Why do you convert an image to monochrome? Do you choose to convert an image because of incorrect skin tones? Maybe you convert to get rid of a color cast? Do you process all of your images in color and monochrome as part of your workflow? Or do you take in all of the elements and intentionally create an image with black and white in mind? I believe we should strive for the latter.
Whether I am shooting in black and white or color, the light is the first thing I look for. A few questions I ask myself about the light with monochrome in mind are: Are there strong, interesting shadows? Are there extreme differences between brightness and shadows? Or does the scene have tones from light to dark, including mid tones?
You have all heard the term ‘flat’ in reference to monochrome. Oftentimes, it has nothing to do with the conversion, but everything to do with the lighting. Monochrome emphasizes shadows and light beautifully if they are already present in an image. Lets look at the two images below.
In the top image, the light is pretty flat. We have slight shadow behind them, but we don’t see any on their faces. Shadows can be our friend even on our subjects. They provide depth. Interesting shadows are non-existent in the image. I also don’t see a huge variety in tones. Their jeans are the darkest part of the image but really aren’t doing anything for the subjects. Now, lets look at the second image. We can see depth, contrast, light, and shadows. The light makes this image a great candidate for black and white.
The next questions I ask myself when visualizing my image are: Is color part of the story? Will my image or subject matter be improved without color? Not all images should be shown in black and white. Again, lets look at the two images below.
When I had the concept for the top image I knew it belonged in color. This is my three boys and I, being one of the boys. There is nothing that screams boy more than super hero. Seriously, close your eyes think of Superman, Batman or the Incredible Hulk. If you are like me you see blue and red, black and yellow, and green. Color is important to the story. The second image was taken minutes later and has a different story. It is all about my boys and their love for me. The connection is the subject. The removal of color improved the image.
Black and white work can also emphasize texture. When lit well the textures of a flower, a wall or skin can really come alive in monochrome as it creates strong shadow detail. While I probably wouldn’t appreciate the texture of my own skin being exposed, I treasure it in the image below. I can see all of the imperfections in my little girl’s face, from a baby scar under her nose to chapped lips. However, in my eyes I see perfection in her smile.
Lastly, stripping away color from a scene can create mystery. Mystery can be a powerful tool to keep your viewer engaged. Mystery in an image can reach a wide variety of viewers most likely with different interpretation of the image.
Can the choice of black and white be made after the fact? Of course. However, having monochrome in mind gives you a huge head start!