When does black and white work in action photography?

Black and white photography is still popular in action photography. Often cited reasons are that it eliminates distracting colours and conveys mood and drama. But when is it right to convert an image to black and white (or shoot in Monochrome) and what are the signs to look for that will translate well into black and white?

There are no hard and fast rules. These days we have the luxury of converting a colour image into black and white in post-production to see if it works and keep the colour original. However, learning which images work best in black and white, and why, can save you time and help make the right choices.

In general, images with low contrast don’t convert well to black and white. Images shot in overcast conditions lack deep shadows and bright highlights and often result in a rather flat grey image.

ISO400, 1/1250s, f/5.6 shot at 200mm

This low contrast shot taken in overcast conditions doesn’t lend itself to black and white, producing a flat grey image. Converting to black and white should add something to a shot, ask yourself how an image is improved by the conversion.

Therefore it stands that high contrast images work well in black and white, images shot in bright sunny conditions produce deep shadows and bright highlights. Black and white images make good use of these and the effects can be pushed in post-production to create dramatic images.

ISO200, 1/800s, f/5.6 shot at 300mm

The overriding feature in the image above is the blue overall. The colour is the first thing you see and distracts from some of the detail such as the two small patches of light on the drivers face. Converting to black and white and adding contrast eliminates this distraction and refocuses the viewer’s attention on the driver. Also, slightly less conventional framing seems more suitable to black and white images. Of course this is subjective, but producing black and white images can tell your viewer that you are shooting something different and not necessarily conforming to all the rules.

ISO200, 1/1600s, f/5.6 shot at 200mm

In the above example a black and white conversion has been used to accentuate an effect. With the colour version contrast has been added but the smoke is still a little washed out. Converting to black and white allows you add contrast to bring out the whites in the smoke.

ISO100, 1/10s, f/14 shot at 24mm

Finally, and bringing together a few techniques discussed in this section, black and white works really well with creative images, like this “break all the panning rules” shot. Increasing the contrast after converting to black and white, then deliberately allowing some of the highlights to become overexposed, adds a modern dynamic feel to the image.

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Coming next: Seeing the world without a viewfinder.

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