Thursday, August 29, 2013

Color or Black & White? A Tale of Two Photographs

I get asked from time-to-time how to determine if a photograph should be in color or black-and-white. In the days of film it was more straight forward because you were stuck with whatever you loaded into your camera. You made the choice well before opening the shutter.

Digital is a little different, though, because unless you own the Leica M Monochrom, you are capturing every image in color. So you have the choice to keep the photographs as a color images or convert them to black-and-white. How does one determine which is best without making a color and black-and-white version of each image?

That question, however, is not the right question. I know before I capture an image if it will be color or black-and-white, and that decision is critical. It is important to know what you'll do in post-processing prior to even opening the shutter. This is because what is important to a color image is much different than what is important to a black-and-white image.

Color and black-and-white photographs have little in common, other than they are photographs. Black-and-white images are about contrast, highlights, shadows, lines, and shapes. Color images are primarily about color, and to a lessor extent lines and shapes. Because they are so different, the approach to each must be different.
Cummings Mountain In Black & White - Tehachapi, California
Yesterday I captured the above photograph, Cummings Mountain In Black & White. I knew this would be a black-and-white image prior to capturing it. First, color is not important to it, so it wouldn't look good in color. Second, in the lower part of the image, the darker bushes and rocks have good contrast with the grass, making it an ideal candidate for a monochrome conversion.

After capturing that image, I took about twenty five steps to the right and captured a similar image. This time, however, I knew that it would be a color photograph. What made the difference? Color became important. The yellow flowers in the foreground provided color contrast to the blue sky.
Cummings Mountain In Color - Tehachapi, California
Put your hand over the yellow flowers on the image above and it becomes much less interesting. While the flowers are not the main subject of the photograph, it is an important aspect of it, mostly because of its color.

If you are waiting until the files are loaded onto your computer to determine if they should be color or black-and-white, you are waiting too long. It must be decided "in the field" so you can best play to the strengths of whatever it will be. If it is color, really show the color and use it to its full advantage. If it is black-and-white, think of highlights and shadows and contrast and what those will look like in the final image.

In the end one subject can look good in a color photograph and black-and-white. There is no right or wrong answer. Which of the two photographs here is better? I say the monochrome, while my wife thinks the color is better. What I can tell you is that the black-and-white image would not have looked right as a color image and the color image would not have looked right as a black-and-white. And that is by design.

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