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The dominance of color in photography is a key tool to use in the psychology of your viewer. Color makes people feel emotions.
I have a tendency to prefer color photos. More accurately, I love strong colors. Color contrast, color symmetry, or color complements. So when and why would, or should, use black and white in your photography? The simple answer is to prevent the dominance of color from stealing your message.
Seeing the Dominance of Color
Take a look at the same shot of Nelli above (click to see it larger). In color, she pops dramatically off the background. In Black and White, she's part of the environment that surrounds her. The simple change has a palpable impact on the visual elements of the photo, which translates to a difference in the emotional impact a photo makes on a viewer.
Color demands your attention. In the photo on the left, it's hard to ignore the blue denim. It's the dominant element in the photo. If you're selling jeans, those colors are your friend. What if your message is something less product is driven? If your message is an attitude, the black and white image on the right is your friend.
Seeing the Mood of Color
Let's imagine you're a concert photographer. You get your shots and come back to the computer. Now it's time to decide how you're going to present the concert to the world. In some cases, it's a practical decision.
I remember Alan Hess teaching that sometimes the color of the stage lights just looks awful on the performers. Convert it to black and white and now it's art. The tone is there and the dominance of color isn't a problem anymore.
Technical problems aside, which image do you present? The color image conveys the spectacle of the show. It's bright and stark with color contrast between warm and cool colors. I love that stuff. That's the kind of stuff you show to generate excitement and sell albums, tickets and t-shirts.
Convert it to black and white and you have something completely different. When you strip away the color, you see the musician and the performance more than you see the show. The message is completely different.
How to Choose Color or Black and White for a Photo
I love color. I'm never going to stop shooting and presenting color photos, and I love turning up the dial of those colors. It's just that they aren't always appropriate for the message I have in mind. Sometimes I'll find myself working on an image and it just isn't happening for me. I know that I like the shot, but something isn't right.
That's when I'll try converting the image to black and white. It simplifies things by removing the distraction of color. That's when I can start to evaluate the image on different merits. If it doesn't work in color and it doesn't work in black and white, I'll toss it away. Why waste time trying to save an image? It either works or it doesn't.
Color, for all its charms, sometimes hides the beauty or message of an image. Don't let the dominance of color push you around.
Here's an example in color, followed by the finished image in Black and White.
In this case, I felt that eliminating the color was a good choice. The color was a distraction from this subject.
If I were shooting for a hair color product or lipstick, it would be unthinkable to eliminate the color from this photo. For that kind of purpose, the model is there as a canvas for the product.
However, my objective was about portrait lighting. I was interested in the play of light and shadow on the model. The color was just a distraction and it was getting in the way of my purpose. This photo is about the lighting. I needed to illustrate the contrast between light and shadow.
Making the Most Out of Contrast
At other times, I need to illustrate the contrast. If the photo doesn't have enough strong contrast inherent in its colors, it can help to turn it into a Black and White Image.
A white dog on a black background is decent contrast, but eliminating the little bit of color in the image makes the contrast stronger.
Feeling the Dominance of Color
Color has impact and emotion. We experience the world in terms of skin tone flowers, skies, art, and architecture. Those experiences may be subtle as we're going through our day, but not always. People stop to look at the beauty of a colorful sunset or a lovely bride.
As photographers, we're often told to look for the light. It's good advice, but it's only one of the elements that draw the eye into our photos. Look for opportunities to use the dominance of color in your images to attract attention to your photos.
Recommended Software for Black & White Conversion
Silver Efex Pro is part of the Nik Collection. It's a plugin you can use in Photoshop or Lightroom, and I think it's the best tool to use for Black and White conversion.
Black and white conversion isn't just a matter of desaturating a color photograph. In fact, that approach ruins the contrast within the photo. Using a tool like Silver Efex Pro gives you great results with simple adjustments due to the great options to make local adjustments to highlight elements in your photograph.
You also get presets for 20 different film emulsions, helping you recreate looks from your favorite photos.