Travel photography tips: colour or B+W?

By Nick Rains 7 November 2013
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Some images are best viewed in black and white where contrast brings out the elements.

COLOUR OR B+W? It’s a tricky question. The answer depends on the look that you are trying to achieve. Some images are more reliant on texture and tone than on colour, and other images need the colour to tell their story. B+W is also considered slightly more ‘arty’ but at the end of the day it’s what you, the photographer, prefer.

The original image in colour

All digital cameras produce a colour file unless you specifically tell it not to. There are various picture style options for B+W conversions ‘in camera’ but these only affect JPEG images – raw images are always in colour when you open them on your computer. This is a good thing because post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom 3 and Apple Aperture 3 have some very sophisticated tools for controlling the way the colour image is converted to B+W.

This control is critical to getting a satisfying B+W image because you need to maintain some sort of contrast between the colours, something that can be lost in the translation. For example, a 50% red and a 50% green look completely different in colour (colour contrast) but could have the same value of grey in a B+W image – so the contrast ends up being lost.

By controlling the relationship on the colours in the conversion process you can choose which colours translate to which tones of grey. The simplest example is making blue skies turn nice and dark, making the clouds stand out clearly.

This image above, from the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea, has been converted to B+W and the ‘blues’ have been darkened to make the sky considerably more bold. This is exactly the same as putting a red filter over the lens when we used to shoot B+W film, and is how Ansel Adams achieved those awesome skies in many of his most famous images.

Compare the before and after pictures and you will see that I have maintained the colour contrast between the green trees and the sky as well as adding contrast to the sky to bring out the classic tropical cloud formations. These adjustment are very easy to make in a decent raw processor.

Nick Rains is a regular photographic contributor to Australian Geographic and was recently aboard an AG Society/Orion expedition to PNG. See more of his images of Purnululu.