What makes a good black and white photo? How do you know when to convert an image to black and white, and when to keep it in color? Is it best to shoot in monochrome mode or convert later on the computer?
These are all questions I get asked frequently. So here are a 7 tips to help you sort out when to shoot black and white, when to convert from color, and what to look for to create more dynamic black and white images.
#1 – Look for scenes with good contrast
Black and white images look best with a lot of contrast. Often when I convert a color image to black and white, I add contrast and clarity, boost the curve, push the white/black sliders – or a combination of all three. To have the appearance of an image full of depth and richness, you need to have good solid blacks in your image, and pure white. This article on using the basic sliders may help you, but with black and white I take it even a step further.
Even midday lighting can work well in black and white
Like the cityscape of New York City above, even when shooting in the normally harsh lighting conditions of midday, you can capture great black and white images. Look for contrast on buildings (with one side in the light, one side in shadow), texture, and shadows. Do not be afraid of shadows in your images, especially in black and white photography. The lack of shadows is what can make your black and white images look drab and flat.
#2 – Convert to black and white when color is distracting
Sometimes it's best to convert to black and white (or shoot in monochrome mode) when color in the image is distracting in some way. Maybe there is something in the background that's brightly colored and drawing attention. Or maybe the subject itself is a color that isn't appealing. This is a good time to do a black and white conversion.
Or the white balance is off and can't be fixed.
Perhaps there is a mixture of light sources such as daylight, fluorescent, and tungsten. That will make a mess of the white balance, and sometimes it's impossible to correct. Such was the case of this image show in Las Vegas below.
#3 – Use black and white to create a mood
Black and white photography can be a bit nostalgic, dramatic, and moody. Use that to your advantantage. My background is in the darkroom, processing my own black and white film and making my own prints by hand. It's tactile and while doing black and white now is less so, I still love the mood it can create. You can transform an ordinary scene or object into something dramatic just be converting to black and white.
#4 – Shoot in black and white to help you see light better
If you have trouble seeing the direction of light and how it works with your subject when you are shooting – try putting your camera into Monochrome Mode. If you shoot in RAW format you still retain all the color information if you decide to use it later. But what it does it allows you to see the preview on your camera's LCD screen in black and white. That means all you will see are tones, light and dark. Invariably, if you shoot this way for a length of time, it will help you “see” the light better.
For more on this topic, try this challenge: Monthly Challenge – Shoot in Monochrome Learn to See Light. The challenge is over now but the lesson is still there to be learned.
#5 – Convert to black and white on the computer for more control
Having said the last point about shooting in Monochrome Mode, so why not just shoot that way and leave it in black and white? The reason is that when you pull it into Lightroom or Photoshop you still have all the color information to play with. That means you can selectively darken or lighten certain tones in your image, such as darken all blues (darken the sky) or lighten yellow and orange tones (lighten skin tones). That gives you a lot more control over the final look of your black and white image.
I will cover this subject in more detail in a future video tutorial!
#6 – What subjects work well in black and white
Another question I get is, “Are some subjects just better suited to black and white?” Well – yes! And some work well in both, so that leaves it up to you and your artistic vision to make the call.
Some subjects that can, and often work well and black and white include (there are of course others, this is just a few that come to mind):
- Street photography
- Characters (performers)
- Antique subjects like old cars
- Flowers (this one can go either way)
- Things with lots of texture
- Subjects that haven't got much color anyway
#7 Which work better in color?
While there is no hard and fast rule, some things generally work better in color such as:
- Landscape (but not always, think Ansel Adams!)
- Flowers (but can also look great in b/w)
- Food (gray meat is generally not a good or appetizing thing)
- When the colorful object is the subject
Hopefully, that gives you some idea of when to shoot in black and white, and what subjects or scenes work well in monochrome. Please share your black and white shots in the comments below, and if you have any questions – ask away!