I got my first camera in middle school as a Christmas present from my parents.
It was a point and shoot Kodak and I loved taking pictures with that thing. I would use up a roll of film every couple of weeks and couldn’t wait the three days it took to get my pictures back.
One day, I discovered you could get black and white film. Say what?!
I thought that was just about the greatest thing since sliced bread. When I got my first roll of black and white pictures back, I fell in love and to this day, my love of black and white photography runs deep.
I now shoot with my trusty Canon 6D and edit mostly in Lightroom with the occasional Photoshop tweak, so I get to purposely choose when I want to convert a picture to black and white. I will selectively convert my personal and client pictures to black and white when I feel that an image can be stronger in monochrome.
There are several factors that I keep in mind when converting a picture to black and white. Here they are.
1. When the light calls for it.
The quality of the light has a huge impact on my decision to convert a picture to black and white.
For example, a subject that is lit from the front with even light will not convert as well as a nicely side-lit subject. The evenly lit picture will lack dimension and the subject might be muddy.
Have you ever tried to ‘’see’’ the light? When looking at my subject, even before I press the shutter, I know where there will be shadow and where there will be light on my subject. This is especially easy to see when looking at a side lit subject, like in the pictures below.
I also love converting backlit images to black and white. When converting an image to black and white in Lightroom, I like to have a nice deep S shaped tone curve which means that my blacks are really black and my whites are really white.
Want to know my black and white editing dirty little secret?
Most of my black and white edits start by applying the Titanium preset from the Film Art Presets. I LOVE it and it gives me that nice tone curve from the get go. 100% of the time I tweak it afterwards but it is a great starting point.
To make my subject pop, I add a lot of clarity and a lot of contrast. I bring my shadows way up and my highlights way down, otherwise my blacks would be clipped and my whites would be blown out. This usually leaves me with a pretty good black and white conversion.
2. When the shadows of the subject are present.
Shadows add magic and interest to a picture and converting a photo to black and white will only enhance them. Whenever I edit a picture with a shadow, I won’t bring my shadows up as much in Lightroom because I want them to be dark and contrast with the whites as much as possible.
Next time you are out shooting, don’t look for the light only, but look for the shadows as well, it is something unexpected and everyone loves a surprise!
3. When I’m unable to get it right in color.
When I am unable to get the colors right, I convert to black and white. This is often the case for pictures with mixed or artificial light or with lots of color casts which I can’t fix.
Convert to black and white, and voilà! Problem solved!
4. When there’s too much clutter and distractions.
In a perfect world, we would have time to clean up the scene before pressing the shutter each and every time.
However, because I take a lot of documentary shots of my kids, that is not usually the case. Converting a busy and distracting scene to black and white is an easy fix for me in these cases.
If there are too many distractions, I might also choose to fill the frame with my subjects.
5. When they’re images of the heart.
I convert the vast majority of my emotive images to black and white. Taking away all of the colors leaves the viewer with a raw and soulful image.
These are the photos that pull at your heartstrings, the ones that make you feel like you are witnessing a private moment. For me, converting these pictures to black and white only enhances that emotion.
I do try to frame my subjects creatively when I want their connection to be center stage.
When I edit an emotive picture, I love to add a bit more of a matte finish. This can be done by dragging the starting point (bottom left) of the tone curve upwards on the vertical axis.
6. When there’s movement.
I convert a lot of my pictures with movement to black and white. Ideally, to capture movement to its greatest potential, your subject should be placed in front of a contrasting background.
Take a child splashing in a pool, for example. If you place that scene in front of a blue sky, you will not see the water droplets as well as if it was placed in front of dark trees. Converting this scene to black and white will make that motion pop right out, letting you see every individual drop.
In the picture below, notice how it is easy to see the girl’s hair blowing in the wind over the foreground but not over the sky.
Pictures with motion are the pictures that bring me right back to that moment and as a viewer, make me feel like I am right there living that moment.
While editing a picture with movement, I will add clarity and/or contrast and I will actually sometimes decrease the matte finish to enhance the clarity of the motion.
7. When the photo is timeless.
Is there anything more timeless than a black and white picture?
In my childhood home, my mom had a cardboard box full of old black and white photos from when she was a child. I remember looking at those pictures with a sense of nostalgia, thinking how timeless they were.
When shooting for a timeless picture, I usually know I will convert it to black and white. I try to keep any elements that would take away from that concept out of the frame like a cell phone or baby monitor.
To make a picture even more classic, I like to bump up the whites in Lightroom.
8. When the environmental is included.
I just love a wide environmental photo. When I capture these, I often like to convert it to black and white to emphasize the feeling of the tiny subject(s) in their environment.
I try to keep these shots as clean as possible and often clone out any distracting elements in Lightroom and Photoshop.
In the photo below, I could have added an overlay, but I preferred to keep the shot as clean as possible to isolate the subjects.
The next time you are met with one of these eight situations, try to convert your photo to black and white!
PS: do you know that there are countless Instagram hashtags for black and white pictures? Here are a few of my favorites: