Many of my favorite photos over the years have been in black and white, both classics such as Ansel Adams’ works as well as my own photos. There is a great opportunity to achieve a strong and elegant work that captures the essence of the subject. Over the years, I have worked to best understand both when to use black and white and how to achieve the best results. In this article, I want to address the former, how to determine when black and white will best capture the concept you wish to record in the photo. I think the best way to do this is by example. Below are a few photos that I show in both the original color and then in black and white. Each example has a discussion on why I felt black and white was the correct approach.
This is a photo of telescopes on top of Kitt Peak in Arizona. The telescopes themselves are interesting but the surrounding landscape is just rock and scrub brush. The sky is plain. In short, color adds nothing to this photo.
By going to a black and white rendition, we can darken the sky to almost black to contrast with the bright white of the telescopes. The surrounding rocks and brush can be de-emphasized by removing color but still be there to provide the correct backdrop of location context. Now we see the focal point of the shot, a big telescope and it’s little brother on top of a high mountain.
Here we have a photo of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. The image of the soldiers marching through the forest is meant to be a stark reminder of that war. But the green ground cover is a distraction in an otherwise stark grey scale image.
Now by eliminating the color, we make that ground cover fade from the focus of our attention. We are able to increase contrast and highlight the figures, including the reflection of the soldiers on the back wall (best seen on a larger version of the print). The result is much more in line with the message of the harshness of the Korean war.
In this photo, we show a general store in a small town in Kentucky. We have bright green trees and a big red sign that immediately grabs your view. But we do not want that sign to be the focus of the photo, but rather the store as a whole and the name above it – Rabbit Hash General Store. And yes, that is the name of the town!
By removing color from the image, we remove emphasis on the red sign and can darken the trees in the background to just be a backdrop with no attention given. The message now is the store as a whole in a small town with a funny name and not that big red Coca-Cola sign.
Here we have a famous mission church in Taos, NM. Given the altitude, we can see a nice deep blue sky and mid day lighting to give good contrast. The color of the adobe is a basic brown with no color variation to give any message other than a simple style of construction. However, I knew that this church was the subject of a famous Ansel Adams photo so I wanted to try black and white.
Here in the color-less rendition, I was able to darken the sky, add a little more overall contrast, and most of all, put focus on the form of the church. Some may disagree with me, but I feel that the message of the architecture is much more the form and not the dull brown color of the church. Now we have the light able to delineate the form in a way that we are not distracted by the dull color of the building.