If you’re like me, you love a great black and white image. See, when you remove the color from a photo, magic can happen. A person’s expression is suddenly imbued with more meaning. A cool composition becomes more bold, more dramatic. And our images gain a timelessness that allows our viewers to focus on messages that transcend the here and now.
But how do you determine which photos you should convert to black and white? Gut feeling? Scientific testing? Some secret list of requirements that are revealed only after reaching the 10th level of Photography Mastery?
When we first got started with photography we used a very professional, exceptionally rigorous system of… guess-and-check. Yeah, we’d basically try almost any shot in black and white, just to see if it would work. It got the job done, but it sure wasn’t efficient!
But now, years into our careers as photographers, having edited what must be hundreds of thousands of photos (or at least it feels that way!) we’ve discovered that some photos lend themselves to black and white better than others.
So what do those shots have in common? What qualities make a photo a great contender for Black and White of the Year? Let’s take a look!
This is often the first thing that will trigger a black and white moment for us. If we come across an image with particularly strong compositional elements, like shapes, lines or symmetry, we try it out in black and white. The reason these make for such good black and whites is that removing colour helps to simplify the frame. With the colour gone, more attention can be given to those nifty shapes.
When it comes to images of people, a strong black and white can be incredible. And for us, when there’s a great expression on the subject’s face, be it wonder, happiness, or sadness, we try out a black and white conversion. Removing color brings the focus to the subject and their emotion. There’s just something about the simplicity of black and white that heightens the connection.
3. DISTRACTING COLORS
Now, we’ve already mentioned that black and white can help to simplify your photo, which means that you can also use it to help minimize distractions. If there’s an object in your frame that pulls attention away from your subject due to it’s bright colour, converting to black and white can help to bring the focus back where you want it.
Check out the example below. When the image is in color, there’s a mega-distraction in the background. That person wearing red – they totally draw your eye away from our super-cute subject!
Convert it to black and white and…ta-da! That distraction is minimized, and our attention can more easily find its way to that little monkey.
Textures really stand out in black and white, particularly when they create a lot of contrast. So give shots with a lot of texture a try, and don’t be afraid to experiment with high contrast in your editing. The results can be pretty awesome!
Images with prominent shadows are a lot of fun in black and white. In color, the subject usually has more visual weight than the shadow. But in black and white, the visual weight becomes more evenly distributed between the two. This can lend more drama to the shot, and more symmetry too! Take a spin through your photo library and see if you have any shadow shots that you could try out in black and white!
6. CONTRAST BETWEEN SUBJECT & BACKGROUND
While black and whites are a lot of fun, they can also create some problems. See, differences in color often help your subject to stand out from the background. When you take color out of the equation, it can become harder to get your subject to pop.
Here’s what to do: When you consider an image’s black and white potential, check to see whether there’s a good amount of contrast between the subject and background. If one is bright and the other is dark, chances are you have the makings of a great black and white on your hands.
Silhouette shots, like the one below, offer a ton of contrast between your subject and the background – they often look really dramatic in black and white!
7. HIGH CONTRAST LIGHT
We’ve talked a lot about contrast so far, and for good reason – black and white processing thrives on contrast! And that means that lighting conditions that create high contrast can make for super-interesting black and whites. Even harsh midday sun – a lighting condition we often try to avoid when we shoot in color – can produce amazing black and whites. That magical light you get at golden hour works great for black and white processing too, so give it a try!
And there you have it, a quick look at some of the qualities that make for great black and white conversions.
Take a look through your photo library for some shots to convert, or grab your camera. Better yet, practice shooting with black and whites in mind – being able to spot a scene with great black and white potential is a serious skill!
Now, the next step to creating incredible black and white images is to process them effectively. Your standard editing techniques are just not going to cut it when you take all of the color out of your shot. When your subject is the same shade of grey as much of the scene, you need to find other ways to make them stand out!
If you want to learn how to create stunning black and white edits, check out our video tutorial, Before/After: Black & White. You’ll pick up tons of great tips and tricks as you watch me transform 10 photos, step by step, from bland to beautiful using Adobe® Lightroom®.
Click the ‘LEARN MORE’ button below to learn more about this video tutorial, and to start creating dramatic black and whites!