In advance of tomorrow’s review of the Leica M-Monochrom, it seems that this is a an appropriate question to tackle (if a completely academic one if your camera doesn’t shoot color in the first place.) It’s actually one of the tougher problems I face on a regular basis. Does a shot work better in color or black and white? What if it’s both? There are generally a few things that I look for which help, either to define the obvious or if I’m on the fence. This article is a short distillation of that process.
1. Is it commercial? If so, then 99% of the time, the required output will be color. Especially if it’s food or product; architecture can be either.
2. Are there strong dominant colors in the image? If so, then color. Generally, if the image is about strong color, monochrome almost always never works because for a color to be perceived as strong, you need to have fairly constant luminance values across the scene. And luminance variation is what you need for a good B&W. If the strong dominant color as a good range of luminance values, then either can work.
3. Is the image naturally washed out or low saturation because of the subject or lighting? Generally, black and white works better here; however, you’d be surprised at how different an image with subtle color and very low saturation looks vs one that is completely colorless.
4. Is the subject isolated or highlighted by the lighting of the scene? Either can work, but my personal preference is for black and white because you’ve got enough luminance isolation already without having to overdo it.
5. Is the subject isolated by color? Stupid question, easy answer. Go with color. If not, you risk running into the problem of small differences in luminance values again. Sometimes, color IS the subject.
6. What emotion or feeling are you trying to achieve with the image? Classical timelessness always requires B&W, otherwise, go with color and shift the white balance a little.
7. Is the image part of a series, group or set? Whatever the answer is, be consistent. You could produce two different sets, but make sure the style (including color or lack thereof) is consistent between images in the set. If you’re only delivering or using one set, then don’t change styles halfway through. See what best fits the images and overall goal of the series.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid all of these problems and questions it to pre visualize your shot and start with the end already in mind, so you know what you’re going to do with it. And that will be the subject of a future article :) MT