I love black and white images - they are beautifully timeless and allow you to see the world in a completely different way.
However, there are many images that are just not a good candidate for a black and white conversion. If you have ever converted an image and thought it looked a bit "meh", the chances are it was just because that particular image wasn't a good fit.
Although there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a good black and white image, here are the things that I watch out for if I am looking to convert the image into black & white. You can use this in processing, or even when you are shooting if you know you want to convert the image later.
Ready? Let's go!
1) The Tones of the Image
When color is converted to black and white, it turns into shades of grey. Good black and white photos tend to have a wide range of tones, in other words a mix of black, greys and white, whilst poor candidates for black and white photos will have mainly grey tones. For super dramatic black and whites, scenes that are high contrast i.e have dark blacks and light whites with very little grey, work fantastically well.
When I'm looking at images which will make good black and whites the first thing I am looking for is either high contrast, or a wide range of tones. The top image below is higher contrast, whilst the image below has a good range of tones from white to black.
2) If the image has texture
The second thing I look for is texture. Images with a lot of texture will often look good in black and white. A leaf, or a piece of wood ,the grain of a wall, or even a flower can all make wonderful black and white images even if the color is pleasing - it’s the texture that can be important. The photo below looks equally good in black and white as it does in color, due to the texture of the plant.
If the image doesn’t naturally have texture you can add it, perhaps by side lighting your subject so that the texture stands out, or dressing your child in clothes that has lots of texture - say a ribbed scarf. There are loads of ways to photograph texture - so many, that I wrote a whole post about it! You can read how to use texture in photography here.
3) If the image has a lot of noise
Photos with a lot of noise also tend to look better in black and white - that’s because the grain adds texture to the photograph (and is why you will find so many of my indoor shots converted to black and white!) Some photographers will actually add noise in when processing their black and white images because they love the texture it adds.
If you have a cropped frame camera and get noise using anything over ISO800, then black and white might just be your new best friend
4) The Type of Lighting
Lighting can also important in black and white images.
For a dramatic black and white consider directional light that lights only half the face - this creates shadows and depth, and gives you a higher contrast image - i tend to convert most of the images that contain "split" lighting (like the image below) into black and white.
Images that are evenly lit tend to have less punch when made into black and white, but can still be pleasing, just in a different way. The result will be much softer like the image second image below.
5) If Colour Doesn't Add Anything
Images that I generally don't even consider for black and white shots include those that have contrasting colors which help give the image punch - think of a purple flower against green grass - this is an occasion when the colour ADDS to the image, so I tend to leave as is.
However, if the colour doesn't make or break an image, give black and white a go!
6) Dramatic Skies
Dramatic skies look fantastic in black and white! Images with grey, dull, overcast skies tend to look bland and uninteresting as it just produces a wall of white - although sometimes that can also work in your favour - I personally like it in the image below as I'm using it as negative space in the image.
Shooting in black and white can take a bit of thought and it’s certainly something that needs practice - after all we see the world in color all the time, it can be hard for us to switch that off and just concentrate on the tones of the image!
As with everything photography-related, it’s art - sometimes something just works, even when it’s not meant to, so as always, have an open mind, and if you are not sure - it takes seconds to convert and image to see if it does 😄
I have not one, but two guides to editing black and white images (depending on what editing program you use) so that they are more dramatic and not so "muddy" - How to create a great black and white conversion in Lightroom and Richer Black and White's In Photoshop.
Editing is SO important for getting a great black and white so be sure to check them out.