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When to go black and white?

When should an image be made into a black and white?

I get that question asked a lot. Most photographer will default to the old standby…  if the lighting or coloring looks weird, make it black and white. Or if you want it to feel more “arty” make it black and white. But is there something more to it than that?

One of the factors when color is removed from an image is that there is heightened detail awareness. (There are other factors in play as well, but that can be for another day.) So one of the questions to ask yourself is… “Is this image about the details?” If so, then black and white will be a good idea.

Let’s look at an image… pretty much straight out of the camera

color

This image is about the girl and the rocks… the sky is not really giving us much and is not a main character in the story

When editing, you need to ask yourself “what am I trying to say?” or “what is the story?”

In this image, the story is about the girl and the rocks. If there were clouds or more color in the sky to add to the drama, maybe the story could have been about or included them, but for this image the sky is a bit player. The rock detail and the pretty girl are the story. As a matter of fact, the bright colorful shoe-laces are distracting from the story and pulling our eye down to her feet.

So now look at the image when edited in Lightroom and changed to black and white.

bw

Now the story is about the details and the focus is on the girl and the rocks and not the shoes.

The rocks come alive and lead you up to the girl and there is more drama in the scene and less distraction from the bright laces and the muddy, not great sky.

So when trying to decide whether to change to black and white… think about the details.

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22 comments

  1. tanja 13 April, 2015 at 20:00 Reply

    I don’t like this b&w version at all. It looks dead. The colored photo makes me feel real thing, the b&w version is static. I don’t get it.

  2. Paul 12 April, 2015 at 11:57 Reply

    a girl sitting on a rock is not a story. A story requires a narrative structure. A picture can help tell a story but it is not a story in itsel

    • Pete Collins 16 April, 2015 at 10:03 Reply

      I agree paul… when you are talking about a literal story… part of what makes photography so wonderful is that as a viewer we automatically start building a story around and about what we are seeing. We fill in the narrative… such as why the girl is on the rocks… what is she looking at? etc… A picture/photograph can just be a story about a beautiful girl, but the question is… have you made that plot line clear to the viewer? As a viewer, we will build our own story about any image, the question is have you made the image as clear as possible so that the viewers story and yours have the same plot line? I hope that makes sense.

  3. George Rodopoulos 11 April, 2015 at 16:27 Reply

    I tried your way first. Then I changed her hair and eyebrows to the same neon green as her shoelaces. I think I’m in love. GLR

  4. Steve 8 April, 2015 at 20:16 Reply

    Great tip. Just started to “save” my color photos by converting to B&W, split tone and duotone. Thanks

  5. Steve 8 April, 2015 at 20:15 Reply

    Agree with this tip. I just started to realize that the best way to “save” a poor color photo is to try it in B&W. Even started to experiment with split tone a duotone. Thanks

  6. Bob Fitz 8 April, 2015 at 16:36 Reply

    I like the B&W and totally get it. However, the replace color feature in PS could have been used on the laces. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  7. KatieO 8 April, 2015 at 15:47 Reply

    The warm tones in the sky and rocks compete with the girl’s skin tones. She blends in (well, maybe not her shoes… ^_^) Going b&w here made for a pretty dramatic improvement. I will keep this in mind! I haven’t shot b&w since my AE-1 film days and I’m pretty in love with color so my bias has probably blinded me to opportunities like this. Thanks, Pete!

  8. Jacob 7 April, 2015 at 08:59 Reply

    Going B&W seems to be a go to for all ill exposed images these days. For headshots, I offer both versions to all customers. It seems that trends dictate that choice more than actual reason or science. Great article!

    JC

  9. Oleg 3 April, 2015 at 13:53 Reply

    Grate advice! Color image looks like an advertising for the shoes. Black and white – about the girl. Very cool. Thank you very much!

  10. lyle 3 April, 2015 at 13:39 Reply

    You can get a super quick visual check and flip back and forth between B/W – Color using the “V” key.

    Deeper look – by rolling your mouse over the various BW Presets included in LR, and looking at the navigator window. (on the “filter” presets – the filter color lightens its own, darkens it’s opposite/complementary color – yellow lightens yellows, darkens blues…)

    • Mika 5 April, 2015 at 04:52 Reply

      Thanks a bunch for this one! Seems like I’ve forgotten this short cut a long time ago. It’s nice for a quick visual reference.

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