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There's a black-and-white darkroom in your digital camera!

Do you love taking B&W photos with your digital camera? Here are some time-saving tips so you don't have to spend time converting images in post-processing.


By Mason Resnick


Here's one reason why I love digital photography: Almost all digital cameras, from smart phones and modest digital compacts compact interchangeable-lens cameras, all the way to pro DSLRs, have some kind of setting that lets you shift from color to monochrome shooting modes by simply pressing a couple of buttons.

Some cameras will also create blue, purple, green, and red-hued images. (These print toners are still commonly available to darkroom users. They used to be favored by camera club members to give their prints a distinctive look to make them stand out in competitions, but these color print baths do not have any archival quality.) You may also find filed frames (irregular-width black borders) that emulate the effect of a filed negative carrier. You're more likely to find that on an app for a smart phone.

Here's an example of our scene shot without a filter but with the contrast pumped up to its highest setting.

Tone your images

Sepia is one of the most commonly-found black-and-white options available, and for good reason. It warms up portraits, and gives scenes a desirable old-fashioned look. It's based on a practice in darkroom photography where darkroom technicians would soak prints in a Sepia or Selenium toner, which protected the print from fading and gave the print a reddish-brown tone.

Black-and-white, green filter: A green filter has an opposite effect here, darkening the red disc so it's tonally about the same as the blue disc. Meanwhile the yellow areas are darker, while the green foliage and sides of the ladder are a bit lighter. This is a good setting/filter to use when you want to punch up the details in landscape shots. However, with glass filters again there's that nasty two-stop light loss.



Contrast Control

Some cameras let you adjust contrast in-camera in anywhere from 3 to 7 steps. This is yet another instance where you can control the final image in-camera without relying on post-processing. But as with all of our examples, it requires some thinking and preconceiving the final result when you're shooting.

Black-and-white, red filter: Big difference here! Now the blue and red discs are several steps farther apart than they were with no filter, and the yellow areas are almost completely white. The blue is almost black, as is the foliage. (While glass red filters produce dramatic results, they also eat light--you need to add as much as two stops to your exposure to compensate for the light loss. In digital filter emulation modes, there's no light loss at all.)

Black-and-white, orange filter: Contrast between the colors has been restored here, with the yellow and red lightening and the blues and greens (foliage) getting darker. For many photographers, this would be a good. realistic rendering of this scene. Hint: Orange is a great choice when photographing people. It lightens their skintones in comparison to other colors in the scene.

Black-and-white, yellow filter: The blue disk is a half-shade darker and red disk is a half-shade lighter; yellow areas are oh-so-slightly lighter, while the foliage got a tad darker. The effect here is subtle.

Black-and-white, no filter: It's flat. The red and blue discs are now a few shades apart, but nothing dramatic. And the Yellow is now a middle gray (see top of ladder). Filters can help separate these tones better.

Color control: First, here's the shot in color. I chose a subject with some primary colors so you can really see the transformation.


Now, watch what happens when I shoot this scene in black-and-white...

Here's the monochrome filter effect menu in a Canon 7D. Your choices and navigation may be different but most digital camera these days have some variation of this kind of menu.

Many latest-generation digital cameras offer creative filters and the ability to fine-tune your black-and-white image-capture settings to emulate the effect you'd get if you used a color filter, or different grades of contrast paper in a traditional darkroom. Using these settings can save you several steps in post-processing so you can get the image you want straight out of camera.

The many flavors of monochrome

Why not simply shoot in color and convert to black-and-white in Photoshop? Simplicity! If you can get a killer black-and-white shot straight out of the camera with little or no post-processing needed, that saves time so you can go back out there and keep shooting.

A learning tool

In-camera black-and-white shooting can be a powerful learning tool. The instant feedback provided by the LCD preview images can help you "think" in black-and-white and quickly learn through experience how the monochromatic image transforms the nature of a composition. When you set your camera to Monochrome, the Live View in the monitor will show you the scene in black and white before you've shot it, helping you think in relative tonalities as well as compositionally.

Finally, shooting in black-and-white is a way to get out of a bad habit that's become widespread among digital photographers. Too many (myself included) rely on the abilities of Photoshop to save a picture after the fact. But if your original is accurately exposed,  post-processing can be kept to a minimum. 

Virtual Filters

In the physical world, black-and-white contrast filters are colored filters used to control the relative contrast between different colored elements within the frame when shot in black-and-white. Many digital cameras can emulate this effect. Let's take a look at a scene with many colors—most primary, to emphasize the differences—and see exactly how color contrast-control filters work.

The images below were done digitally using the monochrome settings on mid-range Canon DSLR. Your camera's interface and choices may vary. Check your manual to see how to access your camera's black-and-white options.

Photo © Mason Resnick

Unlike film cameras, there's no need to switch rolls, or to carry two cameras loaded with color and black-and-white film. Of course, the fancier the digital camera, the more options you get. For instance, if your camera captures RAW images as well as JPEG (and it probably does), you may be able to set it to capture color in RAW and black in white JPEGS simultaneously. At the very least, most cameras at least have good ole' monochrome, allowing you to shoot black and white to your heart's content.

Short article, huh?

We're not done--not by a long shot.

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