Black and white photography is as popular now as ever, but the technology has changed. Here are some key things to know about black and white photography with digital cameras.These factors will alter the way you see, shoot and edit black and white.
Why shoot in black and white?
Black and white photography was understandably popular when affordable and practical color photography didn’t exist. However, it has persisted long after color photography became standard.
There are a number of reasons. One is that people associate it with the past and it has become invested with a timeless quality, so that a photograph taken today in black and white is not fixed so firmly in the present.
Another is that black and white photographs are more obviously interpretations of a scene or subject, not just literal ‘record shots’. They’re a signal that there’s more to the image than simply ‘what it’s of’.
Black and white photography also offers more opportunities for strong, graphic compositions. High-contrast ’soot and whitewash’ images can be very effective in black and white but just don’t work in colour. You can push the extremes of contrast further and ‘intensify’ reality very effectively.
It’s possible to intensify black and white images still further with toning and split toning techniques. Sepia toning has become a bit of a cliché but it is possible apply it with more subtlety and richness than you usually see in quick camera effects. There are many toning alternatives, such as selenium toning, gold toning and cyanotype effects.
Photographers use the image histogram to check for shadow and highlight clipping, but in black and white you can afford to clip much more shadow and highlight detail than you can in color. Black shadows and white highlights in black and white images don’t grate in the same way they do in color images. They can even add to the graphic effect.
Lastly, black and white images are simpler to control. You’re not fighting with the extra complication of color all the time, which brings its own emotional responses. If you like to control the visual and graphic effect of your pictures, it’s easier in black and white!
This is where digital cameras have one big advantage over film cameras – they can show you the world in black and white as you shoot. You no longer have to visualise and predict what black and white will look like because you can see it on the screen. This alone makes black and white photography much easier with a digital camera than it ever was with film!
Black and white and color filters
One of the curious things about traditional black and white photography is that film photographers often used colored black and white filters, like red filters for dramatic skies or yellow filters to enhance landscapes.
This didn’t make the pictures come out in those colors, obviously, but it did change the tonal response of the film. Using a red filter made yellow/orange/red tones come out lighter, and the opposite tones, like blue skies, come out darker. A yellow filter was ideal for landscapes because it made vegetation slightly lighter and blue skies slightly deeper.
Because these filters altered the tonal contrast of different colors as they were turned into shades of grey, they were sometimes called ‘contrast filters’. You can use these filters today with digital cameras. However, because of the way sensors work, they have become less relevant.
Digital cameras and black and white
All mainstream digital cameras capture images in color. Even if you choose a black and white picture style in the camera, it’s still capturing a color image – it’s just processing it into a black and white version in-camera.
If you use a black and white picture style but also set the camera to shoot RAW, you will see a black and white image in the camera, but the RAW file will be in full color. This is very confusing the first time you see it!
So far so good. It’s easy to convert color images to black and white in photo editing software, and with a lot more control over the tonal contrast than was possible with the contrast filters used in film-based black and white photography.
Converting color to black and white
You can reduce the photo’s saturation value to zero – that’s the quick and dirty method. Or you can swap the image mode to ‘greyscale’ in a program like Photoshop, but that discards a whole lot of color data that you might want later.
It’s actually better to keep the photo in RGB mode, which is how photo editors handle black and white these days, and use a black and white conversion tool. The best-known example is the Channel Mixer in Photoshop, but there are much more subtle variations on this these days. They all work in the same basic way, though.
What black and white conversion tools do is split the colors in your image up into broad color ranges – as many as six or eight, depending on your software – and give you sliders to control how light or dark they will appear in shades of grey. Many programs will give you presets for favorite effects, like ‘red filter’ or ‘yellow filter’, replicating the ‘contrast filters’ of traditional black and white photography.
Many programs, like Lightroom or Capture One, offer ‘profiles’ or ‘LUTs’ to translate color images into black and white as a kind of pre-processing step. These will incorporate their own color-black and white conversion.
This is all great because you have enormous control over how the colors in your photo translate into black and white. But there is a significant technical limitation of digital camera sensors to keep in mind.
Sensor limitations for black and white
Digital camera sensors are designed to capture color data, not black and white. They can only capture color data by putting a red, green or blue filter over each photosite. Each photosite only captures red, green or blue light. Later, during processing, this single-color data is ‘demosaiced’ using color data from surrounding pixels. You rarely notice this processing and interpolation in full color images, and you probably won’t if you convert them to black and white – unless you push the channel mixing or color adjustment too far.
The fact is that on a mainstream camera sensor, only one photosite in four is sensitive to red, only one in four is sensitive to blue and two out of four capture green.
As a result, the red, green and blue channels that make up a color image look fine in combination, but individually they can be noisy, soft and have noticeable digital artefacts.
This means that if you lean too heavily on one channel or another when making your black and white conversion, the image quality will start to degrade.
There is no way round this because the color filter arrays over camera sensors are fixed in place. High end makers Leica and Phase One do make cameras that can only capture black and white – they do not have color filter arrays. They solve the problem, but they are expensive, specialised cameras that can’t be used for anything but black and white photography.
Black and white film simulation
The look of classic black and white films has become synonymous with black and white photography in general. To reflect this, many programs now offer black and white film simulations that reflect the tonal properties of classic films, their contrast and even their grain patterns.
Some software, like DxO FilmPack, attempts very accurate simulations based on the lab testing of actual films. Most software settles for recreating the ‘look’ of classic films as most people remember them.
Black and white film simulations may be offered as editing presets, as profiles (Lightroom) or LUTs (lookup tables) that can be applied widely in both photo editing and video editing software.
Best black and white software
- Silver Efex Pro: Part of the DxO Nik Collection suite, this is a legendary black and white tool, though Analog Efex Pro is great too
- Exposure X: Exposure X specialises in analog film simulations and has some great black and white presets
- DxO FilmPack: There are some excellent black and white film simulation tools here, though it is expensive
- ON1 Photo RAW: This some nice black and white presets and effects – or you could just get the ON1 Effects plug in