Color or Black and White?
Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada
As a photographer, I spend a lot of time learning new (and old) skills. It’s really a life-long learning path for most photographers, including myself. Not only is there a constant flow of new technology, but there are techniques and artistic styles to learn as well. As I improve my skills, I spend less time second-guessing my results, and more time producing work I like. But there is one question I often ask myself when I am editing my images – and that is ‘should this be in color or black and white?’
Of course, the answer to this question is usually a personal opinion. There isn’t just one correct answer in most cases. And some people almost never work in one style or the other. It’s a matter of personal taste. I remember when I was in school, my photography teacher told me something to the effect of “all good photographs are black and white”. That was his opinion obviously, but to get the grades, I had to produce B&W images. I suppose it helped to give me an appreciation for the style.
And that’s just it: it’s a style. Some people either like it or dislike it. When color photography became more available in the 1960’s, it wasn’t adopted universally. It gradually became popular as magazines and newspapers began publishing photos in color, and eventually it became the norm.
But most styles are cyclical, so they come in and out of vogue over the years. Black and White photography never really went out style completely, but it has seen a recent increase in popularity. And with digital processing techniques making it easier than ever, people are often having to make that choice again and again: should this be in color or black and white?
So here are two examples of images that I decided looked better in black and white, but for different reasons. I will explain my thought process to help you understand why I made those decisions. You can slide the bar from side to side, and see both versions.
Slide the bar to compare
This church interior, shot in Paris, like all my images, started out in color. But when it was shot, my camera was inadvertently placed on a tungsten white balance, rather than daylight or Auto white balance. This would be a simple fix in Adobe Lightroom. But when I did that, the image just felt flat. The image had other issues too – like overblown whites, shadows without details, etc. The advantages of converting the image to black and white were too good to pass up.
When it was changed to B&W, I was able to darken the highlights without the colors looking too fake. And I was also able to ‘hide’ some unwelcome colors like the person in the red jacket, which I found was just too distracting. That’s one of the best things about converting to B&W – you can hide bright attention-grabbing colors.
Slide the bar to compare
With this portrait, there were different reasons to convert it to B&W. The primary reason was to eliminate too many competing tones in the image. The blue of his jacket competed with the yellow/orange skin tone, and the colored wood in the background added more conflict. But when the color was removed, the attention was placed where it belonged – on the face and expression of the subject.
The other advantage of converting the image to B&W is that it allows me to accentuate the details in the skin and hair. It’s possible to increase contrast and the brightness in each color, even though the final image is not in color. So each color, or blend of colors, are individually controllable and result in varying degrees of B&W tones. There is an unbelievable amount of control in black and white.
What’s the Answer?
Ultimately, I think it’s possible that any photo can look good in either color or black and white. But that doesn’t mean I should do both. As I continue to learn, I try to ‘see’ in black and white, but that skill is still growing. Until then, I will look at each image one-by-one and make the decision that feels right.
Ian Robert Knight Photography
Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.
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