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Choosing black and white or color

From: Black and White with Lightroom and Photoshop

Video: Choosing black and white or color

Let's step through a bunch of images, and talk about which ones lend themselves to color, and which are best for black and white, and we'll look at some of the reasons why. In this first image, this is actually a color image; it's just as I shot it. It was such a bleak day that it ends up looking like a black and white image. There are some things I could do to it, but it really is just a black and white image. In this next example, as a color photo, there was too much visual information; there was too much clutter. By converting it to black and white, I notice the texture in the wood, and the shape of the leaves. It's less distracting, and I can focus on what's in the foreground.

Choosing black and white or color

Let's step through a bunch of images, and talk about which ones lend themselves to color, and which are best for black and white, and we'll look at some of the reasons why. In this first image, this is actually a color image; it's just as I shot it. It was such a bleak day that it ends up looking like a black and white image. There are some things I could do to it, but it really is just a black and white image. In this next example, as a color photo, there was too much visual information; there was too much clutter. By converting it to black and white, I notice the texture in the wood, and the shape of the leaves. It's less distracting, and I can focus on what's in the foreground.

This is an image from the same trip; a big bright orange train, and as you imagine, this isn't a very interesting monochromatic image. All of the excitement gets lost from it. It wants to be color. In this image, I've drawn focus to the texture, and the lines, and I've accentuated them by adding a really basic white border. Even just that one little touch on a black and white image can make a huge difference. I've got the line that fades into the lower left-hand corner, I have got the shape of the leaf, and a lot of shadow and tonal differences. It's a much more interesting black and white than it is in color.

This is a great example of how black and white can really change the mood of an image. I've got my friend standing in the middle of the desert here in this huge open space, but as a color image, he gets kind of lost. There's a lot of competing colors, and a lot of competing information. You'd have the blue sky, the foliage in the background, and the color of the sand. As a black and white we focus on how small he is in relation to all of it, and the long trailing shadow behind him that tells us it's the very beginning of the day. Much more interesting black and white image. Here is a really dramatic sunset, and you would think that, you know, nature has done all the work here. This is a great color image, but if we look at it in black and white, and I'm not saying it's better, but you just realize how much different it is.

So, you can really lend an entirely different emotion to an image by making it black and white. And as we talk about, later sometimes you do want both; sometimes one image is more appropriate for certain use or context than the other. This is a good example of how black and white can make something very run down look more charming or artistic. As a color photo, there's way too much information in here; there's way too much clutter. If we subtract the color from it, and make it all about black and white, and focus on the shape of the clouds, and the tones, and the textures, and it just becomes a lot more interesting.

Somehow things that are run down, or rusty, or broken end up being charming when they're black and white. In this image, we can focus on the texture, and on the shape; its abstract. If this were a color image, it would be really easy to try to figure out what we're looking at, and for it to be somewhat of a mental puzzle. As a black and white image, it's just an interesting abstract, and you understand that shadows and lines feel a lot different in the black and white image. This is a good example of a tricky lighting situation. I'm shooting up into a sky that's lit by the setting sun, so it's low light in the foreground, and a little washed out in the background.

In order to expose it, so that I could see the detail, I'm introducing a bunch of noise, and I'm washing out the sky. By converting it to black and white, and tinting it, it's giving it a whole different mood. The sky doesn't matter; it becomes more about the birds that are flying and what was noise just becomes grain, it becomes an aesthetic. In this example, kind of the same thing. This is my girlfriend and I; we're on vacation. It's a warm day, but it was cloudy and overcast, so the color picture looks like you'd never want to go in the water, so with a black and white image, I have lent more of the mood that I felt to the image, and you really feel like the weather, instead of the sort of gloomy day that it was.

This is an example of trying to lend some attitude to an image. We're showing what's ultimately going to be a really beautiful piece of jewelry, but how it's constructed in a very industrial process that goes in that, so it was intentionally gritty and dirty, and black and white does a great job there. This is an example where there were some distracting colors in the background, and a simple, quick, black and white conversion helps just focus on the subject matter. Here is the color image from a recent trip down to Lynda, and here is the same image in black and white. There are some cases where you don't know which one you like more, and its okay; you can have both. That's one of the great things about shooting digital.

Here is one of the finished products from shooting the car that same weekend, and I love the color images that I worked with, but there's something about the simplicity of the black and white image; you can almost feel the paint, and that doesn't come through in the color images. This looks very similar, but if you look closely, you'll notice that I've used some selective controls, and I've retained the bright red interior, so you can mix monochromatic images, and introduce a little bit of color too. This absolutely wants to be a color image. It's a sunny, warm day, and we don't want that to get lost. It would be a really uninteresting black and white. This is an abstract image, and as a color image, it doesn't work at all. As a black and white abstract, it's just interesting. You don't even know exactly what you're looking at at first, and it doesn't matter; it just has a totally different look and aesthetic to it.

This is definitely abstract. As a black and white, this doesn't work. It's a picture of a light bulb. It's not really important that you know that, but the tones are too similar in a black and white, and it just sort of blends together. Very similar is this picture of a barbecue throwing a bunch of sparks in a long exposure. I would've thought for sure this would be a better color image than a black and white, but if we look at it in black and white, it becomes more abstract, and I think a lot more dramatic. So, just remember that some images lend themselves better to color; some to black and white. There are some good reasons for that, and some you either don't know, or you want to have the option of looking at one or the other.

So, just a few things to think about as you're converting color images to black and white.

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Image for Black and White with Lightroom and Photoshop
Black and White with Lightroom and Photoshop

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Bryan O'Neil Hughes
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