Photography is art, and therefore it is subjective – there are no legitimate rules to choosing when an image will look “better” in black and white vs. color. There are, however, general practices and principles that you may use as guidelines when deciphering when exactly an image could be stronger in black and white.
Why Make a Photo Black and White?
When you have an image that is generally lacking in color, it may just be the perfect candidate to make black and white. There is a certain theme of timelessness that overcomes you when you find the perfect image to make black and white as if it destined to be that way. Most, if not all of the time it comes down to gut instinct – whether or not you as the artist prefer to let the moment speak for itself and strip the distraction of color away for the viewer.
Take for example this image, riddled with muted tones that don’t pop out or provide enhanced value to the scene. You can also see that the overhead lights are causing a green tint overlay on skin tones. It makes for the perfect candidate for a black and white image, which can easily be seen when you toggle between color vs. black and white (press V for this shortcut). If you want to hide bad color or highlighted areas on the skin that stick out like a sore thumb when the image is in its original state, then having a bias towards making the image black and white makes logical sense.
Black and White Processing
Take advantage of Lightroom’s Virtual Copy Feature (by pressing Control/Command + Apostrophe) create a duplicate of your image so that you can still deliver the color version to your client. Just because you prefer the image in black and white doesn’t necessarily mean that they will too, so it’s better to have the option than eliminate it entirely.
Start off by brightening your Exposure to balance the tones in the image, but be aware of any increase in the highlighted portions. In a black and white processed image the eye immediately is drawn to the brightest parts of the photo, and since there are no other colors to distract from this it’s imperative to maintain a balance in the Shadows and Highlights.
Dodge and Burn certain areas to detract attention and focus it on another part of the image, but be mindful of your subject’s skin tone. Since the color is stripped, skin tones easily fade from an image when processed in black and white, and need to be enhanced through targeted selection using the HSL panel. There is a fine line between bringing the couple out from the background by increasing Reds/Oranges and having them pop out just enough to see the difference.
Vintage Fade Effects
Part of the reason why black and white versions of images are so appealing is because the mood of the image represents a time once forgotten. Photography began in black and white and stripping an image of modern day advancement brings back that old-timey classic feel that simply can’t be replicated in color.
Vintage photo effects can be reproduced with the addition of a little Grain and Fade, and lifting the shadows to produce a more matte finish sends the image back in time, and gives it an aged effect. Be wary of exactly how much grain you add though, especially if it was already photographed at a High ISO setting, because if the image is blown up the heavy granulation can alter the quality severely.
This has been an excerpt from our Advanced Lightroom Processing Workshop where you can learn incredibly efficient techniques to take your images from ordinary to extraordinary. Gain access to this workshop and so much more by purchasing a Premium Subscription to SLR Lounge!