Converting Images to Black and White

In our weekly photo critiques the question, "What makes a photo a good candidate for conversion?" has come up a few times. Black and white photography is a HUGE topic and one we could talk about for ages and ages...and ages!

Black and white photography strips the image back, and without the distraction of colour, forces you to focus on the emotion, the contrast, the shapes, the light and shadow.  


Some scenes that look good in colour may not look good in black and white and vice versa. We live in a world full of colour, so are used to seeing it all around us but learning to see in black and white and pre-visualising the conversion you'll make will help you on your photography journey. 

Some things to look for:

  • Lines, Shadows, Shapes and Forms - all of these will be emphasised in black and white

  • Contrast - having a portion of the photo that is near white and a portion that is near black

  • Wide Range of Greys - red flowers with green leaves will look great in colour, but if they are the same shade of grey when converted to black and white it will result in a dull and flat image. However, if the red is a pale, light shade and the green is a deep, dark shade their shades of grey will be different thus resulting in a better conversion.

  • A Clean White and a Clean Black - in addition to range of a greys, having a clean white and a clean black will help to avoid a muddy looking image

  • Low-key and High-key Lighting

  • Flat lighting - low contrast, cloudy and overcast days

  • Texture - adds contrast and interest; think of old wood barns, rocks and stones on a snowy mountain, a knit blanket

  • Patterns

There are certain situations that also lend themselves to a black and white conversion. 

  • Portraits are timeless in black and white. Without the distraction of colour, the emphasis is on the character, expression and personality of the subject.

  • When you want to emphasise emotion.

  • When the background is very colourful and distracting from your subject.

  • Landscapes


One situation where 90% of my images will be delivered in black and white is in my birth photography work. This is for three reasons: 1) my ultimate goal is to show the emotion and connections amongst the family before and after the new baby is born 2) newborn babies tend to be a bit messy and there is often a lot of blood involved, all of which is colourful and distracting from the subject 3) hospital rooms don't often have beautiful lighting (in particular in the middle of the night!), and the overhead and spot lights can help to add contrast to the image. 

Some situations where I wouldn't convert an image to black and white are when I'm using colour as part of the composition or where the colour is part of the story. For example, a single pop of colour within an image, a children's party that typically has lots of colourful balloons, streamers, cake, etc, a beautiful sunset, a field of flowers, a repeating colour within an image.  

We'll be working on seeing in black and white soon (hint, hint on an upcoming creativity exercise!). As with most things, the more often you practice it the easier it becomes, and before you know it your brain will be thinking in black and white all the time! 

- Jenny



EditingJenny RusbyComment