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The question of whether to develop photos in color or black and white (or even both) is an interesting one. Any photographer who uses a digital camera can easily create two or more versions of the same photo. This is a big change from the days of film photography because you no longer have to commit to one or the other through your choice of film.
With film, the main choices were between color negative, color slide or black and white negative film. The act of committing to either color or black and white helped you concentrate on finding subjects and compositions that worked in that medium.
With digital you can take the photo and decide afterwards. But it’s more helpful to know in advance if you intend to work in black and white so that you can concentrate on the elements that make interesting black and white images – light, texture, contrast etc. But equally you can work in color and convert it afterwards.
One advantage of this is that you can go back over old photos and select the ones that would work well in black and white.
But there are also times when you may be better served by deciding whether you’re going to work in black and white or color (or even a mix of the two) before you start a shoot, so you can commit to one style of seeing and composition.
The battle between color and black and white
There have been many times when I’ve taken a color photo many times and realized later that it would look good in black and white. I think it’s because I look for strong shapes and textures and simplify the composition – something that works well in both color and black and white photos.
In my ebook Mastering Composition I wrote about an interview I once read with American landscape photographer David Muench who works predominantly in color but describes his photos as black and white images with a layer of color on top. I interpret that as meaning that he composes using tonal contrast and texture exactly as he would if he were shooting in black and white, except that he chooses to work in color.
I sometimes find myself getting caught in a battle between black and white and color, moving between the two, developing two versions of the same photo. This battle has always existed, but now we have the luxury of making the decision later in the photography process, after pressing the shutter button rather than before.
Look for themes
At the start of this year I committed to working more in black and white. Part of that process has been going back over older photos and re-developing the best ones in black and white. I’ve also done most of my shoots this year in black and white.
If you were to ask me whether you should do the same, my advice is to take a relaxed approach and accept that some photos work better in black and white, and others in color. Sometimes you’ll prefer to work in black and white, and others in color, especially if you like variety in your photography.
But over time you’ll see certain themes emerge in your work. One of them is color versus black and white. If you find that most of your favorite photos are color ones, for example, then that’s a sign that color is your thing. On the other hand, if your favorite photos are mostly black and white, it’s a sign you should concentrate on working in monochrome. That’s what happened to me, and it took me a few years to realize it.
Best photos only
As a guide, it’s best to convert only your best photos to black and white. One mistake I’ve seen photographers make is convert photos that don’t work well to black and white, as if that solves the problem. You’re unlikely to get good black and white images that way. It’s better to direct your energies into trying to work out why the color photo didn’t work in the first place.
Color or black & white – some things to think about
Here are a few things to think about when you’re trying to decide whether to develop a particular photo in color or black and white. Remember that there’s nothing to stop you developing a photo both ways and making up your mind afterwards. You might even decide you like both versions, but for different reasons.
- Does removing color take away any mood or feeling from the photo?
- Does converting to black and white add mood or emotion to the photo?
- Does the photo have interesting textures or tonal contrasts that look good in black and white?
- Is the black and white version more timeless?
- Is the subject interesting enough to stand by itself if you remove all the color?
- Does the black and white version show the character of your subject better? This applies to any subject, not just portraits.
- Is the photo part of a series, or potentially part of a series? If it is, would the series as a whole work better developed in color or black and white?
- What do you want to do with your photos when they’re finished? If you want to make a photo book from your best photos, print them out on fine art paper, or print them and frame them on a wall, then will the end result work better in color or black and white?
Color or black & white – which do you prefer?
I thought it would be interesting to show you both black and white and color versions of some of my favorite photos and let you make up your minds as to which treatment works best.
Which do you prefer? Did I lose anything by converting to black and white? I’ve deliberately picked photos that work well in both color and black and white to make the exercise more interesting. You can use the above ideas to add some objectivity. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments. If you find this exercise useful you can try it with your own photos.