Photography Tips: When Exactly Does Black & White Work?
We’ve all been there. You take a great snap of some brilliant landscape, or you capture an intimate couple selfie in front of the Christmas tree. For fun, you play around with our iPhone or Android filters and stumble across the black-and-white filter.
Wham! The photograph lights up with an entirely new mood. The textures are more detailed, the lighting more quaint. You decide that this is exactly what the photo needs, and then you proceed to post it on Instagram in this new, updated form.
Only, is black and white really what the photograph needed? If every photograph could be improved with a black and white filter, surely every future Instagram photo book will look like you’ve been transported back to the 1930s?
This little stickler got us thinking. Every time we’ve slapped a black-and-white filter on a photograph, it’s ended up looking great. And yet we don’t slap a black and white filter on every photograph we take. So what determines whether a black and white filter is the right decision? When exactly does black and white work, and why?
We’re going to try to answer these questions below, telling you exactly when to use black and white and when to leave your pictures as colorful as the moment you took them.
Advantages of Black and White
Before we can answer the question of when black and white works, it’s first important to consider the advantages. From a tonal perspective, black-and-white images lend themselves to a high-contrast treatment, meaning the blacks are richer and the whites are brighter.
A lot of the time, mid-tones are also expanded, which means you have a longer grey range, and the two extremes of lighting – high-key and low-key – are amplified to create more drama. As mentioned earlier, black-and-white photography can also reveal more details in an image. This allows the photographer to apply high contrast to images without the scene itself looking exaggerated.
From a less technical point of view, black and white images also have the power to add more emotion to an image. We say this is less technical, but actually, the reason it does this is because the viewer’s gaze can be captured more intensely.
If the picture is high contrast and the details are sharper, then the viewer’s attention will be captured instantly, and be held for a longer period. This then encourages them to connect with the photograph more than they would have done if it were in color – hence, the photograph touches them on a deeper level.
For lovers of timeless photographs, a lack of color can also eradicate a timestamp, making photographs feel outside of our time and space, and in a kind of artistic other-world. Just think, if you upload all black-and-white photos to our photo book maker in 2024, and you do the same thing in 2034, it would be impossible to date either of them from aesthetics alone. Unless of course, we’re all driving hover cars in 2034!
When Does Black and White Work?
These are the advantages of black and white, so when does it actually work? There are several specific instances. With architectural photography, black and white filters can help to change the perception of a building, enhancing its shapes, angles, and forms within its environment.
The same can be true for urban photography. If you’re looking to find more architectural stories than human stories, then taking black and white photos can emphasise the intense personality of a city, brightening its glass reflections or sharpening its skulking shadows.
If the subject of a photograph, in general, is of the utmost importance, then this can be another reason to use black and white.
Let’s take a look at that couple's selfie again. While there may be a lot of exciting or vivid colors in that photograph, it is being taken to show off you and your partner. In this way, stripping the color can take away the distractions and keep things stark and simple.
Contrast this with a landscape photograph. If you’re taking a picture of a beautiful vacation view, then there is no specific subject to highlight, which means the colors are going to become more important. If you change this image to black-and-white, you might be making the scene more dramatic, but you are taking away a lot of the life, personality, and beauty of the landscape that made you want to photograph it in the first place.
The trick in all of these cases is to work out what you want from the photograph. What are you trying to evoke? What do you want the viewer to focus on? Once you know this, you’ll know whether it needs the black-and-white treatment or not. Remember, this isn’t about making the photograph look cool. It’s about making the photograph look right.