Color and black and white photography both have their place in this craft. Color photos grab our attention with their vibrancy and saturation; black and white images hold our interest with their emphasis on form, textures, and light. It is in these differences in details that you can find clues as to which format will help your photo be more successful. Granted, there’s no magic formula to be applied here - just a couple of guidelines that will assist you in the process of determining if color or black and white will be more appealing.
Consider these two essential questions to ask when making this all-important decision.
How Impactful is Color?
At first, this might seem like a silly question, but answering it isn’t always as easy as one might think. It’s intended not to get you to analyze the colors in your image, but to do quite the opposite: consider what elements in the image give it interest besides color.
Take the image above as a prime example of this concept. Its coloration is incredible, and quite eye-catching. But in asking oneself, “What elements give this image interest besides color?” it’s difficult to come up with anything. There’s no strong shadows, no textures, no patterns to catch the eye. As a result, this image wouldn’t be a good candidate for black and white - the colors are what makes this shot, and to remove them would detract from the image.
Conversely, this photo does quite well as a black and white for precisely the reasons the previous image would not. There is good dynamic range, with shadows and highlights to give the image contrast. There are interesting forms throughout, from the archway in the foreground to the strong vertical lines of the bell tower in the background. There are plenty of textural elements as well, from the facades of the various buildings to the areas of open and cloudy skies in the background.
In short, there are plenty of details from corner to corner that give this photo interest in the absence of color. When considering whether to convert an image to black and white, these kinds of details are paramount to the photo’s success.
What Mood Do You Want to Convey?
Part of what makes a photo successful is its ability to connect with viewers on an emotional level. In order to do that, your images must tell a story and convey a mood that will grab the attention of the viewer and help them imagine themselves in the scene.
So, how does one do that?
Because colors can trigger specific moods or feelings (i.e. red is associated with passion, blue with serenity), it’s perhaps an easier task to get viewers to feel what you want them to feel with a color photo. In looking at the image above, for example, it’s hard not to feel happy because of the vibrant array of colors. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and smell the salt in the air just by looking at the photo. The ability to envision oneself in that particular place would be much more difficult to do without the presence of color.
Though black and white images are often associated with more somber moods, there is something to be said about using black and white as a vehicle for viewers to experience a wide range of moods, depending on who they are and how they connect with the image. For example, the image above might evoke a feeling of serenity for some, and loneliness for others. Still others might engage with it more deeply because it’s so clean - with soft textures and strong lines that have a strong minimalist feel. Just imagine this same scene in color - would any of the same moods apply?
This is the crux of the color vs. black and white issue: which way is best? The answer to that question will vary from one situation to the next, and will depend on your answers to the two primary questions asked above - what mood do you want to convey and how impactful is color? So, the next time you’re out snapping photos, think about these questions as a means to help you identify what’s truly eye-catching about the scene. If color is the primary means by which the scene holds your interest, keep the image in color. But if there are interesting shapes, textures, or lighting, consider converting the image to black and white. Most importantly, remember that “rules” in photography are mere suggestions, and don’t be afraid to go outside the norm. It’s when you push yourself that you are most likely to create your very best images.