Black & White Photography

Though we see the world in glorious colour, which we celebrate and share, black and white images have something that gives them an edge, a poignancy. Colour is literally skin deep, being reflected and unabsorbed light bounced off the surface of materials and textures. Despite its simple nature colour is a powerful influence on how we perceive, so black and white photography affords us the opportunity to strip it away allowing us to see other aspects of the subject which were perhaps overwhelmed.


Without being able to rely on colour to give interest the subject itself and composition needs to be strong. The scene is laid back to the raw elements of tone, texture, line, and form so these need care and attention to make some or all carry the image. 

Portraits and documentary shots make good subjects for black and white.  Many of the most famous portraits and news images are monochrome, their message not distracted by colour.  Landscapes work well, this treatment lending them drama and mood.

A good image might include many tones, a progression from white through greys to solid black, or be starkly high contrast graphical images.

Without colour to draw the eye the composition will need interest throughout to encourage the eye to wander around the image as a whole.  Lead lines become important as a mechanism to move the eye into the image.  Contrasting textures placed next to each other such as, rough stone with water, or skin against steel, will catch the eye.

It helps if you can pre-visualise the scene and plan ahead.  In a typical beach scene the blue sky, sea, and sand will give flat shades with no interest.  But if you can add subjects: a path, groynes, dark brooding skies the picture will be the better for it.  A blue subject against green background gives no tone separation so look for contrasting colours against one another.

Lighting is essential to a good black and white photograph. When framing the scene, think about how the lighting affects the shapes, contrast, patterns and textures, and try to choose a shooting angle that emphasises the most important ones.  Side lighting usually gives excellent results because it adds depth to three-dimensional objects with highlights and shadows, and enhances the textures, patterns and surface details within the scene.

With some digital cameras there is the option to take greyscale images, but the cameras themselves capture in red, green, and blue, so information is thrown away.  Its therefore better to capture in colour and remove the colour later.

So, you have a digital colour image but how do you convert it to black and white?  This of course all depends on the software you use, and even within it there may alternatives, some better than others. 

Most software has a convert to greyscale option.  Some though removes all colour by converting to 256 tones of grey.  This loses information, 256 tones not being enough to give a full quality image.  A better way is to use the saturation tool and desaturate 100% as this retains all information.

More complicated but potentially more rewarding options include splitting the channels and removing the colour components, and converting the image to lab colour and deleting channels A & B.

Which ever way you achieve it, conversion is just the starting point, once in black and white experiment with different tools.  Adjusting the contrast can make the image more dramatic, and even playing with hue can have surprising results as changing this emphasises different aspects of the image.

Even if you plan to keep the photo in colour it can be useful to view it in black and white to check that the components that make up the image work.

If you are unsure whether to convert an image or not, experiment.  As a very rough guide if the picture works fine in both colour and black and white then you might as well leave it in colour.  But once in black and white if the image shouts that it could only ever be in black and white, then you’ve found the one.

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~ by Alan Humphris on October 30, 2009.

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