When Black and White Works

The Bayon, Cambodia

Some black and white images are simply classics; Ansel Adams’ ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ or ‘West Gate – Angkor Thom’ by local Siem Reap-based photographer John McDermott are good examples. While certain pictures are well suited to the black and white (B&W) medium, others lose their impact once stripped of colour. What types of images naturally lend themselves to monochrome?

With historical sites like the temples of Angkor or Bagan, B&W brings an antique feel to the scene. This is perfect when trying to convey the great age of the monuments and so often works well. For other subjects the issue can be more subtle.

Being able to visualize a B&W image from the colour image seen through a camera’s viewfinder is key — it’s important to be able to imagine how the colours in the composition will translate into different shades of grey. For example a B&W conversion of a purple flower against a green background will not work well — the purple and the green will convert to very similar greys causing the flower to become ‘lost’ in the background. An image of similar grey tones lacks impact, particularly if shot on an overcast day without shadows and the most successful B&W pictures generally contain a wide range of tones right through from pure black to pure white with a complete spectrum of greys in between.

Without colour to provide contrast, strong shapes defined by shadows are also crucial for a successful B&W image. Although the colour temperature of the light found early in the morning and late in the afternoon may not be as important to a B&W photo as it is to one of colour (think back to my blog on the Golden Hour and the benefits of warm light), the lighting for monochromatic images is still important and the side lighting found when the sun is low in the sky can improve your shots as it will highlight any textures that are present in the form of stone work, clouds or foliage.

Lines and particularly patterns that can go virtually unseen in a colour image may jump out when converted to B&W. Try to see form as well as colour when searching for your monochrome compositions. Subjects like leaves, stone textures, architectural details and repeating elements such as fence posts or temple columns often make successful B&W photos.

The photo above of The Bayon temple in Cambodia was taken as a colour image and converted to B&W in Adobe Photoshop. Removing the colour from the picture works well in this particular image as it focuses attention on the form and texture of the stone faces and brings out the clouds in the sky.

It should be mentioned that for best results, your camera should never be set to B&W mode. Instead pictures should be converted from colour images using your photo processing software after the fact. Not only do you also get to keep a colour version of your shot (which you may in the end decide works better) but you have far more control over your final monochrome image. If you are shooting RAW this will not be an issue as all information including colour is preserved.
This entry was posted in Basic Photography Techniques.