When and How to Convert Color Images to Black and White


Part of presenting your work is deciding how to process it. While color is the default choice for most photographs, sometimes the simplicity of a black and white image is compelling. Because we see and interpret our world in color, creating black and white photographs is really an art in itself.

When to Convert Images to Black and White

I take several factors into account when deciding what images are good candidates for conversion.

These include:

  • Contrast. Strong light/dark contrasts often look great in black and white.
  • Mood. A joyful image can be accentuated by color, while a melancholy image often has more impact in black and white.
  • Colors. When an isolated subject has complimentary colors behind it, it can jump right off the page at you, making color the better choice. If the colors aren’t complimentary, you might try black and white instead.
  • Intensity. If there is eye contact between you and the subject, is there intensity to the connection between the two of you? If so, black and white conversion can give a timeless feel to the photograph. If there isn’t a particularly strong connection, color keeps the image feeling lightweight and free.
  • Intended use. How will the photograph be used? What mood and feeling are you trying to create? If the image is part of a story, consider varying your presentation with an assortment of color and black and white images that balance one another visually.


Shooting with Conversion in Mind

When shooting with conversion in mind, I like to up the ISO to between 800 and 1600. This goes against today’s trend of shooting at low ISO for black and white photographs, but I like it because it adds a nice graininess to the images.

Remember that highlights and shadows are the key to images that you plan to convert. Train your eye to compose for light and shadow in addition to your subjects and their environment.

Rear lighting is a great way to separate your subject from the background. And be sure to get a firm grip on exposure, because poorly exposed images will fall flat in conversion.

The Conversion Process

In the digital age, we are fortunate to be able to compare our color images with black and white versions of them. I like to shoot in color and then do my own conversions in post-processing.

Don’t let anyone tell you that professional-level processing cannot be achieved on your computer. It just takes time and dedication to learn how to see, and achieve, tone and contrast in grayscale.

As a general rule of thumb, look for a wide range of grays after the conversion has been made. Find the midpoint for your gray levels and compare the darks and lights around that shade to determine whether there is enough depth to the image.

Find the method that works best for you, stick with it, and build upon that skill so you can develop your own signature style for processing your images in black and white.

Photos © Michelle Black


One Response to “When and How to Convert Color Images to Black and White”

  1. Good post. I like grain in a black and white image too, but I prefer to add the amount of grain I want in post. This gives me more options. It is better adding grain in post than taking it down or away.

    As for the method of processing black and white in post, I use Photoshop and have an action I really like. I blogged about this method recently here:

    http://shrimpography.blogspot.com/2010/10/black-and-white-conversion.html

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