Black-and-white photos can be more striking and touching than colour, but it’s not always easy figure out when black-and-white may not be the best option for you.
Sometimes you need the vibrancy of colour, while at other times the serenity of black-and-white can be exactly what your picture needs. So here is a short, not exhaustive, guide to when black-and-white may be the best option for your photo.
When you want to catch the eye
Humans see the world in colour. Nothing in the real world is actually in shades of grey, so when most people see something in black-and-white the first instinct is to look more closely. That’s why black-and-white are such popular choices for charity campaigns – the black and white captures the eye, and the image itself engages the mind.
When to evoke a mood
Imagine a picture. The picture is black-and-white. It shows a rose against a vague background, one petal caught mid-fall. Does the image strike you as sad, perhaps nostalgic? It probably does. Because we are used to seeing black-and-white pictures from pre-colour days, black-and-white pictures tend to invoke feelings of nostalgia. We also experience them as old-fashioned for the simple reason that they are.
When your subject is simple
That’s not to say that you should always avoid black-and-white when photographing crowds or more complex things – some surprisingly good black-and-white photographs of such things do exist. For example, there are photographs from the Holocaust that are black and white because colour wasn’t practical back then (but if colour is preferable, then you shouldn’t abuse the black and white tool).
If your subject matter is striking enough, people will look at a complex photograph long enough to figure out what it is, which can be more difficult with complex black-and-white photographs. In general, however, black-and-white photography will work best when your subject matter has clean, crisp lines, and there aren’t too many things in the frame.
When colour isn’t important
In some pictures, colour is very important. You’re not going to be able to capture a sunset in black-and-white, for example. In other cases, colour is much less important and can even detract from the overall whole. As an example, if you are working with strong lighting that throws deep shadows, colour can take away some of the impact of the shadows by distracting the eye. A black-and-white photograph would let the light shine, so to speak.
Or perhaps you are capturing a bright green new leaf on a tree in springtime. Or a football game to bet on. This is a time when you might think that colour is vital, but black-and-white will work just as well or even better. You see, we know that leaves are green. Most of us know that the first growth of a new leaf is a very bright, light green. That’s information that is already in our minds. If that photograph is in black-and-white, the overwhelming greenness goes away, leaving the viewer free to note other things, like the texture of the leaf, or the play of light on tiny hairs.
When you want to
Almost any photograph can work in black-and-white. Black-and-white might shift the focus of a colour picture to something surprising – for example, in a crowded street scene there is a nurse and a woman in a red dress. In colour, the eye will be drawn to the woman in the red dress, and the woman in the white nurse’s uniform might be lost in the crowd.
Shift the same photograph to black-and-white, and the nurse stands out and the woman in the red dress can fade into the background. If you find that you need to shift your viewer’s eye to a certain point – perhaps away from a flowerbed that turned out to be unexpectedly vivid, perhaps toward a quiet moment that is overwhelmed in colour – , experiment with black-and-white and see what happens.
In the end, photography, like most art, is a very personal thing. You might find that you prefer black-and-white for all your photographs, or you may enjoy colour more. In the end, which medium you use to capture your photographs is very much the same as whether Van Gogh worked in water paint or oils – you’re the artist, and it’s ultimately your decision.