Black & White Is Not The Solution

"Structured Nature" by D. Travis North

“Structured Nature” by D. Travis North

So you’re working through your workflow and you have a few photos that you’re on the fence about.  One of them is possibly a good photo, but you’re not sure.  So you consider ways of adding interest:  An alternate crop, some vignetting, maybe some texture overlays.  You know what?  The one thing that would make this photo better is if it were in Black & White…

…I’m sorry to say that you’re the victim of the irrational belief that Black & White makes any photo instantly more artistic.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  If the photo was mediocre before, it’s still mediocre in Black & White.  It is now a mediocre Black & White photograph.

The Root of the Problem

Take a few steps back and really look at the photo.  Identify any merits that the photograph has.  If you are completely honest with yourself and you come up empty, the photo isn’t that good.  It’s not for public eyes.  If there is no personal emotion or memory tied to the photo, then your finger should be poised over the delete key right now.  Don’t wait.  Kill it and shovel it out to voyage.  Black & White is not going to help you save the photograph.  Black & White should be deliberate.  It should be the intent from the moment you frame up the shot, even before you press the shutter.  If it isn’t, you shouldn’t be working in black & white.

I will concede that sometimes Black & White helps you understand the photo a little better.  I have been known to flip an image to Black & White sometimes in order to understand the composition, or fix the contrast or noise.  It can be a tool in that regard as it helps you to focus your mind onto one specific aspect of the entire workflow.  And yes, I will admit that sometimes I realize that a certain photograph looks better in black & white, and maybe it stays that way.  But black & white is not the solution to your problems about your bad photo.

My advice would be to analyze your photo as if you weren’t its creator.  Pretend you’re browsing the newest photos on Flickr and you stumbled upon this photo.  Ask yourself some basic questions:

  • If it were on a wall of other photos from other photographers, would it catch your eye?
  • Is there a clear subject or intent within the photograph?
  • Does the composition make sense?
  • Would it look good as a 30″x40″ print hanging above your fire place?

If the answer to any of those questions is ‘No’, it’s not a good photo.  But let’s play devils advocate for a moment and lets assume you’re not capable of emotionally detaching yourself from the image.  My mentor would suggest that you file the image away to be explored at a later date – maybe several weeks, maybe a few months – when you don’t intimately remember the act of taking the photograph.  Then you may be able to detach yourself emotionally.  Personally, I’m of the camp that believes that if you have your doubts, there’s probably a reason.

Deliberate Use of Black & White

Here’s one case where the Film vs. Digital is not so black & white (pun not intended):  If you wanted to shoot black & white, you needed to use black & white film.  Once loaded, you were on the hook for 36 images.  They were all going to be black & white and there was no going back to color.  Your tempered the colors into your greyscale using colored filters to bend certain color ranges to your desire.  The entire process was very deliberate.  Even though we’re working in digital, we should think that way when thinking about black & white.

Your digital black & white process is possibly like mine:  I shoot in color with the intent to convert to black & white later in post.  That gives me the ultimate control of the luminescence of the color as I convert it in post.  Your camera will likely have a way to capture direct to black & white, but I don’t like giving up such control.  But some prefer that method.  It doesn’t matter your method so long as you consciously think about how you’ll process each photo in the long run.

Final Thoughts

There will be happy accidents and there will be changes of mind in the end.  And that’s fine.  But I don’t want you to fall into the trap about using black & white as a crutch to help improve photos that are otherwise inadequate.  Black & white is compelling and it can be more powerful than a color image to even the most pedestrian of photo viewers.  So if you’re one who believes black & white is automatically artistic, get out of that habit.  Even black & white images will suck.





About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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