Which images should you convert to black and white?

I've spent a lot of time over the last few months concentrating on black and white photography, mostly because I was developing and recording my new course for Udemy: The Art of Black and White Photography, partly because I'll be running a one-day black and white photography and postproduction workshop during the GPP Fotoweekend training event in Dubai in November, but also because it's a form of photography I find enduringly fascinating.

For my Udemy course I cover a whole range of topics: how to use Photoshop to best convert an image to black and white, what makes some images easier to convert than others, how to make a range of selective adjustments using curves and masks, and so on. And I suspect it will be much the same for my GPP workshop.

The question I don't cover in much detail is the one I've used for the title of this post: which images should you convert to black and white? In other words, I don't want to talk about how to convert an image to black and white, I want to focus on why you should consider doing so.

So, why is it that some images look great in colour, but bland and uninteresting in black and white, while others are considerably more striking?

It's that question I want to focus on here.

One of the reasons I end up converting my own images to black and white is because I get part way through the editing process and, for one reason or another, it just doesn't look right. Maybe I've added a range of selective adjustments that changed the colour balance between different sections of the image (and it's ended up looking unnatural), or maybe it's just doesn't have the impact I'm aiming for. In these cases I'll convert it to black and white and see if it looks any better. If it does, I'll run with the black and white version.

But's that's not a black and white workflow I'd recommend, it's just a solution to a problem, and while it can work it doesn't come close to even addressing, let alone answering our question. So, how can we decide which images to convert to black and white?

Probably the best place to start is to ask yourself "what does the colour contribute to the image as a whole?". Does it make the image stronger? Does it help to convey the feel and mood you want to get across? Does it enhance the story you want to tell?

Take a look at the following four images and ask yourself the first of those questions, "what does the colour contribute to the image as a whole?". If you want to make the images a bit bigger, just click on them then use your right or left arrow key to go through them.

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Desert sunset, Dubai
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Sunset on Blackpool Beach
Desert sunset, Dubai Sunset on Blackpool Beach
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From the Galata Bridge, Istanbul
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Light Trails
From the Galata Bridge, Istanbul Light Trails

In each case, as I'm fairly sure you'll agree, the colour plays a key role in determining the overall 'feel' of the shot, and while all of them could be converted to black and white, they would tell a different story as a result: probably a much less interesting one. In the case of these images then, the colour is crucial.

For example, the shot of the desert near Dubai doesn't look too bad in black and white, at least not if you add a big boost to the contrast, but it has none of the warmth and richness of the colour version. Likewise, the shot of the boat in Istanbul is still striking in black and white, but a lot of the ambience is lost. And finally, more simply, the motion blurred light trails just look dull and uninteresting without the colour variation between them.

In each case then the colour is a key component of the image, and while it would be possible to convert each to black and white, to do so would be to radically change the story each one tells.

Now take a look at the following four images, where the issue isn't quite as clear-cut, and ask yourself "Does the colour make the image stronger?"

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Desert sunset, Dubai
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They shoot horses don't they?
Venice Carnival, 2012 They shoot horses don't they?
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Not open
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Save our souls
Not Open Save our Souls

For the first set of images we looked at the colour was critical in terms of conveying a particular mood. For this second set things aren't quite as clear cut as all of these (other than the shot of the disco/mirror ball) could look good in black and white too. The reason for this is that the colour in these images serves a different purpose, i.e. while it does contribute to the mood, it doesn't determine it. In fact, for each of these images the colour serves a different purpose. In each case it helps to delineate the key elements: the red Carnival costume from the much colder background, the red box containing the lifebuoy from the blue sky, and the orange lettering against the green metallic background.

These then are images that I could have converted to black and white to produce a striking result, I would just have needed to increase the contrast between the various elements to convey much the same mood and feel.

So for the first set of images converting to black and white would have been a definite mistake in terms of my aims for those images, but with this set I could have gone either way.

Before we move on to discuss which images do work better in black and white, take a look at the following image (you can hover your mouse over the black and white version to see the colour image). Take a look, and before you read on, think about which version you prefer and why.

Istanbul

For me, the black and white image is massively stronger that the colour version, simply because the colour is distracting and irrelevant: I don't need to know that the tram is red, nor do I want the viewer's eye drawn to that section of the image (or the red reflection in the mirror). Likewise, the fact that the young boy at the bottom of the frame is wearing a green jacket while the one that's staring straight at me is wearing blue, is immaterial. In short, as with many street photographs, the colour has a negative impact on the image as a whole as it draws your attention away from the key elements.

Let's take a look at another example, that's maybe not quite as clear cut. Again, take a look at both versions and decide which you prefer before reading on (just hover your mouse over the image to see the colour version).

The Flower Girl

In this case the colours are relevant: the pinks and greens of the bride's flowers help to describe the context, add to the mood, and so on. But it doesn't work well in colour, at least not in my opinion: mostly because I intended the shot to be about the flower girl (as sole, key element) not the flower girl AND the flowers. In the colour version my eye jumps between the two elements, but in the black and white version the separation between these two elements is decreased. Had I shot the image using a larger depth of field to put the flowers in focus as well as the flower girl, it might have worked better in colour, but having my eye drawn to an out-of-focus area at the opposite side of the frame from the key element really doesn't work. The image is less coherent in colour.

To sum up the above, and answer our question, the images you should convert to black and white are those where the colour has a negative impact upon the image as a whole: in terms of hindering the story you're trying to tell, in making the image less coherent, and so on. For the last two images we looked at I think that was definitely the case, while for the first four it was a different story: for those images the colour was instrumental in conveying the mood and feel I wanted to get across.

For the second set of images you could go either way: the colour is significant in terms of delineating the various elements within the shot, but it isn't essential.

To finish up I have one last image to show you, and it's an image that's sat on my hard drive since March of this year, mostly because I really can't decide whether to post the colour or black and white version on my photoblog. I think that both have merit – I like the richness of the colour version and the separation between the model and the background – but I think the black and white version has more soul: it's about her, not the context in which we find her.

Take a look at let me know which you prefer (hover you mouse over the image to see the colour version).

Samar Breitem (taken at the DIFC in Dubai)
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