Choosing a Color or Black and White Outcome for Your Photo

The cool blue of an overcast sky, ice and water make for a particularly melancholy mood of ice and snow on Paradise Harbour, Antarctica.

I was fortunate indeed to co-run a photography tour to Antarctica during November 2010. The tour was 19 days in length and, due to the significant distances involved, included some days at sea with no landings. Those who weren't laid up with sea sickness (which happens to the best of us) used their time well photographing sea birds flying around the back of our ship, socializing or downloading and processing their images, often in common areas like the bar or the dining room.

On one such day several people commented on photographs I was working on at the time. The comments, while complimentary, were a little guarded due to the fact that I'd decided to render the images in question into black-and-white. I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss my thought process and why my approach didn't coincide with these other members of the group.

Antarctica: A World Of White, Grey and Blue

Antarctica is an amazing location for landscape photography. One thing that hits you in Antarctica is color: the water, sky and, in particular, the icebergs. So, with that in mind, it's not surprising that some folks might wonder why I opted for a different approach (albeit on a very small percentage of my images).

Lens Choice

We all go through stages in our photographic life. For years I used medium strength telephoto lenses in my landscape photography. These days I prefer wide-angle lenses for landscape work. Conversely, while many folks love using long telephoto zoom lenses for portraiture, I've preferred mild wild-angle and medium telephoto lenses when photographing people.

I've always loved working in color but, since 1986, when I first became aware of the history of photography, I've very much enjoyed looking at classic black-and-white imagery.

Informing the Practice of Your Art

These days I try to dismiss from my mind any images or preconceptions about a particular location (e.g., "Ice in Antarctica is this amazing cyan/blue color"). I think its important, wherever possible, to make images that separate you from the crowd by their uniqueness as much as by their quality. Aim to discover and cultivate your own unique way of seeing the world and let that inform the way you practice your art.

Speak to Me of Black and White

Ruins of a building at Port Foster on Deception Island, Antarctica

As far as photography is concerned it's a fact that some subjects or scenes look better in black-and-white. The trick is to let the image you've created speak to you as to whether it is suited to color or a black-and-white rendering. Lines, shapes, textures and shadows will appear more dominant in a black and white photo. Likewise the color of the light, complimentary (i.e., contrasting/opposite) or harmonious colors may demand rendering in color.

The only question that matters is which treatment will best convey the feeling, mood, theme or subject you want to explore. These are far more important considerations than determining your choice based upon your own preference for color or black and white images.

Work via Comparisons

One of the great advantages of applications such as Adobe Lightroom is the ability to produce a Virtual Copy of any camera-based image within your database. This allows you to experiment with both the original color file and, where appropriate, a black-and-white copy. Via the process of comparison you'll be better able to decide whether a color or black and white rendering is the best option for the photograph in question.

Black-and-white photography will allow you to open yourself up to a whole new world of adventure and fun and, in doing so, will enable you to discover and cultivate your own, unique creative self.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru