From Black & White Photography: The Timeless Art of Monochrome by Michael Freeman:
At the risk of oversimplifying, subtracting colour from imagery allows the other graphic elements and dynamics to increase in importance….
Colour is so integral to our experience of the world, and of imagery, that most people (and most photographers) do not separate it in their mind’s eye from everything else that is going on. In order to understand what happens when we take it away and work in monochrome, we need to know how it fits in to the total range of image qualities; also, how it differs from the other elements in its effect. [Colour] elicits subjective and emotional responses in a way that other image qualities do not…. The subjective response to colour is powerful and pervasive, and as a result, takes over viewer response to many photographs. If the colour component in an image is strong, rich, unusual, or simply noticeable, there is a good chance that it will swamp the attention….
And because colour triggers emotional responses, there is also usually an unquestioned assumption that it works on a scale of beauty, or at least attractiveness. To say “what a spectacular sunset”, or “look at how blue the water is”, or “that gray really sets off the pink”, or any of the many other common value judgments on colour, is to acknowledge that the effect of colour can be likeable — and for most people should be likeable. This gut reaction to colour is by far the most common, and in this way it stands apart from the other formal graphic elements….
There are a number of ways of subdividing the graphic components of an image, but the most generally accepted are: point, line, shape, texture, and colour. In the way that these are used and interact, there is contrast, balance, and dynamics (or vectors). Subtracting colour enhances those remaining. In practice, this means that the components and qualities most affected are the graphic ones of shape, the graphic structure of the image, and the gradation along the gray tonal scale, as well as the three-dimensional ones of volume and texture.
One Wordless Wednesday back in January, I processed and posted a series of color photos of a vintage camera; then a couple of days later, converted the images to black and white and wrote about the workflow I used. That was my first attempt at color to black-and-white conversion with Lightroom or the Nik Collection, and it was fairly easy to get the results I wanted since the color images leaned toward monochrome and the primary subject was mostly black and silver.
After posting some photos of a Bradford Pear blooming in front of my house on last week’s Wordless Wednesday, I wondered how those multi-colored images would look if I turned them into black-and-white. The budding blooms are a key image element and they vary from light green to bright white, depending on how much the blooms had opened. I wanted to see if I could create black-and-white versions that emphasized the opening blossoms, reducing — but not eliminating — background elements that provided additional context (spring!) to the images. My goal was to elevate the quality of the photos by making the blooms, regardless of whether they were opened or not, “pop” out of the image in shiny bright white.
All of my adjustments to create these images were completed in Lightroom; this time, I didn’t use any Nik Collection filters at all. I’ve been trying to better understand where the two tools overlap, when to choose one over the other, and when to use both. For these images, I converted to black and white in Lightroom — which created the flat-looking versions you can see in the middle column of the second gallery below — then made basic image adjustments (to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks) to emphasize the blossoms and fade the backgrounds. I then worked through the individual color channels in Lightroom’s Black and White Mix panel to balance the blacks, grays, and whites in each image, mostly by adjusting green, yellow, and red channels to create that balance.
I also applied quite a bit of sharpening to the images, which, surprisingly, didn’t create any apparent distortion but helped bring out the textures, patterns, and highlights of the individual blooms — probably because the sharpening tool mainly had whites and light grays to work with. As a final step I experimented with split-toning — a Lightroom tool I haven’t used very much but want to learn more about. For these photos, I used split-toning to shift gray in the shadows from a warm to slightly cooler color, which provided the silver-white brightness I was looking for when I started this workflow.
Select the first image to view larger versions; then, if you are interested, take a look at the second gallery showing the transitions.
Below are three steps in the transition of these photos from color to black and white. The first column shows the processed color image from my original blog post; the second column shows the color image after conversion to black and white but with no other adjustments; and the last column shows the final version, with adjustments to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks, the individual color channels, sharpening, and split-toning.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!
These are beautiful images and I enjoyed reading about your workflow. The last image is my favorite, but the 7th one has really nice light in it.
Yes, I like the last one also — it looked nice in color but has a kind of presence in black and white.
You were right to point out the 7th one … that’s the one that kept insisting I try converting these to black and white … 🙂 … It was a lot more work than I expected — I spent a whole day working on the 11 images — but I learned a lot along the way!
Thanks for commenting! Bye for now!
I enjoyed seeing the transition laid out, nice examples. The article your quoted seems to describe my reaction pretty accurately – the colors do tend to swamp my attention. It’s nice to have both color and b&w shots, so you can appreciate them in different ways. The shots without blossoms – simpler, just buds, curving twigs, bark – capture my attention more in b&w, and you do appreciate the designs and texture more.
Thanks! Working on these gave me some new experiences — especially, like you mention, seeing the color versus black and white comparisons. Adjusting “color channels” was something I’d never done before, and it was interesting to see how Lightroom creates a relationship between black, gray, and white shading and the colors so you can manipulate them. I’m not sure I fully understand it technically yet; more research needed!
Thanks for the comment! 🙂
Beautiful, sensitive images. And extremely effective instruction. Thank you. And thank you for following my blog.
Thank you, Michael, for the kind words about the images and, especially, about the writing. And thanks for following my blog too!