David English: Color or Black-and-White

Paper or plastic? Cash or charge? Daily life is full of choices and photographers face yet another one: color or black-and-white? With a film camera, we tend to make the choice upfront when we purchase the type of film. With a digital camera, we usually wait until the editing stage, where we can process the image either way. Those are points in time where you can implement the choice, but how do you decide if a photo should be in color or black-and-white?

I’ve been trying to get a handle on this for some time. The easy answer is that it depends on the image. Think of the Hollywood movies from the 1950s, where the gritty urban dramas would be in black-and-white and the big budget musicals would be in color. Often it’s a gut reaction as to which one looks best. The decision usually comes down to a personal preference. Some photographers shoot only black-and-white, while others shoot only color.

For me, the default is black-and-white, unless there’s a compelling reason for the image to be in color. Black-and-white can reveal the underlying forms, which is a big plus if you like to emphasize the geometry of the composition. Black-and-white can also make the image appear less like what we see in real life. That can signal to the viewer that there’s something in the photo that is worth a closer look.

Unfortunately, I’m not very color aware. I rarely think about color. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to describe the color of the clothes of someone I just met, or even know the color of a friend’s eyes. Yet some of the photos I’ve shot have practically screamed out to be processed in color. And they’re among my all-time favorite photos.

The feedback from my photo processing has caused me to rethink how I handle the camera. I carry my M9 with me almost everywhere I go. In the past, I’ve operated the camera mostly by instinct. Just frame the image and move on. The downside? When I get to the processing, I’m confronted with photos that are almost what I want, but not quite. I sometimes wish I had a time machine, so I could go back and rework the shot now that I understand what the shot is about. My goal going forward is to train myself to see color and forms more selectively before I raise the camera.

When in doubt, I process the photo for both color and black-and-white, and then decide based on the end results. I like to work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, where I tend to run the color images through the Viveza 2 plug-in and the black-and-white images through the Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in. Both plug-ins are from Nik Software. I’ve found that M8 and M9 files can withstand a surprising amount of manipulation before they fall apart.

Viveza 2 adds a bit of spit-and-polish to the colors. The algorithms can also enhance the definition of the forms so they don’t merge together. In my experience, the less you have to mess with the colors, apart from the white balance, the better the final result will be.

The photo titled Trapeze Artist shows how color can help bring a figure out from the background. The simple color scheme—mostly shades of red, blue, purple and yellow—makes the colors even more striking. I didn’t even try to process this one in black-and-white, as I felt it would either work in color or not at all. Incidentally, through experimentation, I discovered that this image worked better when rotated counterclockwise 90 degrees.

With black-and-white processing, you can get away with a much broader range of alterations and still have the image look natural. The opening screen of Silver Efex Pro 2 shows thumbnail previews of how the various presets will affect your image. The presets are a fine starting point, though some tweaking is always required. I often go right to the Full Spectrum and Full Spectrum Inverse previews to see how much leeway I’ll have with the monochrome palette and gradations. Sometimes I send a photo through Silver Efex Pro 2 multiple times so I can see the image fully processed using several different presets.

For the photo titled Art Deco Sculpture, the captured color didn’t add anything to the image. Since the image is primarily about shapes and forms, the color was a distraction. The wide-angle 24mm Summilux lens and black-and-white processing make the sculpture seem more massive. The processing also accentuates the angles and highlights the sculpture’s burnished finish.

The last step is to choose the best processed version of the image. It may be a choice between color and black-and-white, or among several black-and-white variations. Seeing them side by side, as large as possible on your screen, is an excellent way to compare them (short of printing them). Usually one stands out from the others. If successful, the photo will suggest the inevitability of all the choices that have led up to that point. Ideally, you wouldn’t be able to imagine it being any other way.

With today’s non-destructive image editors, you can go back to any point of the process and branch into a totally new direction, just to see what would happen. So ultimately, any image you capture can be processed again and again for color or black-and-white, using the latest software tools.

- David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2 and moved to an M9 in November 2009. You can see his photos at www.protozoid.com. His main website is www.davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is www.classicfilmpreview.com.