One of the most commonly asked questions by photographers who have little experience of B&W photography is: ‘How do I know which images will work in black and white and which won’t?’
The simplest answer to that is to try it out. In the digital world, colour can be removed with a single mouse click or a shift of a slider. And if you want to do a bit of experimenting then that perhaps is all you need to do to start with: to get the feel for what works for you and what doesn’t. But to get the best results from conversions, I would suggest you follow the advice I offered in ‘How to convert to B&W’ to really get an understanding of how B&W conversions can be tweaked.
Another obvious answer is to say that for many decades the world’s greatest photographers produced all their work in B&W; and with skill almost any subject can produce satisfactory B&W images. But it takes time and effort to extract the best from the medium.
The practical answer for most of us as we get accustomed to the B&W medium, and acquire the ability to pre-visualize the final image, is that we will convert files where we can see the potential for a different final image. And I emphasize the word ‘different’.
Removing colour alters the mood of an image. Yes, it can result in a better image but to simply concentrate on that is to view conversions uni-dimensionally. I often think of the removal of colour as the stripping away of a surface layer. Removing colour can have what I call a purifying effect: it gets you back to simple monochromatic tones. It can also evoke a bygone era if you choose to add a sepia tone in subsequent processing. Removing colour allows line, shape and form to take centre stage. And crucially B&W images are so much more tolerant of contrast. During my formative years as a B&W photographer I saw a great many images that were sometimes unkindly referred to (usually by traditionalists) as ‘Soot and Whitewash’. High contrast work in the B&W medium, to my eye, is never dull – it exudes drama. Contrast creates emphasis.
There are also images where, for one reason or another, colour contributes very little to the success of the image – where colour may be regarded as superfluous, or muddying the picture, or is just simply unhelpful for a variety of reasons.
I’m going to show you some images that I believe fit into that last category and which I think have either benefited from the removal of colour or where the removal of colour has transformed the mood of the image. You may not agree with all the choices I’ve made – you may think I am under-valuing the contribution of colour. That’s fine – we aren’t always going to agree. It will be interesting to see what your opinions are. My gut feeling is that if, like me, you worked for many years in the film era with B&W as your main output then you will be very much more ‘sympathetic’ and passionate about that medium: somehow it remains in your blood. But if your photographic interest dates from the Digital era, then you may not yet have become fully familiar with the world of B&W and, therefore understandably, remain rather lukewarm about losing the colour you have come to love.
Choosing which images to show in this post has been really difficult – I’ve tried to pick images across a range of genres, but it remains a very personal choice. At the end of this post you will find a gallery of all the images used – colour originals and the B&W versions. But within the text I have placed the ‘before and after’ images together for a side-by-side comparison.
All images can be seen better enlarged – just click on an individual image.
My primary love remains photography in high mountains areas. That is where I find my landscapes. I grew up with repeated exposure to the classical work of Alpine photographers whose work was invariably Monochrome. High mountain landscapes with bright snow and rock shadow work well in B&W. This first image was taken from the summit of the Dom. It works perfectly well in colour, there is very little in the way of colour cast (although it can be a major difficulty sometimes as we will see later). However, the B&W version delivers a better bite. It has punch. It clarifies and delineates the detail. The mood has changed – I think for the better.
Next up is a candid shot taken in London of a two men locked in earnest conversation. I took this shot as unobtrusively as possible. Colour here contributes little if anything. Removing colour achieves two things: it makes the background less intrusive, and it means that I can ramp up the B&W contrast. That fits the idea that these two men are engaged in what appears to be quite a fierce debate, and sells the picture more strongly.
The success of many images of buildings or architecture often is dependent on line, and form. Colour may compete with or detract from those features or it may simply contribute very little as is the case in the next image shot at a train station in Switzerland.
Not satisfied with the simply worked B&W version, I then solarized it:
The next example comes from Snowdonia in N Wales. The weather was dry, but there was a lot of humidity that was leading to a degradation of distant views. I could not satisfactorily rid the image of what I felt was an unsatisfactory colour case. Stripping away the colour results in a simplified image where the recession can speak for itself.
High Key work is another area where a monochrome image can very effectively distil a purer image. This is a rather unusual view of the Matterhorn in winter from near the Theodul Pass. There are flecks of bright colour but overall the image is a pale blue monochromatic image as it stands. Removing the colour reveals a purer, simpler image.
The hours shortly after dawn can be the best times for colour photography, but only if the light is right. On this morning heading up to the Col sup du Tour in the Chamonix area of the Alps, the light was dull and although the sky was rendered correctly, the snow had an unsightly cast to it. Switching to B&W gives the image a cold mood totally in keeping with what I felt that morning – Cold.
The next image is one where I remain unsure which I prefer. There is a lot to be said for the simplicity of the B&W version. It’s all about the shadow of the Chair Lift on which I was riding and the ruckled snow surface. The colour original has very subtle colour especially in the patchy yellow stained snow (Saharan dust borne by the wind) which is actually very attractive. Once gain the two images convey different moods. It’s a matter of personal preference.
The next image very nearly ended up in the bin. The original is a scan (totally untouched) from a transparency of the descent off the summit of Kilimanjaro. The scan is frankly lousy: I was still learning how to scan when I produced this. I’ve never gone back for another attempt, partly because my immediate reaction was to think: I can rescue this in B&W. Strip out the colour. And…B&W is so much more tolerant of burnt-out highlights. You can get away with ‘white’ in B&W in a way that colour won’t allow. And sometimes it adds that little extra drama as I think is the case here.
Finally and importantly – conversions are not always obvious, and what appears obvious does not always work. This last image is a Trompe L’Oeil taken at Wrest Park. It’s a painting on a curtain hung in front of a window that really lights up when the sun shines through. The colour cast is true. It’s a monochromatic shot. Strip out that colour and what happens? It’s cold, too cold I think. The subtle colour is needed.
B&W work is a very personal approach in the digital era. I hope I’ve suggested some ideas here that may spur some of you on to investigate the possibility of converting more images to black and white. It’s so easy to convert that you will waste very little time in trying it out. And not only may you produce images that convey a different mood, but you will open up an entire new stream to your work.