When should you consider converting your photo to black & white

It all started while I was working on developing some of my photos in Adobe Lightroom and my wife was sitting beside me watching TV in the living room. Usually she is not very much interested in the process and she seems to be bothered by the way I am sitting with her but I am not with her (you know).

Out of nowhere she said: “You know why photos are always better in black and white?”

Well to tell you the truth, her question was really an answer and she was partially right but I could answer her properly. When and what subjects should be transformed to black and white? I am writing this post in a way to answer myself before answering my readers.

Please keep in mind that I won’t be talking about the how. There are plenty of tutorials on the web that will guide you step by step to do so). In what follows I want to talk about the why and when to convert an image to black and white and why you should consider doing so.

So, why is it that some photos look great in colour, but tasteless and uninteresting in black and white, while others are more striking in black and white? Review your photos and while doing that ask yourself the question or even better yet, convert them to non-destructive Black & White in a software like Lightroom. Sometime, converting to black and white and pushing shadows and black to the max solved some composition problems for me. But this is still not the reason… The question is, if I convert this photo let’s say of a hobo child selling lottery on the road, does it transmit the message you really wanted to transmit i.e. in this case “melancholy”?

Let’s look at the below images. Do you really think that desaturating a sunset scene works for your viewers? Don’t you think it will omit the warmth from the picture? Or if you convert the blue boat image like the one below to black and white won’t remove the impact that you want to show.


In each photo above, colour plays a determining role in the real “feel” of the shot.

Now let us look at some of the example images below. For me, the black and white versions are stronger than the colour versions, because the colour is distracting the viewers from my messages: old car, strong facial expression, empty souks, or even a status quo of a man waiting for work to put food on the table for his family. My viewers don't need to know which colour the car was, nor do they need their eyes drawn to that foliage around the car. Likewise, the fact that the young boy was wearing a red t-shirt while the man that's staring away was wearing blue jeans is immaterial. In general I have reached a conclusion that in many street photos, the colour has a negative impact on the image as it draws your attention away from the key message.

In all cases, when you convert or shoot in black and white, don’t be afraid to boost the contract and to stretch the mid-tonal range while increasing blacks and shadows (Refer to my post on Understanding Histograms).