you have a scene where most of the tones are muted.

  • When I want the image subject to be about the space, shapes, or negative space

  • For artistic effect This is a bit of a catch-all, I don't have the technical ability to describe why I choose B&W, just that I thought it would look good in B&W.

I rarely do pure B&W shoots, however I have done a few in the past, and I have enjoyed them. It's an interesting exercise to shoot with either B&W film, or force your camera to shoot B&W only (not allowing you any chance to recover color data). That way you think more about the image in terms of a black & white "negative" instead of a color to black and white conversion.

25

Kodak has a series of tips for choosing black and white shots that really covers everything.

I personally prefer to go with black and white when I am trying to convey the texture of a subject, when the colors distract from the story I'm trying to tell, or when there is a strong lighting contrast in the shot.

18

Quite a lot of the time, much more than most people think. My advice would be to try converting pretty much everything and see how you like the results. After doing this for a while, I discovered that now I have a specific choice in mind (color or B&W) right when I'm composing, and I'm usually right. It's a cool feeling.

Also (and this doesn't quite answer your question, but I think it's germane): convert to black and white thoughtfully. There are many, many ways to do this, of course. My own preferred method is to use a film simulator, such as the open source iNDA plugin for Bibble (which makes trying out an image in B&W extremely quick, about 2 seconds). But the point is that one should do the conversion following a specific method chosen thoughtfully rather than just setting the saturation to zero.

I also find that vigorous use of contrast and/or curves will often yield a much more interesting photo as well.

10

Usually the decision is made before the photo is taken. I could go on at length about what makes a good black and white photograph, but instead I'll point you in the direction of an article I wrote about it which may help you.

  • 2
    +1 to making the decision in advance. In addition to your (nice) article, there was just a good short post on this at The Online Photographer: theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/… – mattdm Aug 17 '11 at 16:04
  • @Nick Miners - Great Iceland shots! I love that place! – dpollitt Aug 17 '11 at 16:24
  • I support the idea of thinking before shooting. Ansel Adams, whom you mention, called it previzualization. – Jindra Lacko Apr 17 '17 at 9:00
9

While by no means the only sort of subject that often looks good in black and white, subjects where the textures are of primary interest often work better in black and white. For instance, gnarled roots and bark often look better in black and white.

7

Most of the other answers here seem to be about artistic merits.

On a slightly more mundane level, I've used B&W to salvage photos in the following circumstances:

  • beautiful photo of my baby daughter, with yellow stain on pink clothes: B&W didn't completely eliminate the stain, but made it unremarkable.
  • A series of shots of our family: the only one where everyone was looking at the camera, not blinking, squinting or fooling around, was the one that was all grainy. B&W made it 'look artistic'.

Example:

alt text

6

That's going to vary widely I would think! However, for me it's usually falls into:

  • Colour in the image is distracting. Often this happens for me when I'm looking more at a light pattern that I want to convey rather than the object(s) themself.

  • The image conveys a sense of age and black and white enhances that quality. I took a picture once of a very old camera with dust and cob webs on it. It look good in colour, the age was there, but looked so much more older in black and white because that is what it would have once captured.

  • When it feels right. Which, as with Alan, is just the artistic effect that I too can't explain. Sometimes it's a portrait shot, sometimes it's the way the natural light illuminates the subject, sometimes it's just because!

Anyways, that's just my reasons for black and white. I too am curious as to what others think about this.

5

I read a quite a while ago that I really liked, which is:

"Color is the enemy of shape"

A lot of B&W is all about shape (defined in part by tone), and so use of B&W can be good where those aspects are very important to the image.

I don't agree with the concept of B&W "enhancing" a photo though, to me it seems like either a photo is B&W or it's not.

4

If BW will enhance your vision, it will enhance your picture too.

I think BW conversion should start from the idea, from the story you want to tell, from the associations you want to create in the viewers' heads.

BW is usually associated with old, aged, mystic, timeless, gloomy, dismal, noir, dramatic, etc. Associating BW with negative emotions is not a rule, but you're likely to use BW for such purposes more often. Feel free to add your thoughts here.

BW can be successfully combined with techniques like low key, high key and chiaroscuro.

Michael Kenna's work is worth checking if BW is of interest.

4

Just read a good post: Seven Elements That Help Make A Great Black & White Photograph by Scott Bourne. Nice, succinct.

3

Oooh very subjective! Having dabbled in B&W myself recently, I think the best black and white shots are those where you want the viewer to feel an extra degree of separation from the subject; I think it makes you feel like more of an observer than an empathiser (especially when shooting people). Otherwise, I think it works best where there are really interesting textures and contrasts. It's also worth trying, from an educational point of view, as it makes you think more about each photograph, so that if/when you do go back to colour, you can take what you've learned and apply it for all your shots.

3

I think you should consider black and white anytime nostalgia or texture are prominent components to your composition. My favorite B&W photo shoot was a young couple that I shot their engagement photos on the rocks at a local beach. These are photos that they will keep, and probably display for a long time (nostalgia factor), and the contrast of the rough rocks, and their skin really popped in B&W. I'd asked the couple if they wanted B&W, but she wanted color, I said let me shoot a roll of each. She bought eight prints from that shoot, all B&W. Another plus was I was able to make an poster sized enlargement of one shot and displayed it at the entrance to the reception. I left several markers for guests to leave 'well wishes' on the poster. I choose a shot that had a large expanse of sand, which was mostly white in the photo, to give the guests a large area where they could write.

3

When there are contrasting tones in your image, B&W can really add a good effect to it. Mostly when the image has a play of light and shadow you can try to make it monochrome.

2

When you want to suggest that something is old

(late 19th to mid-20th century)

Perhaps someone in Edwardian costume, or posing as a WWII GI or modelling a 1940's style suit with a hat.

  • Is "creating an old look" really all there is to black&white photos? – Esa Paulasto Oct 25 '13 at 5:18

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