Black and white photography can produce stunning images by focusing on light, shadows, shapes, textures, and patterns. But not all colors translate well into black and white. When shooting or processing black and white photos, it helps to understand how colors are rendered in grayscale and which ones create more dynamic contrasts.
How Colors Are Converted to Black and White
In color photos, hue, saturation and brightness all interact to produce the final color we see. But in black and white photos, only brightness matters. When an image is converted to grayscale, colors are mapped to different shades ranging from black to white based on their luminance or brightness.
Dark colors produce darker shades of gray, while light colors appear lighter. So black and white photos actually display a spectrum of grays, not just pure blacks and whites. How light or dark each color appears depends on its inherent luminance.
As seen above, bright yellow converts to a light shade of gray, while dark blue becomes nearly black. The luminance values of colors determine their grayscale equivalents.
High Contrast Colors
For striking black and white photos, you want high contrast between different elements. Bright, light colors will stand out clearly against dark colors. Using contrasting hues is more important than the specific colors themselves. Keep in mind:
- Bright, saturated colors translate to lighter grays.
- Dark, muted colors become darker grays.
- Similar shades of color won’t contrast much.
- Complementary colors contrast strongly.
Colors with very different luminance values translate into distinct shades of gray that grab the viewer’s attention. For example, bright yellow pops next to dark purple or blue because of the extreme grayscale contrast.
Best Colors for Black and White Photos
Now that you understand color conversion, what hues actually look best in monochrome? Here are some top color choices that maximize contrast in bold black and white images:
Vibrant red is excellent for creating dramatic contrast. Red is inherently high in luminance compared to most colors, so it lightens up significantly when desaturated. Red pops against dark greens, blues, or purples. It also contrasts nicely with neutral beiges and grays. Try using a bright prop in red.
Bright, warm yellow is ideal for black and white because it converts to a light, attention-grabbing gray. Use yellow flowers against green foliage or pair a yellow dress with a dark blue background. Just avoid pale buttery yellows, which won’t show enough tonal difference.
Like yellow and red, saturated orange also pops in monochrome images. Combine it with blue or purple hues for bold color contrast. Rusty orange fall leaves look beautiful against a gray sky. Orange can also create neat complementary color effects.
The brightly saturated blues and greens in turquoise translate into lighter shades that stand out. Use turquoise jewelry against neutral skin tones or place it against red for contrast. Turquoise ocean water also looks mesmerizing in black and white.
|Good Contrast Colors
|Dark green, blue, purple
Rich purple shades complement both warm and cool colors in gorgeous black and white. Try deep purple flowers against yellow or moody purple storm clouds with turquoise water. The high visual contrast pops.
For a beautiful inverted look, place bright white objects against very dark backgrounds. The negative space lets the white elements shine. Try white flowers on black, a white dress against a dark wall, or white birds in a gloomy sky.
On the other end of the spectrum, solid blacks make a bold statement against light colors and backgrounds. Black creates instant contrast. Use black props, clothing, or backgrounds to make other vibrant colors pop even more.
Colors to Avoid
On the other hand, some colors don’t translate well into black and white. They end up looking dull, flat and indistinct when desaturated. Stay away from:
Beiges, browns, olives, taupes, grays – these muted neutral tones bunch up unattractively in the midrange of grayscale. They lack both highlights and shadows.
Washed out pastel hues like baby blue, mint, peach, lavender also tend to get muddy when converted, without enough contrast. Go for their richer, deeper versions.
If you pair two colors close in luminance, they won’t contrast much in black and white. Avoid similar shades like red and burgundy or blue and navy.
Busy patterns create visual noise without clear subjects. Save heavily patterned fabrics and backgrounds for color shots instead.
Creative Color Combinations
Beyond single colors, certain color harmonies have an intrinsically high-contrast look that translates beautifully into monochrome:
Colors opposite each other on the color wheel (like red and green, yellow and purple) create strong visual tension. The inherent luminance difference heightens the contrast in black and white.
Analogous colors next to each other on the color wheel (like orange, yellow-orange and yellow) can make creative, unexpected combinations when converted to black and white.
Three colors equally spaced around the color wheel, like vivid red, yellow and blue. Their luminance differences produce great three-tone contrast.
A color and the two hues on either side of its complement, like blue with yellow-orange and orange. The split complementary combos contrast more than single complements.
|Example Color Combo
|Red & green
|Orange & yellow
|Red & yellow & blue
|Blue & yellow-orange & orange
Creative combinations like these intensify the grayscale contrasts. Just avoid hues too similar in brightness.
Tips for Shooting Black & White Photos
To maximize contrast in your original photos:
- Focus on color combinations, not just individual hues.
- Include both very dark and very light tones.
- Boost saturation in camera for intense colors.
- Convert photos in editing to visualize contrasts.
- Avoid large areas of solid medium tones.
- Use color filters to darken certain hues.
When composing and shooting photos intended for black and white conversion, always keep the end contrast in mind. You want rich blacks against clean whites to create that bold graphic look.
Post-Processing Black & White Photos
After you’ve captured high-contrast color photos, you can further enhance their black and white conversions during post-processing:
- Fine-tune gray tones with color sliders.
- Darken or lighten specific areas.
- Increase overall contrast.
- Add creative grain or textured effects.
- Boost shadow and highlight details.
- Sharpen edges and enhance textures.
- Use split toning for duotone effects.
Many photo editors provide black and white conversion filters. Take advantage of all the available adjustments for creating truly stunning monochrome images.
Choosing colors with high inherent contrast is key for bold black and white photography. The best hues have very different luminance values that translate into eye-catching shades of gray. Bright warm tones like red, orange and yellow contrast strongly next to darker blues, greens and purples. Black and white itself makes the ultimate contrasting duo. When shooting, choose color combinations rather than individual hues. In post, enhance the grayscale rendition with conversion tools and adjustments. With high-contrast colors and creative processing, your monochrome images will really pop.