Blog

Photography blog

Going black and white

Sometimes I take a picture where I feel I’ve captured a moment well, I’m happy with the composition and depth of field, the exposure is right... but there’s something about the colour that doesn’t really work. It could be many things:

  • A heavy undesirable tint caused by coloured lights (as it may happen when shooting a concert)
  • A brightly coloured element that distracts from the main subject
  • Colour noise caused by poor lighting conditions

Or it could be something else. Whatever the case I’m left with an otherwise good image what is let down by poor colour. When this happens I often resort to black and white. This is what happened with the next image, which I captured over the weekend in Brick Lane. This is what it looked like unedited:

Street chess game at Brick Lane (colour)
Street chess game at Brick Lane (colour)

While the picture in itself is ok the the colour doesn’t really give me anything too interesting. However, by converting to black and white and doing some tweaks to contrast, black levels and tone curves I can get something like this:

Street chess game at Brick Lane (B&W)
Street chess game at Brick Lane (B&W)

I also did a little quick dodging and burning, but nothing too extreme or time consuming.

To me the black and white version works much better. The colours in the original capture where, in a way, distracting, while going black and white makes the image much more “to the point”. It’s like you can tell the story more clearly. It's not something that works with every image, but I feel in this case it does.

Another example is this picture I took of a friends daugther last year at Centre Pompidou, in Paris. The lighting situation was not the best, and the hue of the floor was quite similar to the hue of her skin. So she blended into the background which is the opposite of what I wanted. As you can see by the unedited image the colours were not very interesting either.

Little girl at Centre Pompidou (colour)
Little girl at Centre Pompidou (colour)

By going into black and white I was able to separate her from the background much more.

Little girl at Centre Pompidou (B&W)
Little girl at Centre Pompidou (B&W)

If it sounds like I use black and white purely to rescue images that don’t work otherwise, well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes when I take the picture I don’t necessarily intend for it to end up as B&W, and that decision comes later when I’m editing. Other times I know the moment I take the shot.

It's also true that black and white won't save a colour photo that was bad from the start. A badly composed image taken from an uninteresting angle at the wrong moment is not going to be saved by any amount of editing, so the base elements of a good picture need to be there still. So the most important thing remains thinking before taking the shot.

But if you have a colour image that you think has good potential, yet you can't seem to make it work in colour, maybe you should try going black and white and see where that takes you.