My photography career began 30 years ago as a photojournalism student in college. Each week, I would be assigned a story to cover and off I’d go with my Nikon FM2 and 50mm lens in search of images. But capturing the images was only half the story. The best part, I thought, was getting to develop my shots in the darkroom. I can almost smell the chemicals to this day. Slowly, my images would come to life in beautiful, bold…black-and-white. Yes, that’s right, black-and-white.
Today, photographers get the best of both worlds. We can capture an entire photo shoot in color and decide later if we want to convert the images to black-and-white. No more harsh chemicals, darkrooms and nasty drains. Using software, anyone can convert an image to black-and-white with a few mouse clicks. But similar to working in the “wet” darkroom, understanding what makes a good black-and-white image, and how to pull that out of a color shot, is critical to creating dramatic black-and-white images.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BLACK-AND-WHITE IMAGE?
Before we can start converting our color images in the computer, it helps to know what elements create a good black-and-white image. Or, another way of looking at it is, what color images would look better without color distracting the viewer?
Strong black-and-white images rely on design elements such as line, shape, form and texture. Images with a lot of tonal contrast work well in black-and-white. The more tones you have in your color shot, the more shades of gray you’ll have in your black-and-white image.
What if you’re shooting on a dreary, overcast day? Color photographers try to reduce the bleak gray sky in an image because it takes away from colorful subjects. But imagine that same shot in black-and-white. The dreary sky is now only another shade of gray and works just fine with the other black-and-white elements in the image.
Virtually any subject can look great in black-and-white: portraits, landscapes, architecture and travel images. Look for scenes that have a lot of tonalities and strong design elements, as these aspects can be brought to life in a black-and-white conversion.
Some cameras allow you to capture in black-and-white, but I like to shoot in RAW and convert the image with software. You capture more information in color, with the option to have both color and black-and-white versions of the photo.