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Colour Versus Black & White

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     

It’s the age old debate, does colour or black and white look better in photographs? While most of us prefer the realism that colour photography provides, many celebrated images have been captured in black and white. Both styles can add drama and ambience to a photo when used correctly, but the question is, how do you know which to choose?

While photography remains subjective (there’s really nothing stopping you from choosing colour or black and white), the key thing to consider is – what makes the most sense? With the beautiful phenomenon that is a rainbow, with its full spectrum of colours, it would hardly make sense to shoot it in shades of black and grey, now would it?

Why choose colour?

Why wouldn’t you choose colour when you have the opportunity to capture images as true to life as they appear? If you think about it, this is about as close as you’ll get to preserving moments that will never occur again. There aren’t really any good reasons to not shoot in colour – we generally see the world in colour, plus there are a few occasions when shooting in black and white may work against us. For example, images that rely heavily on colour to tell a story or convey an emotion may be confusing or bland in greyscale. For example, a single red poppy in a field of green grass would not hold much weight without any colour.

Colour might also be used to create a juxtaposition (that is, to highlight opposites occurring within the one image), such as a girl in a red dress among a sea of businessmen in black and grey suits, or the colourful umbrella breaking through the dreary day in the photo below. It simply does not make much sense for these types of situations to be seen in black and white.

Image taken by Daniel Burt

Best subjects to shoot in colour: Rainbows, sunsets, fireworks, flowers in bloom, food, celebrations, festivals and carnivals with brightly coloured decorations or lights; and portraits where you want to accentuate eye and lip colour, like in the photo below.

Image taken by Kate Alexand

Why choose black & white?

There are many creative benefits to working with black and white, but if you google black and white photography you’ll probably notice that most of the image results will have a very striking contrast, like in the photo below. This is because without a spectrum of colours, black and white relies on light and tones to do the talking.

Often black and white is used in conjunction with macro, minimalist or detail shots to narrow the focus or isolate a light subject from its dark background (and vice versa). Texture also comes into play here. If you can create a stark contrast of lowlights and highlights (by utilising an angled light source) to show off a subject’s texture, this will translate really well into black and white.

You’ll get the best results with black and white on a nice sunny day or when shooting a well-lit subject with plenty of contrast. Then, whether you shoot in greyscale or convert a colour image to black and white later on, be sure to increase your contrast even more in post-production using the contrast or clarity sliders (depending on which editing software or program you’re using).

Black and white images can also work well with subtle vignettes, which is the exposure is darkened around the edges of an image. They’re often added in post-production to draw attention to the centre or isolate a subject.

Best subjects to shoot in black and white: Landscapes with strong light, portraits shot in dramatic light or split light (like in the photo below), strong weather and skies, or any environment where the colours are distracting (eg: photos taken in a room with bright wall colours or carpet) from the message you’re trying to convey.

Don’t forget, photos that are poorly exposed, blurred or have white balance issues, can’t be “saved” by converting them to black and white. A black and white photo will still show flaws, and in fact, hot spots (brightly exposed areas that have lost all detail) will be accentuated, and yellow skin tones will look “muddy” compared to skin tones that are more neutral.

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