Choosing Color or Black & White

Yesterday, Nik Software announced Silver Efex Pro 2 – an upgrade to its excellent Black & White plug-in software. That was the first Nik software I ever bought, which turned out to be a mistake. Not because I didn't like the software, quite the opposite. I loved it, I wanted more of it. That's why I bought the Nik Complete Collection. The mistake was not getting the entire collection in the first place, because you don't get any upgrade discount for having one of the components. So, now I have two Silver Efex Pro serial numbers. Oh, well.

Color Contrast vs. Tonal Contrast

One of the things that caught my attention was the photographer in the video who said that  he finds it hard to work with color. Of colors, he said, “They don't speak to me. They don't have a real meaning to me.” I could've fallen on the floor. I don't mean this as a criticism of the man because he's making beautiful images. It's his art and I really like it. I also like color. I love color.

When you look at a color wheel, the colors that are opposite each other (complementary colors) are those that provide the most contrast. They work with each other. Red & Green come out every year around Christmas and they work together. Those colors oppose each other on the color wheel.  Going into color theory is beyond my scope and my examples aren't always exact opposites, but the idea is there when I look at my subjects. Tonal contrast is the difference between light and dark. You can have that contrast in color, but we see those shades easily in black & white images.

The color image that have the most impact upon me are the ones with great color contrast. I have to admit that monochrome images are something of a fall-back position for me. I use black & white, duotone, or something of the sort when I like a scene, but don't find the color contrast that attracts me. Consider this shot from Las Vegas, in color and then converted with Silver Efex Pro.

Paris Las Vegas - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

Paris Las Vegas - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

The scene speaks to me, but the colors don't really impress me here. There's some color contrast, but it's not compelling. Rather than toss the image aside, I decided to play with it and tried processing it in Silver Efex Pro to get the black & white image. That version definitely spoke to me. It simplified the image by eliminating all of those competing colors that weren't really adding to my overall impression of the scene. Sometimes, color is clutter. As much as I love color, I want good color. If I can't have good color, then I look at a scene without it to see if I still think it's a good image.

Sometimes, I find a scene that works well either in color or black & white. Consider the Tori Gate that I posted last week.

Torii Gate (Final) - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

Torii Gate (B&W) - © Copyright 2011 by William Beem

To my eye, either of these images work. However, the contrast between the warmth of the red gate and the cool tones of the sky & lake surrounding it just put that version over the top for me. Looking at the black & white image, I think I could've tweaked the tonal contrast a bit to make it more appealing, but I knew that I'd be wasting my time. The color contrast was the keeper here, and that contrast became the subject. The Tori Gate was a tool to provide the contrast.

That's what goes through my head when deciding to make an image in color or black & white. Sometimes I can tell at the scene that it's going to be a monochrome result, but I'm generally looking for color contrast. That's what I find most appealing. Colors speak to me, but there are always exceptions.

As for Nik's upgrade of Silver Efex Pro, I'm sure that I'll upgrade. However, I may wait until a trial version is out before I pull the trigger and hand out my credit card. I'm becoming a bigger fan of the concept of “try before you buy” and I don't see any compelling discount for ordering early. It's not like they'll run out of download versions.

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