You may think that any image looks great in black and white, but there are certain subjects and scenes that are better suited to black and white treatments than others.
One of the key skills of capturing beautiful black and white photographs (monochromatic imagery) is learning to ‘see’ a subject in black and white. Humans see in colour, so learning to ‘ignore’ the colour takes practice, but learning to predict how your shots will look in “grayscale” or “monochrome” is a brilliant skill to have (and it can be a huge time-saver when it comes to spending time converting shots to black and white in post-production!).
At first, it may be helpful to shoot in RAW and simultaneously capture a black and white JPEG, to help you visualise the results. But here are some tips to help you distinguish when a photo is likely to look better in black and white:
What To Look For
The first thing you should look at is the tonal range of the scene – does it appear to have lots of different tones, or does it look like everything would blend together if the colour was removed?
Next, look for any details that will add depth to your image. Think about which of the shapes and textures in the scene will stand out the most when they change to a shade of grey.
When capturing black and white images, contrast is your best friend. A scene with a high level of contrast (where the highlights are very bright and the shadows are very dark) will generally translate into black and white better than one with low contrast. Your image will look much more dramatic and eye-catching if the contrast is high, but will tend to look flat or dull if it is low.
Contrast is provided by very harsh or strong light sources. For this reason, images captured in strong sunlight, or by using flash, provide brilliant results. While a shot in the midday sun may look too harsh in colour, there’s a good chance it will render well in black and white.
A contrast between subject and background can also help; look for light subjects on dark backgrounds, and vice versa. Cloudy skies also work well for black and white photography, especially if they are dramatic, like in the photos below.
Image by Brooke Tasovac
The detail in the clouds is retained in black and white, as well as giving the image a nostalgic quality.
However, you may need to do a little more tweaking post-production in order to increase the contrast of your image.
2) Graphic Composition
Strong composition is always an important part of any photograph, but it becomes vital when capturing black and whites. Bold shapes and dynamic lines work brilliantly, especially in architectural images. Utilising leading lines or the rule of thirds can help to direct the viewer’s eye around your image.
Because the element of colour is removed, a solid black and white photograph relies solely on tone to depict a scene. There are two ways to approach tone when shooting black and white: all or nothing. An image with a range of midtones (the greys in between black and white) will work well, such as an ombre effect in water, where there is a range of tones between transparency and dark blue, like in the photos below.
Image by Brooke Tasovac
However, an image with very few tones can also work well, so long as contrast is also present. For example, a photograph of a pure white rose against a black background is very striking.
Depending on how far you wish to push the contrast, this use of tone can give a “graphic” illustrative look to your work.
Subjects with texture work brilliantly in black and white, as the texture can really be enhanced. Gritty stone, thick fur or weathered skin, all make for brilliant black and white subjects. The key is to bring out that texture by paying attention to the direction and strength of your light source, and ensuring your exposure is correct.
What To Avoid
1) Boring Skies
Bland or blown out skies can look dull in any photograph, but they tend to stand out more when shooting in black and white. A dramatic sky will create much more of an impact, and also help to enhance the moodiness of a black and white photograph. A sky full of dark clouds will add drama to an image, but a blue sky will also work well in black and white, as long as it is tonally different to other elements in the frame.
Because skies can very easily blow out, it is often a good idea to use a graduated neutral density filter, or take multiple exposures of the same scene, and blend them later in Photoshop. Doing this will give you maximum impact in your final image.
2) Scenes That Rely On Colour
Colour is a tool that can convey meaning, and some images need colour in order to communicate their message. It goes without saying that these types of images won’t work so well in black and white. A sunset, for example, is all about pinks, oranges, and reds, and so the whole image will lose its impact when converted to black and white, as the photo below has.
Image by Brooke Tasovac
3) Colours That Are Similar In Tone
When colour is converted to grayscale, it has to take on a tonal value (or becomes a particular shade of grey). Some colours share similar tonal values, and therefore don’t work so well together when converted to black and white. Red and green, for example, normally create a stunning visual contrast. However, their grayscale tonal value is quite similar (dark and bold), so there is very little difference in contrast when these colours are converted to black and white. This will make the image appear low in contrast when black and white. Think primary colours mixed with pastels, or warm colours against cool colours, to get the best results.