Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When To Choose Black & White

A Light In The Dark - Tehachapi, California
One question that I commonly get asked is, "How do you decide if a photo should be color or black-and-white?" This seems to be a point of confusion for many.

A common mistake that people make is to capture an image and decide later if it should be color or black-and-white. Color photography and black-and-white photography are not all that similar. They really don't have much in common.

Color photographs only work when color is an essential element to the photograph. Monochrome images only work with appropriate form, pattern, texture, contrast and light.

Before opening the shutter, I ask myself if the image will remain in color or if I'll convert it to black-and-white. If color is not important to the image, I'll decide to convert it to monochrome. With that decision, I then compose the scene for black-and-white.

There are five elements of successful black-and-white photography: form, pattern, texture, contrast and light. Let's take a look at each.

Kitchen Faucet Handle - Mojave, California
Shapes and forms are more obvious in monochrome. Without color, there is less to distract the viewer's attention from the subject of a scene. The forms within the image become the focal point. What the viewer sees are the designs.

Look for ways to emphasize the most interesting aspects of the shape of the subject that is within the scene. Make the composition of the shapes intriguing.

Circular Abstract - Atolia, California
Often subtle patterns get lost in color photographs. This is because the color draws the viewer's attention away from the pattern. The viewer might glance right past it.

With black-and-white, as long as the tones are far enough apart, patterns become obvious. Monochrome images allow the viewer to better see the shapes formed by the pattern in the scene.

Bolt, Burnt - Rosamond, California
Even more than pattern, texture often gets lost in color images. Our minds interpret the scene based on many things, including past experiences--other things we've seen. When we see something (such as a color photograph) our minds are biased and will determine what we see and what we ignore.

Because black-and-white is abstract by nature, our mind's bias is more removed, and we are able to notice the fine texture more easily. In monochrome, texture is more prominent.

Barn In Black & White - Tehachapi, California
Because there is not color to differentiate between elements within a scene, contrasting shades of grey are essential to successful monochrome images. Contrast is when a lighter area and darker area touch each other in a photograph.

What you must ensure is that the main subject has sufficient contrast to draw the viewer's eyes to it. You must also ensure that there is not another high-contrast element within the scene to distract the viewer's attention away from where you want it to go.

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Light is the key element that holds the four above elements--form, pattern, texture and contrast--together. Light significantly effects all of those things. What this means is that good black-and-white photography requires good light.

What "good light" is depends on the scene and how you want your image to look. What is good light for one image may not be for another. You may want even light. You may want light from one side. You may want soft light. You may want harsh light. Each photograph and each situation must be judged individually. It is the photographer's job to determine what is the best light for each image, and to wait until that light exists or artificially create it.

Copy Machine - Mojave, California
Once the decision is made to make an image monochrome, the photographer must then use the elements of successful black-and-white photography to construct an interesting photograph. If he or she failed to do so prior to opening the shutter, then it is only by luck that a good monochrome image will emerge.

In other words, it's all about photographic vision. It is knowing what you want the image to look like prior to opening the shutter. It is creating, not just capturing. It's not leaving the outcome of the photograph up to chance.

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