thoughts on converting to black and white

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.

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

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.

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

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.

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

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.

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

black and white photography tutorial by Stacey Haslem

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!

About the Author:

Spurred by the inspiration of her four children, Stacey Haslem captures the beauty and intimacy that flourishes within her own home. That inspiration, along with her love of manipulating available light, translates into fine art, portraiture and lifestyle pieces. While she enjoys color in the occasional image, she believes more beauty can often be unveiled once it is stripped away. Stacey favors a Nikkor 35mm and 45mm tilt shift on her Nikon D4 or D700.


  1. Bria Apr 11 2012 at 7:40 am - Reply

    Love this! I am constantly trying to decide whether an image is more suited for black and white or color… 🙂 Thanks for the thoughts on the process!

  2. Elizabeth Apr 11 2012 at 7:45 am - Reply

    I love this–the examples you shared are really helpful, and this is such an interesting way of looking at the topic!

  3. Stephanie Apr 11 2012 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Converting to black and white is always a conscious choice for me. I really like what I call "cinematic moments" in black and white. I take a lot of inspiration from black & white French films of the 50s and 60s (like Godard). High contrast lighting, deep shadows, catching a moment rather than a pose, etc – all go into whether I decide to make an image in color or black & white. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Amanda Bruce Apr 11 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thank you! I'm always trying to determine whether to use b&w or color. I will now be more purposeful in my decision!

  5. Krista Sodt Apr 11 2012 at 9:41 am - Reply

    Thanks for this! Excellent examples, and a great read. 🙂

  6. Adeena Apr 11 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    This was an interesting read! I don't convert to B&W much, cause I always thought they were missing something.

    And now I know. 🙂 Contrast makes a lot of sense. The depth is what I was missing.

    Thanks! 😀 Now I need to practice. 🙂

  7. Lisa (Tout Petit Pix Apr 11 2012 at 10:07 am - Reply

    Fantastic article Stacey!! And you're definitely a B&W master!!

  8. Heather T. Apr 11 2012 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing! And what wonderful photos–I'm smiling big right now.

  9. Lisa Benemelis Apr 11 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    This was a fabulous article, Stacey. I am a huge fan of your work and it was nice to "get inside" your head. Thank you!!

  10. Jodi Apr 11 2012 at 10:37 am - Reply

    What a fabulous article from one of my favorite bw artists! Great info here, Stacey!

  11. Allison McSorley Apr 11 2012 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Thanks for this Stacey! This is so timely for me since I'm taking Megan's Natural Light Indoors class right now!

  12. Crimson Kat Garnet Apr 11 2012 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Very easy to read and follow; thanks 🙂

  13. Rebecca Apr 11 2012 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    Wonderful tutorial! So much to think about and play with. Someone tell my children to brace themselves. Mama's getting the camera out. 😉

  14. Lori Apr 11 2012 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Fantastic post! I love your insights into why to choose a b&w conversion. Darling photos and children!

  15. Julie Anders Apr 12 2012 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Wonderful article Stacey…so well written and such great explanation. Thank You!

  16. Melissa Everett Apr 12 2012 at 5:02 am - Reply

    Thank you Stacey! This is great food for thought. I adore black and white, and I need to try shooting with the intention of black and white. I am still working on my own conversion, but in the mean time I love playing with CM's Pewter preset!

  17. kdokoza Apr 12 2012 at 7:24 am - Reply

    This is a great article Stacey – I so love that image of your boys showing how much they love you. You can just see in their posture how much you mean to them. Just love it!!

  18. Sarah Apr 12 2012 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Fantastic read, Stacey! Your example images speak volumes =)

  19. Mara Vaughan Apr 12 2012 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Umm, this was AWESOME! Thank you Stacey – for the thoughtfully written article and the corresponding images, which really illustrate your points perfectly. Your photography is extremely compelling.

  20. Lara Gowder Apr 13 2012 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Thank you, Stacey!! Your images are just gorgeous!

  21. Shannon Wilkinson Apr 13 2012 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    these are gorgeous images and thank you for sharing your thought process for creating a mono image versus a color one.


  22. valerie Apr 28 2012 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    thank you, thank you, thank you!! this was truly helpful!!!!

  23. Sarah Vaughn Apr 30 2012 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article! That image of the house with the boys in it gave me the chills in a great way. Simply brilliant and powerful. Love your work.

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