Deciding between colour and black and white photography can be a very difficult process. Many photographers struggle in deciding the optimal variation and compromise the quality of their work. Indeed, choosing between monochrome and colours can make a huge difference from a visual point of view.
I have been struggling in deciding the best approach for a long time and still some photographs require a great effort to choose the best processing approach.
Sometimes, the chromatic decision is made even before pressing the shutter. Just think about purchasing a roll of black and white film, using a Leica Monochrome or photographing with the new Phase One IQ3 Achromatic. On the one hand, this simplifies your decision-making during the post processing. On the other hand, it might hit your bank account severely – especially if you photograph with he aforementioned Leica and Phase One.
I would like to share with you a few rule of thumb that I follow in order to decide whether a photograph should be processed in colours on in black and white.
As I mentioned in a previous article, shooting at different times of the day leads to very different results. Indeed, light tends to be softer and warmer early in the morning and during sunsets. On the other hand, light is much harsher around midday. When I photograph landscapes and cityscapes, I enjoy shooting when the light is warmer due to the specific look I can achieve in the sky and in the cloud formations.
You might have noticed that a harsher light causes the overall dynamic range of the image to increase substantially. You may have experienced blown out highlights or pin black shadows. This is caused by our camera being incapable to record enough details from the lightest to the darkest areas of the photograph.
Even though I realise that dynamic range might be a problem, I have never stopped photographing because of the excessive light intensity. However, in this case I prefer processing my photographs in black and white. Indeed, I do not like how pin black shadows and blown out highlights are rendered in colour. I believe that they are a distraction, as the viewer has the tendency to focus on the lightest and darkest areas of an image first. On the other hand, the high level of contrast caused by the harsh light might help achieving a characteristic look in black and white. Indeed, monochromatic photographs look much more powerful and appealing if characterised by a strong contrast.
As we discussed before, viewers tend to focus on lighter and pin dark areas first, as they look quite unnatural. Similarly, viewers’ attention is caught by vivid colors. Therefore, too many bright colours in an image might represent an unnecessary distraction. In this case, converting the image to black and white might be beneficial to shift the focus back to the main subject of the photograph by nullifying the disturbance of colours.
On the other hand, I would like to highlight that sometimes colours contribute to make a photograph even more interesting. There are several ways to use colours in order to make the image more visually appealing, such as: complementary colours. colour triads and analogues.
Therefore, it is crucial to understand whether colours enrich your photograph or cause viewers to get confused. You can edit correctly only by putting yourself in your viewer’s shoes.
Obviously, monochromatic and colour photography transmit feelings in quite a different way. Black and white photographs are usually more moody and immediate in transmitting the desired emotion. On the other hand, colour photographs are much richer, more complex and elaborated. It takes me more time to extract a certain feeling from a colour photograph compared to a monochromatic one.
I should probably mention that mastering the art of moving your viewers through a colour image is way harder than achieving the same result in black and white. Indeed, the complexity of colours might hide emotions. On the other hand, the simplcity of monochrome helps to lay the soul of the image bare.
Deciding whether to process a photograph in colours of in black and white is a very hard choice. However, three tips might help you to decide the optimal way. Firstly, you should beware the light intensity. In my opinion, the harsher the light, the better a monochrome editing will work. Moreover, you should understand whether colours enhance the visual impact of your image or confuse the viewer. Finally, be cautious of how a chromatic choice impacts on the feelings transmitted by your photograph.
Once you have thought about these three tips carefullt, just follow your intuition and edit accordingly.