Some More Thoughts on B&W

I thought I would write a little bit about the decision process when creating B&W renderings from color images. The images that follow were all captured in and around Los Osos on the central coast of California.

I have often said that luminance trumps color in photography. That is to say that the lights and darks in an image are more important than the color; it is the distribution of lights and darks that makes an image photographic in nature. Color can be an added enhancement, but if we don’t control the lights and darks we won’t arrive at the best rendering for any image, color or B&W.


The best training for mastery of luminosity is to study B&W photography and really learn to control the tone and contrast of your imagery. Looking at the image above. The original color image has the wood sculpture of the Bears as a medium brown against a rich blue sky. There is a lot of color contrast but a normal B&W conversion does not show as much contrast. The B&W on the right was achieved by using the red channel as the basis of the conversion. The brown bears are much lighter in the red channel and the blue sky darker so it was easy to create the dramatic contrast between the subject and the background. The tree stumps at the bottom needed to be darkened a little bit to help separate them from the bears.

The general rule of thumb with B&W imagery is that you want to have more contrast in areas of interest. In this case, the bears are clearly the area of interest and we’d like more contrast to separate them from their background.

The following image shows another situation where the color separation does not translate very well and needs to be adjusted:


Here the orange color of the light is basically the only color in an otherwise monochromatic image. A normal B&W conversion did not show the orange reflection in the water. The enhanced B&W version on the bottom again utilized the red channel but the reflection needed to be lightened further to get the right effect in B&W. The light and its reflection are seen to be the brightest thing in the scene to help anchor the eye which keeps being drawn right and left by the dark and light halves of the image.

The final example below illustrates another principal of tonal organization in the composition besides just enhanced contrast in areas of interest:


Here the main area of interest is the white foam of the waves playing against the dark sand. Contrast in the image was seriously driven in Lightroom to achieve the desired separation. Then the dark cliffs in the back were “burned in” to completely black out any detail there. However, the large black area became oppressive and now the scene felt unbalanced. The version on the right was created through editing in Photoshop- the top horizon was copied along with the sky and move down to narrow the strip of black and the sky was stretched to cover the upper part of the frame. The result balances the composition preventing the eye from falling into the big black hole, focussing it on the s-shape of the foam highlights on the sand.

I have a step-by-step video tutorial that covers some of the techniques discussed in this post that you may find interesting…