I tend to process my images in color more than black and white. I love rich tones and color often lends emotion and depth to a photo.
However, there are compelling reasons to choose black and white over color. Let’s explore the top 10 reasons for converting your images to black and white.
There is a timelessness with black and white photos that color photos just cannot replicate. A black and white conversion can make our images look like they could be taken at anytime in history.
This image was taken back in 2013 and remains one of my favorites. It reminds me of The Little Rascals (which likely dates my age quite a bit…ha!). The black and white conversion here makes it so that the colors of the play set and the kids’ clothes do not date the photo.
Instead, they look as though they could be kids from today or decades ago. This timelessness adds to the universality of the scene making the image that much more impactful.
Color can most certainly speak to emotion. However, taking away color can allow other emotional elements (such as facial expression, body language, etc.) to really shine.
By stripping away all the color information, you can hone in on the story of the image. We feel the emotion the artist is trying to project, rather than just viewing it.
In this shot of my daughter, I am immediately drawn in by her obvious joy on her birthday. While I like the color version, I find I get distracted by the pretty colors. Her joy isn’t the first thing I notice. As the emotion is the most important aspect of the frame for me, a black and white edit is an easy choice to make here.
In this photo, I really wanted to capture what it felt like to pull out your tooth. It’s something we can all relate to, but it’s easily forgotten once childhood fades.
Again, while the colors were fine, I felt that they distracted from the furrow of her brows and the pained anticipation of pulling the tooth out. By converting this to black and white, those details are at the forefront of the frame.
Black and white is perfect for showing connections between people, objects, and pets. It again allows us to better imagine how the subjects might feel rather than just looking at a pretty colors. No matter if it is a little child holding her lovey, siblings bonding, a newly engaged couple looking deep into each other’s eyes, or the married couple of 50 years sharing a laugh together, black and white is a sure way to draw the viewer into the connection.
I love how photographer Vironica Golden captures her boys and their connections. In this photo, those connections are amplified by her conversion to black and white. Without the potential distraction of color, the viewer can immediately see the love and playfulness they share.
Often times I choose to convert to black and white solely because the colors in the image are kind of distracting. Colorful background elements may distract from the intended subject. And while my kids think that neon clothes are awesome, they are not quite so in photos (and those neon color casts! Ugh!).
In this example I wanted to guide the viewer to the bubble blowing contest by eliminating all the crazy colored play clothes they were wearing. With a black and white conversion, the potential for someone to look at the rainbow of clothing first is eliminated. Instead, the viewer goes straight to their faces where they can see the intensity of the bubble contest unfolding.
While images in beautiful light are gorgeous in color, they can be particularly amazing in black and white. Often times I convert to black and white to really showcase the light and how it falls on my subjects.
A black and white edit here makes it so that the light and shadows are center stage. While the iridescent colors of the bubbles are beautiful in their own right, I wanted to emphasize their shapes and the dimension of my subject’s features.
Black and white can really emphasize details like freckles, sand, dirt, water, and any other type of texture. It allows the contrast in to shine in a way that just doesn’t happen when editing in color. I often convert to black and white if I want to really show off my daughter’s freckles.
Sometimes converting to black and white can make an otherwise boring photo very dramatic. We often associate colors with emotion. However, if the color is in conflict with the drama of a scene, I find converting to black and white quite helpful.
I love to do this when I have a lot of negative space, so that my subject really stands out in the frame. In this underwater image, the blue of the pool made everything feel just a bit too light and airy. By converting to black and white, it is as though she is diving into an unknown abyss, adding drama to the scene.
Cover-up bad color
This may not be the BEST reason for converting to black and white. But if I’m being honest I do convert when I just don’t want to deal with fixing mixed lighting or bad color casts. That said, the image still has to have a good range of tone to be a good candidate for a black and white edit. It’s not going to work in every situation, but it really can save a lot of time editing if you like the image in black and white.
In this photo I didn’t want to deal with the green color cast on her skin from the grass. So I tried it in black and white. I ended up loving it in black in white not only because it dealt with the color cast but also because it brought out her freckles and the texture of the water.
Add an eerie factor
Black and white can lend a scary, mysterious feel to photographs. Here is an example where converting to black and white really makes all the difference in making things feel a little eerie.
Sometimes I want to show a collection of images taken on different days, times of day, and locations, but I still want the images to be unified. Converting to black and white can really pull a collection of different images together.
Take these two screenshots as an example, one showing the colored versions (sooc) and one showing the edited black and white images, which looks better for a wall display?
Good range of tones/contrast
Is every image a good candidate for black and white? Definitely not! Sometimes we need the color information to make a photograph interesting. I find this often happens in flat light.
Let’s look at this example where color is the predominate factor in making the image compelling, does it also work in black and white?
In my opinion, it does not. The dynamic range of tones falls too much into the midtones. When I choose to convert to a black and white,I want it to have a range of tones from blackest blacks to lightest whites and a whole range of varying midtones in between. Even if the image meets any of the reasons for converting in this article, it will not convert well to black and white if there is not a good range of tones.
At times you can use editing to push the contrast of the image. Some of my favorite Lightroom methods for doing this are using the clarity slider in Lightroom or adjusting the individual color channels in Lightroom to make parts of the image darker or lighter. I also love to add more contrast in Photoshop with curves layers.
Black and white processing isn’t always the right choice for a photograph, but when it is used with intention, it can make all the difference in communicating with your intended audience. Try playing with different images and take the time to see how it changes the mood. You may find that black and white is the key to meeting your artistic vision!