How to Shoot Black & White with Digital Cameras

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By Steve Russell

Most of the time, I much prefer color images over Black & White images. After all, I see in color and the world around me is in color, not B&W. There are times, however, when an image is impactful because it’s in B&W and not color. For example this image captured by TeryKats and posted on the Beyond Megapixels Flickr page. If this image were in color I think it would look like just another snapshot. In B&W it has drama and inpact. Thanks to TeryKats for posting this image.

Actually, the title should be “Should I shoot in black & white or convert to black & white using post processing software?” Since that’s too long for a title, I shortened it to a “How to.”

When film was the only choice for photography the answer was straightforward. If you wanted B&W you put B&W film in your camera. If you wanted color you put color film in your camera.

Today, the answer becomes a little more complex and there are trade-offs. In fact there’s another question that has to be considered. Do I shoot in RAW or JPEG? Okay, tecnically it’s do I save my images in RAW or JPEG or both? However, we usually say we shoot in one or the other as a shortcut. Most cameras shoot in whatever passes for camera RAW for that camera and then saves the image in a format (RAW or JPEG) the photographer has chosen or in the case the photographer doesn’t have a choice (such as with point and shoot cameras) compresses the data and saves it in JPEG.

Sounds easy but there are a few catches. If you shoot in RAW (remember it’s actually saving your images in RAW) you can’t shoot in B&W. Actually, you can shoot in B&W but when you download the images to your computer, they’ll be in color. Here’s what happens. You can set your camera to capture B&W images. The setting on mine is in Picture Style and I select Monochrome. I can capture the image and when I look on the view screen, the image is in B&W. When I download the images to the computer they’re in full color. Why? Because RAW captures ALL the data including the colors. The reason it appears B&W on the view screen is because the view screen displays a JPEG image. Why, you ask? Because JPEG is a much smaller file than a RAW file and the camera is able to display the JPEG image almost immediately. If the camera tried to display a RAW image, there would be a long delay after the image was captured before it could be displayed on the view screen. Besides, you’re not editing anything on the view screen so a JPEG image is all you need to see.

It follows, then, that if you save your images in JPEG you can save a B&W image. Many cameras, (e.g. point and shoot cameras) only save in JPEG. If you’re using a camera that only saves in JPEG all you have to do to shoot in B&W is to select the B&W camera setting and start shooting. If your camera saves in either or both, then you have to select JPEG or both as the save option to shoot in B&W. Another way of saying this is if you save your images in JPEG you’ll have SOOC B&W images.

Now to shoot or post process. What is the right answer? The right answer is what works best for you and no, that’s not a cop out. I shoot in RAW, always. My camera is fast enough and my CF cards are large enough and fast enough that memory space or writing to memory time is never an issue. When I photograph something, I want all the data the camera sees. I want to decide what data I’ll discard, not have some routine or algorithm in the camera firmware make the decision for me. Because I feel so adamately about this, if I want B&W it always comes from post processing software. I also have software that makes the entire process fast and easy.

Here’s an example. I went out this morning to photograph this building to use for this article. It’s not intended to be fine art photography.

After this image was downloaded to my computer I opened it in Photoshop, cropped it to an 8X10 aspect ratio, adjusted the exposure a half stop and adjusted the levels. Time elapsed, less than two minutes. Now here comes the trick. I use Silver EFEX Pro 2, a Photoshop plug in from NIK Software, to convert images to B&W. Silver EFEX Pro has a number of presets you can use or you can make all the adjustments manually to get the look you want.

For this version of the image, I opened Silver EFEX Pro and selected the neutral pre-set. Silver EFEX Pro has another option I really like, especially since I have used B&W film in the past. Included in the sofware are settings that give the grain effect of different films. For this one I used Kodak ISO 32 Panatomic X film.

The only difference between this image and the first B&W image is the film selection. For this one I selected Kodak Tri-X 400TX Pro which gives it a much grainier look. Unfortunately, the grain difference isn’t very apparent because of the small size of the image required for the web site. Enlarged to full screen on the computer, the grain is very noticable as it is when printed on 8X10 paper.

For this image, I selected the pre-set entitled “Yellowed” which gives the image an aged look.

Although this article isn’t intended to review the Silver EFEX Pro 2 software, I wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to convert images to B&W in post processing software and how much flexibility there is in developing the final image. It took me less than 15 minutes from the time I downloaded the image off my CF card until all four of the images I used in this article were completed.

My next article will focus on shooting (saving) in JPEG and the advantages and disadvantages of that approach.

Photo Credits:

Fish Tavern by terykats on Flickr Creative Commons

All other images by Steve Russell

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  • Herulesmanasyafei

    Thanks Steve, those guide precisely answer my need.

  • Anonymous

    Newley converted to Silver EFEX Pro after being dubious about using a ‘dedicated’ BxW application. After very little use I’m well sold. 

    The app seems to mimic the darkroom decision making process very well (although not the ‘dark art’ no pun intended).

    Nothing you couldn’t achieve in many other apps, but not with the instant familiarity that a darkroom and computer literate individual gets from SEFEX.

  • Jimdonahue39

    When I shoot B&W Raw With My Nikon D7000 and download it to Nikon View NX 2 I get a Black and White file.