A successful B&W image isn’t simply the absence of color, it’s the presence of something more, a something (or somethings) that reveal the essence or the soul of the subject. Sometimes that essence requires color, other times color gets in the way of the truth expressed with more power as a B&W image.
The tones or values of both color and B&W photographs are continuous, that is, they range from the darkness of absolute black to the white of the print paper itself. The contrast of light and shadow and the tones in between help us to distinguish one object from another. Colors, or more properly the differences among colors, add another set of visual clues to our real world environment and color photos.
Imagine the contrast between red and green. Now suppose these two colors share the same middle tone or value. Not an issue in a color photograph but when two colors share the same tones in a B&W photograph you lose the contrast and the colors blend — not a good thing at all.
B&W photos depend entirely on tonal contrasts for the play of light, shadow, form and texture. Subtracting color from an image isn’t enough, you must put the “color” back into the monochrome image using contrast.
Color images are formed from three color channels, red, green and blue (RGB). Millions of colors are available simply by combining different percentages from each of these channels. The best way to convert a color image to B&W is to extract this information using one or more RGB channels. The process is straightforward and not difficult when you understand the principles and get a bit of practice under your belt.
I’ll show you how I do my conversions in part II using one of the photos below (probably the street scene) as an example. Both color originals are scans from color slides that I shot 43 years ago when I was stationed in Vietnam. All my old slides suffer from fading and color shifts. I converted these images to B&W because I could eliminate the color problems and I thought the B&W would be stronger. I like the results. To my eye, both B&W conversions are convincing and look like they could have been shot on B&W film.