The Maine photographed in San Diego, CA on a Sony A7III w a Sigma 20mm f/1.4

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color

Should I make my photo black and white? Or leave it color? Top of the list for most controversial question any photographer ever in the whole world have asked. Okay, that may be a bit dramatic, but life is just more fun that way so we are going with it.

If you are like me, you are always trying to figure out what is best – or the most beautiful – or the most effective way to convey your vision. Black & white or color always stumps me. I think we have all had photos that we like in color, but then you turn it to black and white and it takes a whole new form of beauty. It’s hard to not get addicted. But hey! I get it. I’ve been there.

In 2010 I broke my camera. Not on purpose, but something inside of it stopped working. I couldn’t see my image on my screen if I wanted to preview on my screen The only way it worked was if I smacked it a bunch, which wasn’t a good solution. The only way I could make it work was to shoot in b/w and then I could see the image. I was hooked. “Everything looks better in black and white,” I said to myself. I was shooting in RAW so it didn’t really matter. They all had the color info, I just choose not to use it. For a while, I went overboard – as I usually do when I learn something new. I shot everything in black in white.

Eventually, it swung back and corrected itself. Now I use it as a tool, and a very important tool I might say! But that brings us back to the question. When the heck do we use black and white? Here is my take.

When Should You Black & White?

1. When Color Is Detrimental 

Sometimes LDs, or lighting designers – just are not good at their job. Maybe their colors clash, or maybe they made a mistake – or maybe you just straight up disagree with their taste. There is a slew of issues it could be. Regardless, it is your image, do what you want with it.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? The colors clashed because of the overcast sunset. Pictured: Blink-182, somewhere in Europe.
The colors clashed because of the overcast sunset – Blink-182 somewhere in Europe

2. When Color Does Not Improve Image

Just because the color is not actively taking away from the image – doesn’t mean it is adding to the image. It could just be, not good. I like everything in the image to have a reason, so if the color isn’t doing anything for you, scrap it.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? When color does not improve the image. Pictured: Travis Barker of Blink-182 at The Forum in Los Angeles, CA
Travis Barker of Blink-182 at The Forum in Los Angeles, CA

3. To Rescue A Dark Image

Sometimes when you are rescuing a very dark image color just does not work. There is usually a lot of evidence in the form of noise that is attractive and even distracting to the viewer. However, switch it to black and white – and it’ll be a vibe that I am down with.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? This was an incredibly dark version of the above image - you can see the noise in the shadows
This was an incredibly dark version of the above image – you can see the noise in the shadows

4. Texture

Sometimes in situations where the shadows and highlights have such a beautiful contrast and create nice lines – I convert to black and white. These images often could be in color, however, in black and white, you truly see what is going on in the image. You can feel the image.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? To create texture. Pictured: Luke C Wild photographed in Los Angeles, CA
Luke Wild photographed in Los Angeles, CA
When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? To create Texture. Pictured: Tyler of Twenty One Pilots photographed in London, UK
Tyler of Twenty One Pilots photographed in London, UK

So now that we know when to use black and white, do we use color? Well, it is more or less the opposite of above. We want to use color more often than not. But make sure it’s perfect. Color is hard, but it is worth it. There are whole college courses on this concept… but let’s keep it basic.

1. Color Creates A Mood

Blue can make you sad, feel relaxed and warm tones can you make you feel good and happy. Sometimes people will use color to make an image look old, or like film.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? Color creates a mood. Pictured: Jack Barakat of Who Hurt You photographed in San Diego, CA.
Jack Barakat of Who Hurt You photographed San Diego, CA
When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? Color creates a Mood. Okay this is actually film
Okay this is actually film

2. Color Draws Focus

We all know how this works – red catches your eye first, and then I don’t know what order they fall in after yet but it is usually the brightest color of the image.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? Color creates a mood. She is the best
What, the pink didn’t catch your eye? Hahhaha

3. Color Makes The Photo

Sometimes a photo just wouldn’t be a photo without color, or it is just SO much better with color, that black and white seems silly.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? Color makes the photo. Pictured: Alex Shelnutt of A Day To Remember
Alex Shelnutt of A Day To Remember photographed in New York

Your Turn

I made this photograph of The Maine in San Diego CA.

When To Use Black & White Instead Of Color? Your turn to try it out. Pictured: The Maine photographed in San Diego, CA on a Sony A7III with a Sigma 20mm f/1.4
The Maine photographed in San Diego, CA on a Sony A7III w a Sigma 20mm f/1.4

I decided on b/w – but then I showed my roommate and he said he liked the color. This is a rough one. It’s really easy to change color in an image when there I only one or two prominent colors.

For example, I could do any of these edits and they would all be believable.

I do like blue the most because that is what the original lighting looked like. So at this point, it just becomes a matter of preference. What feeling am I trying to convey to my viewer? 

The reason I went with black and white is because the exposure difference between the subject and background is so beautiful and I wanted to show that. Conversely, the color adds a mood and still allows the exposure change to be visible. I don’t usually do this. But I think this will be fun. 

Here is my original image. You can download it below

Original unedited and straight from camera photo of The Maine.
Original unedited and straight from camera photo of The Maine

Edit it however the hell you want. Post it as a response to the tweet below. Let’s see what people do with it. Leave a short explanation of why you edited it the way you edited it. Feel free to comment on other peoples as well. No rules, yes you can add cats.