(Editor’s note: Thanks to our partner, Rocky Nook, for this chapter on “dramatize with black and white” from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition.” This title and many and more how-to educational books for photographers are right here.)
While it’s clear that the use of color can be a powerful compositional tool, it turns out that the absence of it can also be wildly advantageous at times. Not only can black and white images be exceedingly timeless and classic, but by their very nature, the black and white treatment also tends to be a salve for images with less-than-perfect scorecards.
Black and White Super Powers
Sometimes it’s the color in an image that makes the whole thing work. At other times, the color actually hinders the overall aesthetic, getting in the way of a successful image. Whether the problem is a color balance issue (related to lighting) or a group of portrait subjects who didn’t get the memo on choosing wardrobe options that work well together, when the color goes wrong, black and white may just save the day.
Converting to black and white doesn’t just solve for color-related problems and distractions either. It also tends to give the overall composition a boost by highlighting certain design elements. Lines, contrast, and texture often benefit from the simplification of black and white.
Some images are truly rescued from the digital cutting room floor by converting them to black and white. In post-processing, black and white images tend to be quite a bit more forgiving, with a greater amount of wiggle room for making adjustments to things like lighting and exposure.
Learning to “think in black and white” best comes with practice. Start by experimenting on images with a lot of lines, tonal contrast (differing shades of brightness spanning from light to dark), and texture. Over time, you’ll get feel for how colors translate to shades of gray (254 shades, to be precise) and will get better at recognizing scenes that would make enthralling black and white images.
At the very least, if you’ve fallen in love with a frame that is lacking in technical merit but scoring high marks in the happy place of your heart, by all means, don’t give up on it without seeing it in black and white first. The results may very well surprise you.
Becoming a Convert
Converting to black and white is an art form in and of itself. Whether you capture in black and white directly or dump the color in post-production, there are seemingly endless ways to arrive at the final result.
The easiest way to get started is to shoot in color as you normally would and save the conversion to black and white for after you get everything downloaded to your computer. Not only does this give you more flexibility (what if you decide the image works best in color after all?), but by capturing in color and converting later, you get the bonuses of being able to compare (and learn from) how the original colors translate to grayscale, as well as being able to precisely control how the conversion for each individual color is handled.
Using the Black & White treatment option in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom’s Basic panel (found in the Develop module or a Black & White adjustment layer in Photoshop, you can manipulate the conversion for each color separately, allowing for some dramatic variations of a single image.
Read more from Rocky Nook on Photofocus.