Learning to See in Black and White: When You Should Use It in Your Photos

Converting an image to black and white can often greatly strengthen it or even save it, but knowing when to do it can be tough. This helpful video will show how to quickly cycle between color and black and white in Lightroom and give you some tips for deciding which is better.

Coming to you from Anthony Morganti, this helpful video talks about how to choose when to convert an image to black and white. A good general guideline I learned a while ago was to shoot in black and white when you're trying to convey emotion and in color when you're trying to convey information. For example, a stunning mountain scene that shows off the sheer beauty and enormity of nature might be best in color as this augments the intricacy and splendor of the scene, while a lone tree in a field might be best in black and white, as this conveys the isolation. Also, note that if you're using a mirrorless camera, you can likely set the EVF to display in black and white. I frequently do this on my Sony a7R III; it makes it easier to read the light quickly and accurately. Just be sure you're shooting in raw, as the camera will likely make any JPEGs shot like this permanently black and white. 

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Anthony is absolutely correct in his assertion that one has to train in order to see in B&W. It's an interesting phenomenon as human vision is inherently biased towards color. Our predominant visual elements are cones which are primarily responsive to color. Our rods which are tuned to tonality are largely clustered in the periphery of the eye and tend to bleach out in bright light. While it has never been studied perhaps those who are able to easily perceive scenes in B&W either have a higher predominance of rods, a different distribution, or some other functional differences. It has taken years of difficult training to train my brain into seeing tonality apart from color and even then it is not always 100% reliable.

Jon Kellett's picture

I think that it's simply another skill that some people acquire more or less easily than others.

Think of it as being similar to the ability to see the dynamic range of an image before you take the shot. Personally I do this by exaggerating how I perceive the shadows, but I'm sure that others would compress the dynamic range by exaggerating the highlights.

That ability was one that required many photos to be taken with a sense of mindfulness and then analysed on the big screen. That same approach is how you learn to interpret the histogram instead of blindly following it.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I guess I'm a bit weird in a sense that I see most things in B&W and color is rarely of interest to me. Every once in a while I take a picture of a scene which presents an interesting color play and I know right away that I want to further edit this image as a color one. However for the majority of photos that I take, I just assume I want them as B&W. I look mainly for some interaction of elements in the scene and for dramatic light. Color in those scenes can be even quite distracting for the viewer. I have my cameras usually set for RAW+JPEG when the latter is set to B&W. This way even with DSLR I can quickly see preview in B&W.
In all honesty I feel like shooting B&W is somehow easier; almost like cheating. By converting image to B&W I'm removing a lot of distracting elements which otherwise would have to be somehow left out of the frame. I do not necessarily feel bad about it but I am a bit envious of photographers who are able to create engaging color street and documentary photographs.

Jon Kellett's picture

One cool thing about shooting in colour with the intention of the image being BW, you can choose to boost or suppress certain colours therefore really crafting the image.

The old school folks may suggest that this takes the image beyond photography and into the realm of digital art, as it's going beyond simply using a red filter to bring out the clouds, but I don't shoot documentary... :-)

Larry Clay's picture

I is not taking the image beyond photography. It is taking the image into the realm of photography as art. This not something new to Photoshop, check out Ansel Adams. He made his photography art by extreme manipulation of the image in the dark room.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I'm not a purist when it comes to editing. I think that most of the time I just don't have the need to heavily alternate pictures beyond cropping, curve adjustment and few other things like contrast and sharpness. Having said that even with photos converted to B&W sometimes I will adjust orange channel to lighten up the skin tone. I'm not sure if this is considered a manipulation of the image under, say rules of Worldpress Photo contest. On the other hand one can easily alter colors by changing white balance or using lamp.
As for a special case of crafting with colors which is B&W with selective color (usually red) I am really not a fan. There are some other ways to highlight certain elements in the frame (contrast, sharpness) but this one just feels cheap to me. And don't even get me started about pseudo-HDR photos (both color and B&W) which should be strictly forbidden :)

Larry Clay's picture

I agree with you 100%. That is how I shoot also. Thanks for the RAW+JPEG tip.