When Should You Convert to Monochrome?

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 6 Comments

When you remove colour from a frame it changes your image completely.

Yes, might sound quite obvious but it still seems that there are a lot of photographers out there who convert their images to black and white not because it will necessarily strengthen the image, but to hide some or other flaw.

It is very easy to be seduced by strong colour or the emotions you have while photographing a scene but unfortunately these things do not always translate into great images.  I’ve said it before but a great wildlife sighting does not necessarily make for a great wildlife photograph.  You can therefore also not expect to take an average image and for it to suddenly be transformed into a visual masterpiece by converting it to a monochrome version.

The reality is that when you convert an image to, or even just look at an image in monochrome, it will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the image.  This is very handy when working on a portfolio or collection or images, and the more you look at your images in monochrome the better you will become at knowing what to look for through the viewfinder when clicking the shutter.

Have a look at this image I recently created in the Masai Mara.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye Photographic Safari

The lioness is pretty well hidden in the grass but we can still kind of see the outline of her body due to the slight colour difference between her and the grass.

Does the image rely on colour to tell the story of a predator stalking through the grass?  Not necessarily.  It’s more a result of the contrast and textures of her face in the grass that tells the story.

To me, if colour does not play a major role in the frame the image might work in monochrome.

In this case, I am trying to tell the story of the lion hiding in the grass and the monochrome version does a pretty good job of conveying that story.

Gerry van der Walt - Wild Eye Photographic Safari

When you next look through your viewfinder think about the story you want to tell.

Think about the elements that will all work together in your final image.

If color is not one of the important elements and the image relies more on contrast, lines and textures the scene might work as a monochrome image.

Short version – think about your images and your photography and don’t just convert images to monochrome to try and ‘make it better’.

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 6

  1. Timothy Griesel Photography

    Hi Gerry

    If you have a look at my page, you will see quite a few images which are monochrome, this isn’t because the image doesn’t work in colou, its simply because I prefer black and white or monochrome to the colour version. I feel that the black and white image appears more truthful and trustworthy then the colour version.

    This isn’t to say I convert all my images to monochrome.

    Kind Regards

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      Thanks for the comment Tim. Agreed, if you like an image better in monochrome, and the appear more truthful and trustworthy, then you owe it to yourself to present them in monochrome.

  2. Morkel Erasmus

    Good points Gerry.
    Many people also think that images shot in harsh light automatically will look better in monochrome, thereby trying to hide the flaw of flat light and harsh contrast through the conversion. Granted, sometimes it works, but most times it doesn’t and there’s an awful lot of monochrome photos floating around online that don’t tell a story and don’t make good use of tone, line and texture.

    I often say in my workshops – most of the qualities that would make a good photo in colour still apply in monochrome (like good light, strong composition, good use of focus).

    We should explore the nuances and artistry behind monochrome a bit more on the blog in future 🙂

  3. Mac McMillen

    Even though I almost never create monochrome images, I have a great appreciation for those who do it well. What everyone is saying here makes sense.

    Very informative post. Thanks a lot.

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