Black & white or colour?

Last night I gave a talk about improving your photography, and one question that came out of the session was, “What’s the process you go through when deciding to convert an image to black and white?”  My answer was, “It depends on the subject, and the mood and story I’m trying to communicate”.

Take this example, of a pool at the end of the Jubilee Creek gold mine walk in Knysna Forest, South Africa. It was taken with a wide-angle lens, 28 mm equivalent, on a Panasonic Lumix G3.

"The pool, Knysna Forest - colour"

“The pool, Knysna Forest – colour”

I wanted to make something of the mass of plants surrounding the pool.  It was a very wet day, so raindrops were falling into the water, breaking up the reflections in the pool.  There was no sun, so there were not many really bright highlights, and  the overall contrast was quite low.  In colour it was a pleasant enough image, but didn’t convey how it looked to me, and how I felt.  I was rather wet, a bit cold, and not feeling too bright; I went down with food poisoning a couple of hours later!

"The pool, Knysna Forest - B&W"

“The pool, Knysna Forest – B&W”

Converting to B&W in Lightroom gave a much better feeling to the image, taking away the complicating green tones, but the mood still wasn’t there.  I applied a medium vignette to darken the corners, and darkened the highlight near the centre of the frame at the bottom.  The dark corners give more emphasis to the pool and waterfall in the centre.  I lightened the waterfall a little to give it a bit more importance.  The image now carries much more atmosphere, and a bit of mystery.

As I said at the beginning, whether to convert an image to black and white depends on the story you are trying to tell.  Telling the story doesn’t stop when you’ve pressed the shutter button.

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