Should I photograph in color or black & white? How to decide which option is best suited to the image I want to take? How to make sense of my choice? We are going to address all these questions and help you choose between the timeless black & white and color that offers multiple possibilities.
Evaluate the light
Photographing means literally drawing with light. It is light that determines the contrast in the image. And contrast—the synthesis of the variations of light and shadows—in turn affects numerous features such as texture, highlights, as well as color, emphasizing one element over the others. The task of the photographer consists in controlling the light and the contrast in order to obtain the desired effect. Evaluating the light is therefore key to determining color saturation of your images based on your expectations. Careful control of lighting will also allow you to compensate for some photographic errors and/or the weather conditions.
When shooting outdoors in harsh, bright sunlight, you may thus opt for black & white which will bring out the contrasts; on an overcast day, on the other hand, when the light is soft, black & white will allow you to play with the nuances of grey. If your image is overexposed, monochrome also makes it easier to attenuate the unwanted effect.
Timeless black & white or colorful realism?
Like in motion pictures, the choice between black & white and color helps contextualize the image. Black & white is often associated with the past. Paradoxically, it is also timeless and suitable to any subject. Black & white thus allows you to step outside temporal frames and accentuate the mood or ambience (melancholic, mysterious, nostalgic, abstract, etc…), depending on your goals and preferences. Black & white requires a greater focus on the composition and is well suited to documentary photography, images of architecture, portraiture, and many other uses.
Color, in turn, helps foreground the subject: a person, a piece of clothing, or a texture, which become the center of the viewer’s focus. One can also create a specific color effect with surface light by applying filters or emulsions to add a creative touch to our images, like in fashion or studio photography.
Deciding in advance
Deciding between black & white and color may be the determining factor in your photographic project and may allow you to better envision and conceptualize the images. Depending on the path you take, you will end up photographing differently and will adjust your expectations. The choice between color and black & white may be part of the challenge you set yourself in order to change your habits and try out new things.
Leave the choice till post-production
If you haven’t made the choice in advance, it is always possible to change your mind in post-production. Image editing software makes it easy to convert your images to black & white. There are many—free or paid, color or black & white—presets that can be applied to a single or several images to obtain specific effects. One can also build one’s own filters by modifying various parameters, such as contrast, noise, RGB balance, saturation, etc.
Here is a selection of free presets (monochrome and color): https://enviragallery.com/best-free-lightroom-presets/
As a general rule, we recommend that you switch to black & white only after taking the picture and/or that you save your images as RAW+JPG to preserve the original colors. You can always change your mind!
Your images will tell a different story depending on whether they’re monochrome or color. Remember to factor in the light conditions, visualize the message you want your image to convey, and don’t hesitate to experiment in order to find what works best for you.
By Céline Nebor