I've seen a lot of photos pop up on social media from my friends and family participating in a black and white photo challenge. And while I encourage all people to be creative and especially jump into making images, there are some images that, to be honest, aren't very good.
This can be for a variety of reasons, sometimes the exposure is bad, sometimes it blurry and sometimes the composition isn't that compelling. Converting a color image to black and white, won't make a bad image, better. It will just make a bad image black and white.
There is a tendency to think that making an image black and white, that it makes it artistic or moody. And while this can be the case, arbitrarily making an image black and white without thinking about the subject matter isn't going to make a great image. In fact, it could make an otherwise decent image, worse.
Here are some tips to decide whether to make it black and white or not:
1. If color plays no importance for the strength of the image, it should be in black and white. If color doesn't matter, then perhaps color is just a distraction. If the goal of an image is to tell a story, is the color enhancing that story or does it take away from what you're trying to communicate or convey?
2. A black and white image sometimes portrays emotions better over a color one. If you are shooting an image with a clear face in it, sometimes its better to go black and white. This will eliminate visual distractions from the image and help the viewer connect with the emotion of the image.
3. A stronger tonal contrast sets itself up well for a black and white image. It allows you to fill in the rest of the blanks with your mind. When your brain has less information (like color) to process, there is more clarity and room for your mind to process the subtleties and mysteries of the image.
4. Color should add a point of visual interest through the image, enhancing upon what is there. The biggest question you should ask your self when you are processing an image or applying any effect is, 'WHY'. Why should this be color? Why should this be B&W? Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
With that said, if I am taking pictures of a beautiful fall landscape, having the trees as the central focus, then it's best to leave the color in. If however, I was shooting a portrait of a lonely widow walking down the road, making that black and white might help you connect with the subject. Even if the trees were pretty and orange, your focus is the person walking down the road, you don't want the color to distract from that.
5. If the colors cannot be saved, such as strong casts, the fallback is converting it to black and white. Sometimes, I make images B&W that I've made mistakes on. On some images when you eliminate color it covers up mistakes or even things that you can't control like film grain. Sometimes it's those mistakes or imperfections are actually redeemed when converted B&W.
6. Food or other organic material will never be enhanced with Black and White. I've seen this quite a bit with Black and White challenges. People will take a photo of a delicious burger with a golden bun, fresh green lettuce, and bright red tomato and convert it to B&W. On top of it, the moist beef looks gross because it's lost all the color that we are used to seeing in the cooked meat.
I'd like to hear from you. In your opinion, what do you use to determine if a photo should be kept in color or converted to black and white?