We see colour photos very differently from black and white photos, because we don’t actually see the world in black, white, and shades of grey. In colour, we’re looking at and discerning things in a scene based on the actual colours we perceive. Colour helps us to differentiate one pictorial elements from another. In a black-and-white image, we have to look at other ways of separating pictorial elements in the photograph, such as a subject and the background.
What is the advantage of black & white?
Black and white images appear to be more timeless than colour images. In colour by changing hue you can specify time of the day. Amber coloured sunset is different from bluish dawn colours. Fall colours will be different from the spring colour. Removing the colour makes it more difficult to put an exact date or time of the day on a photo. Lack of colour in a photograph often accentuates the light and shadows. Backlit subjects and dramatic shadows are brought to the audience’s attention quickly in black and white images.
Many fine art photographers prefer black and white images for their tendency to distance the subject matter from reality. Humans see the world in colour, and a rendition of the world in black & white makes us pause and look closely. Removing colour from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction.
Convert images to black and white when the light, form, or texture in the scene is more compelling than the hues or colour of the subject matter. Black and white is a good choice when the colour in a photo serves only as a distraction from the message you want the image to convey. Street photography is the perfect example where the colour acts more of distraction than a helper.
Images with a wide range of tonal values tend to work well for black and white imagery. Since the black and white has no hues to convey emotion in a picture, tones of grey take over the job.
Over exposed and contrasty mid noon harsh light captures are sometimes converted into black & white. Being bad colour photographs does not automatically make them good black & white photos. Most black and white images are most successful when there are definite blacks and whites-that is, the tones in the photo range all the way from the blackest black to the whitest white with lots of varying grey tones in between.
Almost any image-processing software can remove colour and create a black-and-white sort of image, but this is really isn’t how you produce a good black and white photograph. For a successful black & white you need to start thinking in black & white, choose a proper subject as well as lighting which is suitable for black & white and you need to process individual color channels so as to represent greater tonality in the final black & white image.
You can photograph coloured foliage and you’ll instantly be able to discern the various hues among the foliage in colour.
Unfortunately, in a black-and-white photo, they often blend in and make it difficult to separate, because the brightness of red and green are often the same.
See this picture of Malabar Trogan. It surely is one of the most colourful bird in our forests.
Let me straight away convert to black & white. When you convert that way, bird literally disappears among the background. Red & green both when converted to black & white and are of the same tonality. The bird is now lost in the background even though it was pretty evident in the colour version. You need to make different tonality for red and green to make this bird stand out.
If you shoot in JPEG in black & white mode this is exactly camera will do. So it is not advisable to shoot in B&W. Shoot in RAW or in colour mode JPEG and then post process the file to black & white.
The example I gave above is the problem you face if you think in colour shoot in colour and try to create black & white at the end. Both these examples are not good for black & white. So to get a good black & white our thinking should change.
How do you start thinking in black & white?
A good way to start seeing in a black-and-white is to set your camera to record images in black & white mode. Since you can’t create a RAW file which is only a black and white, you can shoot both in RAW + JPEG. Then, when you set your scene mode to shoot in black & white, you’re affecting only how it deals with JPEG images; raw files are always in colour. You’ll see only black-and-white images displayed on your LCD, but when you download the images to your computer, you’ll have the black & white JPEGs and the colour raw files.
By shooting RAW + JPEG, you gain the benefit of actually seeing how a scene in front of you is translated into shades of grey when it shows up on your LCD. It might not be an optimum black & white you want, bust surely gives you a starting point. Simple desaturation of a colour photo or just clicking on default “convert to black and white” is not an optimal way to convert colour photo to black and white. You need to go to HSL channels and choose different colour channels and convert them to different tones of grey so that you picture looks better in black & white.
Once you master the understanding of black & white photography you will start thinking a scene in black & white mode. At that time you can forego the RAW + JPEG method and just shoot in RAW and process to black & white.