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From Snapshots to Great Shots: When to Convert an Image to Black and White

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When do you convert an image to black and white? There’s no magic formula, but the best black and white images do share some similar characteristics. John Batdorff offers a short checklist of things to be on the lookout for and explains how to train your eyes to see in monochrome.
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I think the number one question I get is, “When do you convert an image to black and white?” I think a lot of people are looking for a concrete scenario or an “if then” statement that leads you down the black and white conversion path.

The truth is, there’s no magic formula that drives my decision to apply a black and white treatment to an image, but all my black and white images do share some similar characteristics, and I think by defining those similarities we can create a short checklist of things to be on the lookout for.

Learn to See in Black and White

I tell people all the time it’s about training your eyes to see in monochrome. I know that sounds very ambiguous, but what I mean by training your eye is being on the lookout for images that will reproduce well with a black and white treatment. When an image is void of color, all we are left with is varying degrees of brightness, or in other words, contrast. Black and white images need to be able to communicate their message by relying heavily upon compositions that draws strength from shadows, contrast, and texture.

Some of my favorite compositions will have a gentle S-curve running through the frame. S-curves communicate peacefulness and depth as they draw the reader’s eye though the frame. My favorite, and possibly the most popular S-curve example, is a winding river. Water does a nice job of reflecting the sun, which adds another dynamic characteristic to the image and aids me in illustrating depth.

Figure 1 was taken in Yellowstone National Park. It was awfully close to high noon, but I decided to use a graduated filter and high f-stop so that I could properly expose the image. The graduated filter allowed me to expose the foreground properly while not overexposing the sky.

Figure 1 River image.

Shapes and Forms

Another important compositional technique is to use shapes and forms to tell a story. I’ve been enjoying my summer in Montana’s mountains, and recently we had one heck of a thunderstorm roll in. I set my camera to bulb mode and experimented with several exposures until I got the shot shown in Figure 2. What I love about this shot is how simply it explains the power of shapes and forms in black and white photography. The mountains are clearly identifiable as a result of the light from the lightning and the resulting shadows cast by that dynamic light source.

Keep in mind: Our eyes naturally seek the lightest area of an image before traveling to the darkest areas in the frame. The mountains are silhouetted, which is the simplest form in black and white images.

Figure 2 Mountain thunderstorm.

Light and Texture

As a general rule, I like to do most of my shooting when the light is soft and angle of the sun is low to the earth. We hear this referred to as the golden hour, the first or last few hours of light during the beginning and end of the day. The golden hour is a great time to be on the lookout for shadows, textures, and lines.

Weather can also play a big part in capturing an interesting black and white. Bad weather typically creates very active skies filled with dramatic lights and shadows. Afternoon showers are not uncommon here in the mountains, and this past summer while I was out and about, an afternoon storm blew in for a short period of time. I patiently waited for the storm to pass, and when it did the clouds acted like a large softbox in the sky and created beautiful shadows and textures followed by a double rainbow (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Double rainbow.

I wish the golden hour and the good light lasted all day, but here’s the reality: good light is scarce and sometimes you need to work with what you have. I try to avoid shooting a lot of color during the harsh midday sun, but on occasion that harsh light is exactly what I’m looking for in a black and white. Harsh light creates strong contrast and shadows, and lends itself to gritty-looking portraits.

During a recent trip to Africa, I visited a rural Maasai village. The sun was nearly at high noon, and the sunlight was very severe. I decided to take advantage of the harsh light to bring out the details in the scene as well as remaining as true to the surroundings as possible. The Maasai villagers live in the harsh sunlight in a difficult terrain, so it didn’t make sense to portray them in a soft, easy light. I wanted to capture the reality of the moment (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Maasai woman image.

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