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There's a B&W darkroom in your camera!
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There's a B&W darkroom in your camera!

How to shoot marvelous monochrome photos with your digital camera--without touching Photoshop

Here's one reason why I love digital photography: Almost all digital cameras, from modest, sub-$200 digital compacts 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.

Here's one reason why I love digital photography: Almost all digital cameras, from modest, sub-$200 digital compacts 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. 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, but 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.

The many flavors of monochrome

Want to shoot sepia-toned pictures? Control contrast and sharpness in camera? Emulate the effect of putting a contrast-controlling (yellow, orange, red, or green) filter over your lens? Now, many compact cameras and digital SLRs offer some flavor of black-and-white that goes beyond simple desaturation. At least some of these features may be in the digital camera you own now, and if you're in the market for a new digital camera, you can insist on these features when you go to buy one.

Why not simply shoot in color and convert to black-and-white in Photoshop? This is a method used by many photographers, and if your camera is limited to a simple black-and-white mode it may be the best way to go--especially if you aren't sure if you want your final result to be color or black-and-white. There are several advantages to shooting black-and-white in-camera (assuming you have some flexibility). For starters, you can use DPOF or another direct-to-printer or direct-to-lab method and make black-and-white prints without post-processing on a computer. This saves valuable time.

A learning tool

Even more importantly, 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. And you can immediately see how any contrast-control filter alters a scene.

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 any pro will tell you that your original should be accurately exposed in the first place to keep post-processing to a minimum. If you are unsure if your final image should be color or black-and-white, shoot it both ways, or shoot a RAW file if you can.

Virtual Filters

In the physical world, black and white contrast filters are colored filters that are used to control the relative contrast of 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.

Note: These were done digitally using the monochrome settings on a Canon EOS 20D, but the glass-filtered shots would look virtually identical.

Color control: First, here's the shot in color, made with a Canon EOS 20DCanon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 USM "kit" zoom lens. I set this up with primary colored objects to emphasize the changes. Note the vibrating contrast between the red and blue discs.

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

Black-and-white, no filter: The vivid contrast seen above has been minimized, with the red and blue discs now appearing a few shades apart, but nothing dramatic. But what if I want to widen the range of shades between the red and green? And the Yellow is now rendered a middle gray (see top of ladder). But filters can help separate these tones better.

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, 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. But let's have some fun and exaggerate things...

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, 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 up to five steps. On the Canon 20D, for instance, the range appears similar to darkroom paper contrasts 1 through 4. 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 preconcieving the final result when you're shooting.

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.

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.)

I shot this footbridge in a local park at low contrast to help reduce the wide range between the bright sunlit background and the shady areas. While the color emphasizes the blue sky, the black and white version draws attention the forms of the trees and the bridge. Adding sepia gives the image more classic feel.

RAW advantage

No matter which combination of settings you use when shooting, if you shoot in RAW mode, all of the color data will be retained. So, if you eventually decide you should've shot a scene in color, you can revert to color in your RAW software. JPEG images that are shot in black-and-white remain black-and-white.

Have it both ways: I shot this hot air balloon launch in RAW mode but chose high-contrast monochrome with no filter. Because it was a RAW file, I was able to access the color version for comparison, something I couldn't do with a JPEG. I'm still not sure which version I like better.

About the photo at top of page: I shot this in-your-face flower in open shade with my Canon 20D and 50mm f/2.5 Canon Macro lens, with the camera's B&W Parameters setting dialed to its highest contrast option.



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