Black and White; why and how

Black and Light

Many of you won't know that I am the President of the Hawke's Bay Photographic Society based in Napier, and tomorrow night I am giving a presentation about Black & White photography, so I thought it was a good time to cover this topic in my blog.

As I discussed in a previous blog ( ) Black & White photos are one of the biggest fakes in the photography world.  No camera ( except film cameras and a couple of specialist Black & White only cameras (US$7,000 Leica anyone? )) creates black and white photos, they need to be converted from colour images.

Technical stuff

The irony is that all camera sensors are, at their heart, only capable of capturing black and white, or more accurately levels of light between black ( no light ) and white ( 100% light ).  The sensor in the camera that records the image is only capable of measuring light levels, not colour levels. The process of creating a colour image is achieved by overlaying each photo site ( ie the equivalent of a pixel on a monitor ) with a coloured piece of transparent plastic so that each photosite only records the light level for a particular colour range ( red, green or blue ).  The camera processor then takes this colour level from each photosite and creates a colour image from this information.  So the irony is if you could remove the coloured filters from the sensor you would have a sensor that produces only Black and White photos.

Camera manufacturers go to great lengths to create a colour images from black and white data.

So why?

In the days of film photography Black and White only existed because they hadn't invented colour film yet ( until the 1890's that is ).  Colour photography was a long sought after goal so that the photographs produced could reflect what people could see around them.

So with the above in mind why do we still have black and white photography as a thing, when camera manufacturers go to great lengths to create colour images, and most other styles of photography that existed because of technical limitations ( orange tinged polaroids, or sepia toned images for example ) have faded into obscurity? 

In my opinion the answer is simple: colour is a distraction, and places a bias onto the 'feel' of a photo that is hard to overcome.  Black and White photos allow the structure / shapes / textures within the photo to become dominant, and will often simplify or clarify the story in the photo in a way that colour photos cannot.

I read an article recently about a photographer who, as an experiment, took a photo of a beach sunrise in Hawaii, and then loaded the photo onto a stock photo agency for sale.  The photo had all the lovely warm orange and yellow tones you would expect from a sunrise shot.  He then took the same photo into photoshop and changed all the nice warm tones to cool blue tones, and uploaded the photo to the same stock photo agency, but this time as a moonrise photo.  The moonrise shot sold far better than the sunrise shot, even though they were the same photo, and it wasn't even a moonrise.  The point is that the colours contained within the image completely changed peoples idea of what the subject of the photo was.  Colour is a very powerful tool in photography, but sometimes it will get in the way of the story being told, or even contradict the story being told.

Or to use another analogy sometimes looking at a colour photo is like trying to eat bacon that smells like lemons....

My why and how

When I get asked about why I have turned a colour image into a black and white one, I often give the somewhat flippant answer, "because it looked rubbish in colour".  I give this answer because it is normally the truth. 

Take for example the black and white image below ( it is the same image as at the top of this post ).

Black and Light

Here is what it looked like in colour (using the camera's auto white balance).

Black and Light

Ok, so I could have adjusted the white balance in post to correct for the green tinge in the lighting, and got this look, which more reflected the way the light looked in real life, to my eyes.

Black and Light

But to me the colour in the image is still a distraction.  There are areas of pure white, but also lots of orange tones as well. So I wanted to get rid of all the colour tones ( except shades of grey ) so I changed it to Black and White.  To me it is a much stronger / simpler image without the colour in the way.

Below is an example of a photo that I took that I thought worked well in colour and Black and White, but I love the way that the Black and White version shows up the details in the shot without the colours getting in the way.  There were things in this photo that I hadn't even noticed until I converted it to Black and White.

So I guess I see converting an image to Black & White as an artistic tool to create a version of the image that tells the story that I want it to tell.

In my wedding photography world I convert a lot of the photos that are taken during the wedding to Black & White, and these are often the photos with the most things happening in them and also the photos that have the most emotion in them. Again removing colour from the photo will enhance and simplify the strength of the story within the photo.

Again this photo below is nice as a colour image, but the colours of the wine vats and the guests clothing distracts from the main focus of the image.

Other times the use of Black and White will suit the style of the subject, or it's end use.  I recently shot a series of images for a local Hawke's Bay based musician who goes by the name of "Stretch" ( yes, that is his real name ).  His style tends to suit Black & White ( and he likes the Black & White look himself ) so we shot the entire collection of photos for an upcoming gig with the intention of using only Black & White versions.  In a lot of ways this made the shoot easier as I didn't have to worry too much about the colours in the shots ( which were at times a conflicting range of warm timber tones, cool concrete, orange lights and green fluorescent lights ), and allowed me the luxury of experimenting a little more with strong contrast in some photos, which wouldn't have worked so well in colour.

Below is the photo that was used for the main promotional poster.


My Rules of Black and White

I tend to like my Black and White images to be quite "traditional" and punchy ( in case you hadn't noticed ) so my steps in Lightroom to create a Black and White image are as follows:

  1. with the image in the Develop module I change the "treatment" at the top of the Basic panel to Black and White
  2. I adjust the whites and blacks sliders to get some pure white and pure black into the image ( a lot more of each than you would normally for a colour image )
  3. And that is about it for the basic Black and White treatment.  Having pure white and pure black in the image gives it maximum contrast and gives it that classic look that I go for.

This is another image converted to Black & White using the above technique.  Sure there is a lot of other editing going on to get the final 'polished' image, but the basic Black & White tones are created by getting black and white into the image.


Now these 'traditional' Black & White settings don't always suit the image so sometimes I will use more 'trendy' / softer Black & White treatments.  I normally get these looks by using the tone curve in Lightroom and 'flattening out' the contrast in the Black and White ends of the brightness ranges, but this is probably a topic all to itself which I will save for a later date.


So that is my brief look at Black & White photography; a creative tool that I think is worth mastering,