One of the things I keep telling myself I need to do is spend time converting a selection of my images to black and white and explore them as monochrome pictures.

I cut my teeth as a new photographer with Black and White, shooting primarily Tri-X, and doing my own developing and printing in the school darkroom, both personal projects and work for the school newspaper and yearbooks. Today, however, I rarely find time to play with monochrome images, even though I know I should.

This weekend, I finally did, and I have thoughts.

Why bother with Black and White?

Sometimes, frankly, your image is better without color. The colors can muddle the image, distract the eye or get in the way of what you’re trying to show and tell with the photos. If you don’t work with Black and White images regularly, you aren’t going to know when to use it for best effect.

Even if I plan on using an image in color, I find it easier to critique the structure of a composition in monochrome; the color can fool the eye so it misses composition problems, taking a look in monochrome can help you see those mistakes.

I also find looking in Black and White can help me see mistakes in contrast and how I process my highlights and shadows, and for me, at least, reviewing my sharpening is a lot easier in monochrome; I can make adjustments until I like what I see on a monochrome image and then shift those changes back to the color one.

Black and White once a month

I’m trying to set things up so that once a month I grab some recent images and convert them the monochrome to evaluate them and practice my conversion skills. The idea is to work with a representative set of new images, not try to pick the ones that I think will be great as Black and White; there are things you can learn from things that don’t work in Monochrome as well, and sometimes you’ll be surprised at what pops out when you try. Part of the goal here is to evaluate the overall quality of the image using monochrome as a tool instead of a goal; part of it is to find the images that do work in Monochrome well and start building a bigger pool of those images in the collection.

This month’s set

This month I grabbed 14 recent images, and I spent about 2 hours doing conversions and fiddling with them. In a couple of cases I realized I had to adjust the sharpening in ways that weren’t obvious in color, and in a couple of cases I re-cropped rather than maintain the original cropping. But for the most part, it was a conversion and then adjusting it to look the best I could do.

In some cases I really loved the result. In some cases the results surprised me. In some cases, I had — black and white images. None of these images are what I’d consider “finished” to a degree I’d print them as black and white, and few of them deserve that kind of detailed polish. But I did find a few that stuck out to me as really nice images, and in some cases, better than the color version.

Here, in rough order of how well I think the conversion turned out, are the 14 images, with links to the original color one so you can compare.

Hibiscus Macro Close-up

Color Image: Flickr

One of my favorite images this year, so it was an obvious choice to convert, and you know what? I like it as much, if perhaps a bit better, in monochrome. This might be an interesting image to add a bit of a tint to, and I think it shows me a way to improve the color version as well: I think it’d be improved by reducing the saturation of the blurred flower in the background to make the pistil/stamen region pop more. I’ll need to try that.

Columbian Whitetail Deer, Ridgefield NWR, Washington

Original Image: Flickr

This one surprised me a lot. I rather liked the original, but I think it is actually much better in monochrome. The issue: in color, the tonal similiarity between the deer and grass is rather similar, so they kind of meld into each other. In monochrome, I can make the grass and deer stand out from each other much better. I might be able to duplicate that on the color by reducing luminance on the green channel and cutting saturation of that color. I’ll have to experiment.

But I really like this.

Newport, Oregon

Original Image: Flickr

This image in color has very muted, late evening tones. Converting it to Black and White allows me to emphasize the reflections on the water and play with the textures, but I prefer the colored version.

Tufted Puffin, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon

Original Image: Flickr

Take a Black and White bird and convert to Monochrome, and what do you get? A black and white bird. But I like how this came out, and it’s nice in different ways than the colored version is. Very much a success in my eyes.

Savannah Sparrow, Laguna Road West, Coyote Valley, San Jose, California

Original Image: Flickr

Tropical Kingbird, San Joaquin Reserve, Irvine, California

Original Image: Flickr

Red-tailed Hawk, Coyote Valley OSP, Santa Clara County, California

Original Image: Flickr

California Quail, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, California

Original Image: Flickr

Four bird image conversions. All nice, none outstanding,although I think it really shows off the striping on the sparrow and that hawk image catches my eye as well. But none of them are better than the color ones to me.

Western Gull, Morro Bay Harbor

Original Image: Flickr

A decent gull photo becomes a decent monochrome portrait.

Mount St. Helens from Johnson Ridge, Washington

Original Image: Flickr

Mt. St. Helens — a location I love that I struggle to photograph well. I like but don’t love the color image, but I don’t think the monochrome improves it.

Sandhill Cranes Landing, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Original Image: Flickr

This is a sandhill crane image that is okay in color, and the monochrome version just destroys it. Big nope here.

Great Egret, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Original Image: Flickr

The same can be said for this egret photo.

Flower Macro

Original Image: Flickr

A so-so color image becomes a pretty week Black and White

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California

Original Image: Flickr

Finally, I was curious how this image would convert, whether it would bring out the white geese more. Not really. Nothing really interesting here.