Some photographers struggle when trying to decide when to shoot in color and when to use black and white photography. If you’re familiar with our work, you probably know where I stand. Our photos are usually filled with vibrant colors. I feel like in travel photography color is especially valuable since the world is a prism of culture and geography that often expresses itself visual hues.
But there are some situations where black and white still makes a lot of sense. And even though we shoot in RAW format and convert to black and white in post, recognizing those situations while you are in them can be helpful to the way you plan and compose your shots.
When to Use Black and White Photography
During our stay in Paris we decided that Pont de Bir-Hakeim was a perfect candidate for black and white. Here are conditions that led us to our decision, and how to identify them during your travel photography sessions.
The Colors Were Not Particularly Attractive or Important
The Bir-Hakeim bridge is known for it’s steel columns and hanging lanterns, not for it’s beautiful colors. Shades of gray, brown and black are dominant. The same is true of the Eiffel Tower in the background. Coincidentally, Dannie and Lisa were both wearing black and white.
There were only a few colorful places in the frame; the trees on the shore of the river, the blue sky, and the brightly colored clothes of some of the other people on the bridge. One of the biggest advantages of color photography is that color is another method of focusing attention. The most colorful object in the image tends to jump out. We wanted the focus to be on Dannie, Lisa, the Eiffel Tower and the bridge, so from this perspective, black and white made sense.
Shapes and Textures Were Attractive and Important
Black and White is at its weakest when the hues of a scene are different but their tones are similar. Red and Green are easily distinguished colors to most peoples eyes, but to a black and white camera they can appear almost identical. But when the scene is rich with high contrast shapes, shadows, textures and patterns, removing color means removing distractions that detract from something special.
In these images, the dark metal beams of the bridge – and of the Eiffel Tower in the background – play nicely with one another. Also, the lace in Dannie’s skirt, the flowers on Lisa’s dress, the rivets in the beams and the cracks in the stone all stand out where they might have been lost in a color photo.
The lighting also cried out for black and white. We normally try to shoot in the early morning, but when you travel with a toddler, sometimes things don’t always go as planned (especially in the Summer when the sun rises at 5 in the morning and doesn’t set until almost 10 at night). By almost 10:30 AM when we arrived, the shadows were deep and the sky was bright. In a color photo I think blown out skies are almost intolerable, but in a black and white the sky can just serve as negative space, as it does here. This allowed me to expose for the shadows and capture more detail under the arches of the bridge.
The deep shadows of the bridge itself also work well in black and white, forming a pattern on the ground that divides the surface into dark and light like a giant checkerboard. It’s attractive and engaging.
Some things to think about while you shoot for black and white:
- Background vs Foreground: Don’t rely on color to separate objects. Make sure that if your subject (or her outfit) is dark that the background behind her is light, or vise versa.
- Positive and Negative Space: When you remove one element of a photo (in this case color) the remaining elements become more important. This means that the shapes created by the objects in the scene will play a greater roll in your composition. Try blurring your eyes as you look at a scene to see what the light and dark spaces will look like, and whether the composition on the whole is pleasing.
- Contrast is King: There are exceptions, but for the most part in black and white photography images with lots over very dark and very light spaces are more striking.
- Don’t Rely on Color: This may sound obvious, but if the color of a scene is the most interesting part, then it probably won’t work in black and white. Look for compositions with striking patterns, textures and shapes that will engages the viewers eyes.
Photographers got by without color for a long time, and it’s worth giving black and white a try once in a while. Like any other aspect of photography, it takes some practice to get used to, so go out and give it a try so your eyes will know what to look for when the situation calls for it. If you have any questions, or additional suggestions that I might have left out, please comment below!