Some photographers might say that removing color from an image, and converting it to black and white strips its content to bare essentials. Some might even describe color as “distracting”, although I wouldn’t use that word – color often provides emphasis or a focal point in a scene, and can carry strong emotional content.
I feel that eliminating color often gives us an opportunity to concentrate more intensely on composition, form and design, and texture or other surface qualities. On an emotional level, black and white frequently can evoke strong feelings, but this is often the result of the what’s in the picture, not what color it is.
Compare these two images of a daffodil, one in color, and the other in black and white:
My feeling is that the color version shouts “yellow!”, evoking feelings about spring colors and the like. The black and white version is more subdued, focused on the subtleties of form and texture of the petals, particularly the star-like arrangement of the corona, and the folds and shapes in the central bell.
A black and white image of a cactus makes a strong impression in terms of form and texture, particularly when rendered with high contrast:
This next image, taken in Europe some time ago, shows a hotel illuminated by colored flood lights. I find the blue color in the version on the left to be somewhat unnatural, while the black and white rendering draws more attention to architectural design and the interplay of light and shadow.
I particularly like the layering or stacking effect of each level of the building, punctuated by the strong window openings and the diagonal shadows created by the flood lighting. The feathering of the shadows is also more apparent in the black and white version.
In the past, anyone wanting to create images in black and white either had to accept the tone and contrast offered by the film/paper manufacturers, find a custom printmaker, or learn how to work in the darkroom.
In the present, it’s relatively straightforward to create a decent color digital image and convert it to black and white. Get your exposure right, work through a bit of editing in Lightroom or Photoshop, and you’re done with the first step. You can also set your camera up to capture black and white images directly – but I don’t recommend this, as the in-camera processing tends to throw away image information and important detail.
The conversion from color to black and white in post-production isn’t all that complicated, either – Lightroom and Photoshop both provide flexible, easy-to-understand tools, and there are a number of plugins available that can enhance the effects of the conversion, add global or micro-contrast, selective or split toning, torn edge effects, and more. Manufacturers have stepped up, providing improved color management tools (such as Datacolor’s SpyderPRINT), improved printer drivers, and media for those of us who want to add black and white imagery to our portfolios.
If you’re so inclined, get started by working on a few images from your current library – practice on these. As your skills improve, start shooting and developing with black and white imagery in mind!