When to Photograph in Black and White

Peggy Farren 2016-08-10
By Joe Fitzpatrick

I’ve always loved black and white images. Monochrome portraits and landscapes have a timeless, classic look. In many compositions color can be a distraction. Removing color simplifies, allowing one to concentrate on the subjects, forms and textures within an image. Lines, shapes, shadows and patterns are revealed, helping to lead the eye through the image.

When working in color, mixed light sources are a challenge that the camera’s auto settings can’t handle well. Trying to balance the blue/green cast of subjects in open shade with a background lit by the warm rays of the sun, room light with sunlight coming through windows, the mixed colors of stage lighting, or the odd color cast provided by fluorescent lamps can be a frustrating task. In monochrome the color cast of the light illuminating a scene is a non-issue. You can concentrate on how the direction, quality and quantity of light shape the image and set the mood.

Digital cameras, from the most complex professional cameras to cellphones, have the ability to record an image in black and white. Unfortunately, the monochrome images they render usually leave something to be desired. The secret to creating a great monochrome image is to shoot in color and convert to black and white in post processing. Post processing software such as Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Photoshop allow you to control the luminosity of each color in the image. You can darken the skies to make clouds stand out, change objects from light to dark or any tone in between.

During my most recent Understand Photography Cuba Photo Adventure I photographed the chapel of the Colon Cemetery in Havana. Notice the difference between the black & white photo that a camera would make compared to the versions done with post processing of a color image. Starting with a color image allows you to selectively darken or brighten the blue sky, the green trees and the yellow chapel walls. So by all means experiment with creating black and white images. But don’t shoot in black & white, shoot in color, do the conversion in post processing. The results that can be obtained when a color image is converted to black and white in post processing are worth the extra effort.

~Joe Fitzpatrick is Understand Photography’s lead photography instructor. Joe heads up most of Understand Photography’s trips and day trips.

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