This post may come off as more of a rant than an informative how-to lesson, but this topic just seems to eat at me whenever I see another decent photograph that has been butchered with color ineffectively. Just to set the record straight, I am an artist first and photographer second, and I would be the last person on earth to try and squelch the creative expression of anyone that is exploring technique and their own artistic identity. I wouldn't tell you that you are wrong, I'm saying that I feel there is a better way. That being said, let's get down to what's bugging the hell out of me.
Coloring black and white photos effectively requires a keen eye and a mild sense of restraint. Of course this whole post is based on my own philosophy, so if you find yourself guilty of some of the following observations and conclusions, please don't take it personal. I'm just expressing my own creative interpretation of the medium.
I personally don't see the need to add color to certain black and white captures, but I have in the past, and I have seen many images by other photogs that have had color added quite effectively to produce an image that benefited greatly from the post processing work. It seems to be the color, "just to color it," mentality is why the problem exists.
I see time and again numerous B&W photos that have color added, just to have color added, when it really makes no logical artistic sense to place it in the capture to begin with. And here's why:
Say you have a black and white wedding photo of a bride and a groom standing in a rose garden, and you think it would be cool to color each and every rosebud surrounding them in red. Once you color all the roses in that photo, you have completely altered the way the photo was intended to be viewed. The subjects, the bride and groom, have now become the background for the new subject, the roses. Why? Because the roses are the only source of color, and the strongest level of contrast, in a black and white image. While the viewer should be admiring the beauty of an intimate mood between two humans sharing a moment of bliss, the viewer's initial focus is being drawn away from the primary subjects to the static and mundane, yet beautiful, existence of roses surrounding them.
Another example that drives me nuts is when clothes or accessories on a person have been colored, yet they leave the subject's skin tone in a beautiful scale of... GRAY! Or "grey" if you prefer the bluer version. Regardless... Unless you are advertising a clothing line, or accessory brand, it doesn't make any logical sense to steer the viewers focus away from the "living" subject and instead to the lifeless fabric that is covering him or her. The shots I love most (and yes that's sarcasm)? Grayscale girls in bikinis... Nothing says a day at the beach like a woman with a #666666 hexadecimal (that would be a medium toned gray) tan in a Sunglow Orange bikini. "Hey look! It's a dead girl in a bikini!" I guess if you want your subjects to look like black & white zombies while their blood drenched clothing pops out of the photo in a beautiful crimson hue, that would be acceptable... Heck that might even be pretty cool. But that is planning not often pondered when somebody decides to paint their photographs.
Ok so that is a couple of negative examples of coloring in my opinion. How could someone improve those scenarios? First off, if you want to dabble around with color on black and white in post processing, you really should plan for it before you shoot the event or series. That way you know you are going to produce something that will make sense when you get to the post work process.
Take the first example. The photo described is probably not the best choice to add color. But say you have a tight closeup portrait of the couple holding a single rose together, and they are both admiring it's beauty, coloring the rose would make sense. Why? Because the human subjects in the photo are steering the visual flow of the image toward the flower. Another option could be to capture them looking into each other's eyes while their wedding bands are prominently displayed. Coloring their wedding bands gold would be a great way to display the symbolism of their engagement and commitment. Another words, it fuels the story of what's happening in the image. It supports the image instead of confusing it.
For the second example of coloring clothes or accessories, again planning should be part of the process. I would only color clothes and leave the skin tone in black and white if it were for advertising purposes. For example, if you're on assignment shooting a clothing line or casual promotional wear for a company, by all means... Make the company's clothing or logo stand out in color while everything else in the image takes a back seat in black and white. That's an effective use of the medium and effective marketing.
For artistic purposes, I would consider coloring accessories or clothing in a black and white photo, but I would be sure not to take any attention away from the "true" subject. Here is an example of how I might color a B&W image. If I was shooting a female model, and she had some wicked-cool earings, I would be sure to bring her eyes out with color as well as her earings. That way I know I am covering the primary focal point of the image's visual flow (her eyes) and not diverting it away from the model's eyes directly to her earlobes.
That is basically how I feel about photo coloring. The point I am trying to make about coloring black and white photos is that you should plan to color before you just decide that a certain part of a photograph could use some color. Think about what part of the photograph is the most important before you decide to make a change, and think about how you will affect the image once you decide to change it. The first question I would ask myself is, how well does this image stand on its own merit (without any change)? Then... Then let common sense guide your way.
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