photography from the ground up

To B&W Or Not To B&W

What is it about a black and white image that fires our imagination? How does the removal of color from an image have such profound effect on what that image says to the person viewing it? In this post I am going to look at three of my photographs and discuss how the black and white versions differ from their color counter-parts.


This first image was made at Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. The gibbous moon was riding low in the sky and I captured its transit behind this rock formation. In the color version, while the moon is still center stage, it is overpowered by the strong contrast between the complimentary colors in the sky and the orangish brown rock.


In the black and white image, the moon regains its prominence; even though it is relatively small in the photo, the contrast between it and the dark sky gives it some visual weight in the frame. The foreground is suddenly more about the mudstone supporting the rock, again because of the lighter tones in that part of the image.


Another element that benefits from a black and white conversion is a textured pattern. This image of the cracked earth near the Eagle’s Nest in the Bisti Wilderness does pretty well in color, but when converted to black and white, the texture in the foreground becomes more prominent.


The image is suddenly more about the dry cracked earth which was my intent.


Sometimes it’s more about the overall feel of the image. This last photo of the Cumbres-Toltec was made as the train was crossing the bridge over the Chama River. I like the color version but the mood isn’t quite right. By converting the image to black and white and then adding a sepia split tone, I was able to pull the image together and give it a more somber voice.


There are many ways to accomplish a monotone conversion using Photoshop, Lightroom, or any of the other image editing applications that are available. The most important part of the process, I believe, is having the ability to control the tones as they relate to the colors in the original image. By using the B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop instead of a greyscale conversion (which dumps all of the color information), or the HSL sliders in Lightroom you can adjust these tones individually and your results will have more visual punch.


15 responses

  1. I am glad that you set up colour vs. black and white here. As someone who leans to colour more often than not you have given me more reason to start thinking about using b & w more. Wonderful images too by the way.


    November 27, 2013 at 11:37 am

    • Thank you Jenn. I sometimes forget about black and white myself. It really can make a big difference.


      November 27, 2013 at 11:41 am

  2. WOW! Fantastic photographs! This is really interesting. I’ve often wondered about black vs. white photographs. I really like your points.
    I hope you have a beautiful day! ❤


    November 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

  3. The first one definitely benefits from the bw conversion!


    November 27, 2013 at 2:07 pm

  4. Also beautiful in B&W


    November 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm

  5. John P. Meyer

    I’ve been mulling this over myself, Jim (re. to b&w or not to b&w). Usually I’ll just look at them both ways in post to see which is more pleasing, w/out trying to hard to analyze. One thing I did conclude is that IR-type filters can do a lot to add drama to an otherwise featureless sky. (So it’s got that going for it…)

    Great photos as usual!


    November 28, 2013 at 10:55 am

  6. These are all wonderful captures that work both in color and in B&W. I honestly don’t have a preference between the choices, which is quite unusual for me. Well done Jim


    December 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  7. In the first one the contrast is awsome in the b&w version! Great captures:)


    December 2, 2013 at 1:12 pm

  8. J’adore votre travail photographique, mais ça, on a déjà dû vous le dire !…


    December 4, 2013 at 4:18 am

  9. Personally, I feel BW to be more close to the soul of the image than colour. Colour distracts, but BW captures exactly the core of things, places, people. 🙂


    December 6, 2013 at 6:34 am

  10. I prefer the black and white versions, I think the color detracts from your very strong use of composition and of course from the subject matter you are photographing really nice work


    December 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm

  11. Converting to B&W sure makes a difference but to be honest I think these work VERY WELL both ways!


    December 15, 2013 at 7:53 am

  12. acrucibletrust

    Wow love your photo’s I am new at blogging just stopped in to check out your work. Thanks for sharing.


    December 25, 2013 at 7:55 am

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