Black and white is nothing new when it comes to art; it’s existed since the beginning of time.
Art photography is similar in that it started out in black and white due to technical limitations—well before the dawn of colour film.
Even though the majority of photography is done automatically on digital cameras, black and white photography lives on, remaining a very powerful technique.
Colour photography is the strongest when trying to accurately reproduce a scene because it captures the full spectrum of colour present.
Black and white photography shy’s away from accurate reproduction, focusing on other visual effects such as tone, texture and shape.
The difficulty is deciding which one takes precedence in a photo—colour vs. black and white—and how you capture it.
Shoot in Colour
Shooting in colour allows you to capture the light in three different channels: red, blue, and green.
When it comes to processing the images, manipulating these colours in different ways allows you to create different effects: boosting the red filter has the effect of a darker, more dramatic sky; the blue filter increases the atmospheric haze; and the green filter darkens skin tones.
These are just a few things that change. I recommend learning by doing; have a play around with some of your own photos.
ISO No Longer Matters
A high ISO produces a lot of grain in an image which looks especially bad in brown area of colour photos.
Black and white however is reminiscent of old film photography which was quite grainy, so it fits in better. A high ISO also adds the texture that your photo is lacking—something black and white does very well.
Composition is more important in black and white because the difference between shades and tones is greater accentuated; you may need to frame your shot to best capture this.
This usually means composing the photos differently to how you would in colour. The photo of the stairs below is not composed in my usual style but this composition showed the changes in tone and shades well in black and white.
Black and white takes the emphasis from the colour in a photo, shifting it to details; texture plays a big part here.
Any image with strong textures but weak colour is best seen in black and white; the differences in the greyscale is much more noticeable.
Have a look at the contrast in texture between the night sky, the sweeping waves and the jagged stones below. Black to white is much more noticeable than blue to green.
When you adjust the contrast of a photo, the dark areas become darker and the light areas become lighter. This is particularly important in black and white as the difference is much more noticeable.
I find post processing in black and white more fun as, in colour, I usually try to accurately reproduce the scene but in black and white, that doesn’t really matter.
Have a look at the photo below. It was shot in colour with the blue channel boosted and the contrast, black point and brightness all turned up. Combined, these make for a much stronger image.
Photos with very small changes in colour should be shot in black and white, as in the photo below.
Believe it or not, the photo below is actually a colour photo; the nature of the lighting that evening makes it appear darker—black and white.
Photos like this, with such small differences in colour, should be in black and white to help force the emphasis onto the shape, form, and texture of the photo.