When to Shoot in Color, Less Color and No Color

In this article, I will go over a simple methodology I use in choosing how to use color in photos. We have masters like Sebastião Salgado who shoots exclusively in black-and-white, Steve McCurry who shoots only in colors and Jimmy Nelson who shoots in muted colors. Shooting in color, in black-and-white, or anywhere in between, has its own appeal, so why don’t we use a mix of all depending on our needs?

I shoot only in color, and when necessary, convert to black and white or reduce color in Lightroom. There are some advantages in shooting in color, then converting to black-and-white in post processing (see Spencer’s article on Black and White Photography for more information), as opposed to shooting in black-and-white / monochrome mode through the camera. At the same time, there are advantages in getting black-and-white done in camera as well. But it is beyond the scope of this article – here we will concentrate on shooting in color and convert to black-and-white in post-processing.

Photographers like Jimmy Nelson use color grading techniques to create a muted and cinematic look to their photos, but if you do not want to go through the process of altering specific colors, reducing color saturation can work out quite well too. Below are 3 specific questions I ask myself when trying to decide whether to keep the image in full color, adjust it to muted color or convert to black and white:

A. Color contains information related to the story
B. Color creates element separation
C. Color creates distraction or disharmony

1. Keep Image in Full Color if A=YES

Example #1:

Shooting in Color #1
Nikon D800E, 70-200mm @ 130mm, f/4, 1/60s

In the photo above, I could have gone with black and white, but that would give a different message to the viewer. The pink dress of these nuns in Myanmar are one of a kind in the whole world of Buddhism. In this case, the color contains useful cultural information to the story, therefore I leave the photo “as is”, in color. Having the photo in black and white has a different message – it would then change it to be all about the girl that is looking at the camera and nothing else.

Example #2:

Shooting in Color #2
Fujifilm X-T1, 16-50mm @ 16mm, f/8, 1/200s

The photo above was shot in the “Blue City” of Chefchaouen, Morocco. One look at the photo and we know where the photo was taken, because of the unique color of the walls and the Djelaba the man is wearing. Because of this, the photograph works best in full color.

2. Keep Image in Full Color if B=YES

Example #3:

Shooting in Color #3
Shooting in Color #4

Nikon D800E, 24-70mm @ 70mm, f/8, 1/80s

The original photo was in color, and you can see the black and white version on the right. The subjects in the black and white version clearly blend with the background, which is not good. Color in this case is needed to create subject separation, which is why I kept this photograph in full color.

3. Convert Image to Black and White if A=NO AND B=NO

Example #4:

Shooting in Color #5
Nikon D800E, 18-35mm @ 18mm, F5.6, 1/500s

When a photo does not need color to complete the message, it is at its purest. I consider it a blessing if photographs work in black and white each and every time. But as we have seen previously, sometimes the conditions do not favor black and white.

Example #5:

Shooting in Color #6
Nikon D800E, 18-35mm @ 25mm, f/8, 1/1000s

The same situation here – color does nothing to enhance the photograph, so it is not necessary to show off the primary subject and his camel.

Example #6:

Shooting in Color #7
Nikon D800E, 70-200mm @ 150mm, f/4, 1/60s

The original colored version contains different colored shirts of background subjects in the scene, which is distracting. Therefore, this photograph works the best in black and white.

4. Convert Image to Muted Colors if C=YES

Take a look at the below photograph in full color, as it was captured with my camera.

Example #7:

Shooting in Color #8
Nikon D800E, 18-35mm @ 18mm, f/5.6, 1/200s

The colors of the shirts and bags is clearly distracting. Let’s now see how the photograph looks in black and white:

Shooting in Color #9
Nikon D800E, 18-35mm @ 18mm, f/5.6, 1/200s

The problem got sorted out, but now everything seems like it is blended together. Now let’s take a look at the same photograph, but this time with saturation levels lowered in post-processing:

Shooting in Color #10
Nikon D800E, 18-35mm @ 18mm, f/5.6, 1/200s

To me, this is a better version of the three. The subtle colors provide good separation between the subjects, and at the same time are not too distracting.

Below is the last example where muted colors also work the best compared to either full color or black and white.

Shooting in Color #11

Example #8:

In the next article, we will examine the subject of color grading and shooting in black-and-white. That’s all for now, thanks for reading!

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