As shown in a previous exercise, in which I desaturated my image, the amount of colour that is removed from an image can have a profound effect on the look and feel of the end product. Here I needed to show the difference in effect that pushing a colour image and a black and white one has when done to an extreme. Generally speaking when a colour image is pushed too hard in the contrast it becomes an unpleasing image to look at. The eye sees saturated colours and the lack of detail in the low and highlights detracts from the overall image quality. On the other hand, when processing black and white the low and highlight areas of the image can be pushed much harder with a much more positive result. The lack of detail in these areas serves to highlight other areas of interest and detail. This isn’t necessarily true of all colour to black and white interpretations and one needs to be mindful when shooting to ensure that the subject is open to this interpretation.
For this exercise I chose two images that I thought would translate to black and white. Then I what I have done is push each to a limit where I have clipping on each version (both light and shadow area detail loss). One image of the pair is pushed in contrast while the other is given a high key treatment. The results are below with the original image placed first in the series.
Here I can see that there is substantial detail loss in the lighter areas of both images. The black and white image appears to have a more even distribution of tone in the foreground than the colour version. However, I think the reason for this is that the green in the background of the colour version distracts the eye from the foreground. The green in the black and white version converts to white with some or complete detail loss, which leaves the eye free to concentrate on the foreground. The black and white version retains the shadow areas even with the high key treatment giving more definition to the image. I am inclined to say though that I prefer the colour image in this case as the softening of the pinks and greens on the headstone gives a pleasing sun-bleached look. For my taste (and I like contrasty images) the black and white is too high key to retain my interest.
Both images above have been given a very high contrast treatment, which leaves the images with large parts of total black or total white. Here, with the high contrast treatment, the colour image comes off worst in my opinion. It looks like it has been over-treated and pushed beyond what would be considered reasonable during processing. The Chinese writing is unreadable and the green in the background is over-saturated, again distracting the eye. The only way it would work would be as part of a series of images all looking similarly over-contrasted. But, as a stand-alone image it does not translate very well and the viewer is left asking why the apparent saturation in colour and contrast rather than looking at the contents of the image. On the other hand, the black and white image stands up to quite a severe amount of contrast (I pushed the curve harder in this image then the colour one). The background darkens significantly and the grass, whilst having detail does not pull the eye away from the main subject. The tone and gradients of grey in the main subject (particularly the detail in the tiles) work very well to present a very readable image. I may be inclined to lighten the main headstone a little but was keen to get a direct comparison with the colour image in this case so did not edit further than changing the curves for contrast.
Both these images stand up reasonably well to the high key treatment. But in comparison to each other the black and white version stands out as looking maybe more ‘arty’. It looks as though I have done this on purpose, whereas the colour version looks as though I have maybe done this by accident. Although the labels are somewhat bleached out and unreadable in both images it seems to mater less in the black and white version as the graphic nature of the white labels tells us what we need to know. In the colour version one wonders why I can’t read the label. The viewer may also wonder why what may be assumed as strong red bottle tops look so faded.
As with the gravestone images, the black and white image wins out again against its colour opposite. With the lack of detail in the colour version I can see very little detail on the wall surrounding the bottles. With that lack of detail the bottles disappear in to the background and are quite undefined. The same is true of the black and white version, however because of the lack of colour the eye is concentrating on making shapes with the light. The viewer can clearly see that we are looking at bottles and so doesn’t need to decipher any further other than letting the eye lead them over the curves of light representing the bottles. The darkening of the wall brings massive detail and a totally different feel to the image than that of the colour one, which is effectively floating in air, but with the apparently odd little piece of dirt or scratches around it. What little colour there is (notably the red) is overly saturated and almost blurs in to the black background. The black and white is very heavily contrasted and I would argue that it is too much for the subject, however it does show what is possible to be interpreted by the viewer even with very little information.
The examples of interpretation above aren’t necessarily right or wrong per se, it is merely that the human eye has certain expectations when looking at colour over black and white.