Color or black and white?

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.

_7059099 copy
Commercial architecture. Nikon D700, AFS 24/1.4 G

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.

_M9P1_L1011009 copy
Offerings of strong color. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

_M9P1_L1006123 copy
Subtle color works well, sometimes. Prague castle. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

_M9P1_L1003919bw copy
But sometimes there is just no color to be had – the scene in reality was almost monochrome already due to the flat lighting and fog. Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

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.

_M8_L1025558bw copy
Isolation by lighting. Note how the backlight rings the subject. Paris. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

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.

_M8_L1017941 copy
Isolation by color. Goa, India. Leica M8, Voigtlander 15/4.5

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.

_M8_L1023455bw copy
Film Noir. This could have been 8 days or 80 years ago. It was neither, actually. London, Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

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.

_7007311 copy
The man behind the scenes, literally. If the backdrop was monochrome, would the blue screen effect metaphor have been as obvious? I think not. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

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 ๐Ÿ™‚ MT

This post was brought to you by Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!


  1. I have discovered a passion for photography in retirement – but need to continually stretch my learning curve. Thus my love for your blog. After rereading this post, I looked at the Boats of Amsterdam post with this material fresh in my mind. I realized that the images you used worked for the exact reasons you outlined here. What I would appreciate reading is your though process as you are analyzing your images. I learned to do this when I was teaching skill-based content at the university level. I broke down what I was thinking as I was doing the task students were learning. I think you could break down your elemental thought process as you analyze your new images (both those that work and don’t work). It is the opposite process of what you did on this post – writing what you know/are thinking and then finding a photo that illustrates. If you have done this but I haven’t found the post – please point me to them.

  2. Fantastic, as usual.

  3. You are one of the two “kings of colour” worldwide in my opinion (the other one: Thorsten Overgaard). So I have mentioned your work in my weblog some hours ago. I would feel so honored, if you would take a short look. How could Thorsten and You make the pictures (specially if they were shot with Leica!) such BANG!

    • Thanks for your compliments – I think what you’re seeing is ‘natural’ color. Looks unassuming, but bloody hard to achieve ๐Ÿ™‚ There’s a little magic in the processing and careful white balance involved. Will check out your blog.

  4. Interesting article. Scenes with Cumulus clouds would look good in B&W. I believe black and white film would do a better job in capturing all the range of tones compared to the same scene converted to B&W whether in camera or via software.

    • You’re probably right, though I suspect the D800 might give film a run for its money. Haven’t seen any nice clouds here recently, so I’m limited to the occasional Magritte-scape.


  1. […] UPDATE : Many people have pointed out that the final shot looks way too blue. Although taste is subjective, I’ll admit that my edit was definitely heavy-handed. I was definitely influenced by the VSCO shot (Kodak Ultramar 800 Cool ++ from Pack 05) next to it, so I went a bit too much in the curves for many. However, the point here was to rather make a point about the (main) use of color in a photograph : it is used in a dominant tone (blue, in this case) to make the viewer feel a particular mood, otherwise, why not just keep a picture black and white if your primary focus is on composition? Ming Thein talks about it on his blog in a lot more detail here and here […]

  2. […] help things. Is important to remember the fundamental rules of color and composition to decide when black and white or color may be more appropriate. (Black and white works well for strong luminance contrasts and oblique […]

  3. […] I include processing under technical execution. The biggest fundamental choice you have here is whether to work in color or black and white; some subjects are particularly suited to one or the other; some could go either way. Whether you should use one or the other depends mostly on whether your subject is best isolated by luminance/ brightness or by contrast in color. (This topic is subject to an entirely separate article here.) […]

%d bloggers like this: