Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When Is Black & White Better?

Wind Turbines - 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.

I've touched on this subject a number of times.  In Color or Black & White? A Tale of Two Photographs I said, "I know before I capture an image if it will be color or black-and-white, and that decision is critical." In Color or Black & White I wrote, "If color is not an essential element of a photograph, it should be black-and-white." And in Color & Monochrome I said, "Black-and-white is a whole different ballgame than color."
No Trespassing - Tehachapi, California
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 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 light, contrast and design. 
Deer Family - Stallion Springs, California
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.

The five photographs in this post I recently captured using a Nikon D3300. In each example I decided before exposing the frame that they'd be black-and-white. In each example I used light, contrast and design to get the most out of the scene. 
A Wind Farm - Tehachapi, California
The top three images, Wind TurbinesNo Trespassing and Deer Family, are about contrast more than anything else. Light and shadow are critical to monochrome, and it is important to purposefully use them to your advantage.

The bottom two photographs, A Wind Farm and Joshua Tree Desert, are also about contrast, but less so than the top three images. The bottom photograph, especially, lacks contrast (despite the harsh lighting). What they lack in contrast they make up for in design.
Joshua Tree Desert - Mojave, California
Design is where you place the different elements within a photograph. Moving up or down, left or right, forward or backwards makes a difference in how all of the elements fit together. Design is purposefully placing everything just where you want it.

When is black-and-white better? When color isn't essential to the photograph. But this decision needs to be made in advance so that you can craft a great monochrome image from the scene.

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