This is a guest post by Darin Rogers, a semi-nomadic writer, photographer, and part-time civil engineer currently based in the Philippines. Darin is also author of Capturing The Journey, which teaches you to take better travel photos with technique as much as technology. He wrote a wonderful guest post for me back in 2011 titled, 5 Ways To Take Better Sunset Photos When Traveling, and I’m very excited to have him back today. All of the photos in this post were taken by Darin.
Back in the day, when I was first learning about photography and how to use a camera, a good percentage of the photos I took were in black and white. At the time, there was a practical reason for this. Film cost money and black and white film was a lot cheaper than color. It was also easier to process yourself in a darkroom. I remember hours spent in a darkroom messing around with smelly chemicals, film canisters, and photo papers under the glow of red light.
Those days are pretty much gone now. With the proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras that produce high-quality images with bright vibrant colors that cost nothing, most people don’t think much about black and white these days. If it is considered, it’s possibly thought of as old-fashioned or relegated to the purvey of fine art photographers. However, this needn’t be the case. There are a number of reasons why you might want to consider black and white for some images.
Why Use Black And White At All?
At one time, everything was done in black and white, or monochrome, because that was the only option. Nowadays, we do have a choice and color is of course most often used, although often just by default. So what are some of the reasons we might want to use black and white? When might it be an appropriate alternative to consider? A lot of the reasons for using black and white are subjective – we just like the look – but I’ll highlight a few things to think about in the following examples.
Redirect What You Want To Highlight
First of all, consider what you want the photo to be about, what elements or features of an image you hope to emphasize. This could include characteristics such as contrast, lines, texture, or patterns. By removing the distraction of color you boil the image down to its basic elements, allowing these particular characteristics to stand out. In the color version of the image below, the group of leaves were a dark red hue with hints of green. I liked the original version but by removing the color the image became one of patterns and textures. Not necessarily better, just different.
Illuminate Lifeless Lighting
There are times when a scene may have flat, uninteresting lighting, such as with fog or overcast skies, or the subject may just be naturally colorless. This was the case in the image below where the slightly hazy sky combined with the harsh tropical Singapore sunlight rendered this original image rather flat and lifeless. Rather than ‘fixing’ the image by attempting to bring out more of what little color there was, I chose to remove the color altogether.
When Color Diverts Focus
What if a scene has too much color? Too much color, you say? It’s true! There are times where too much color can actually become a distraction. The following image is a good example. The lights on the tower had such a strong orange cast that the structure almost appeared to be glowing, overwhelming the scene. Removing the color removed this distraction.
Capture A City Moment
It’s certainly not a requirement but street photography seems to have maintained a strong tradition of using black and white. This is likely due to do the ‘old school’ appearance that black and white often conveys.
Add Ambiance To Faces And Places
Although as I suggested earlier it can be rather subjective, black and white may simply provide a certain aesthetic you’re looking for in an image. For example, black and white is often used to great effect in portraiture and landscapes.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Your Camera’s Black And White Mode
So, technically, what’s the best way to create a black and white image? As most image editing programs have multiple methods of converting to black and white, and books have been written on this subject, I’ll just give you a few quick tips.
Many digital cameras have a black and white function that allows you to take the image directly in black and white. While this may seem convenient, I would suggest avoiding the temptation as it leaves you few options for creatively manipulating the image later. You are much better off using an image editing program and converting it from color as you have much greater control over the final image.
As I said, most image editing programs have more than one way of converting a color image to black and white, each with subtle differences in output. Adobe’s Photoshop has at least three methods that I know of, and Lightroom has several methods as well. This can be confusing even for many professionals. You don’t need to get this technical, however. Most software that’s specific to photography will likely have a number of black and white presets that can simplify the process for you. Try some of these out and see what you like. If you do find yourself getting more interested in black and white conversion, a great tool is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, a program specifically for black and white image conversion.
Similarly, most image editing apps on your phone or tablet will have at least one, and often several, black and white effect or setting. Maybe you’ve already used some of these in the past but if not, consider trying them out some time.
Thank you very much for the wonderful guest post and sharing your expertise with us Darin. You can see more of Darin Rogers’ work at www.darinrogers.net and learn how to become a better travel photographer with his ebook Capturing The Journey. To continue enjoying more of Darin’s photography, I recommend following him on Facebook and Google+.
Interesting article and I do think Black and White can be put to great use sometime. I don’t generally use it very often but may start playing around with some of my more flat images to see if it adds a new dimension.
That’s when I tend to use black and white most, when there’s too much light overpowering the colors in a scene. Good place to start and think it’s a nice direction to go with photos that might not otherwise be worth keeping around.
Interesting article. I love Black and white photography and usually use the setting of my camera (Canon D600) for that. But i agree with you, without the Camera’s setting, I would have more option for editing. Also sometimes i regretted that why I did not have the same B&W photo in colors.
I’ve fallen into that same trap as well, sometimes that b&w photo looks much better on the back of the camera than it does on a larger screen.
I never knew this!! I was taking photos in the black and white setting but always wondered why other black and whites look so much better than mine!
Glad to hear this might be the counter-intuitive solution you’ve been looking for 🙂
Really interesting! I have used the setting on my camera on and off just to save time in post processing. But there have been many times I’ve taken a color image and edited to BW too. Good tips, I’ll try to keep it to post processing BW. 🙂
It adds a bit of time but worth the b&w quality and option for color afterward.