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There are two basic ways to produce black-and-white images digitally: Shoot them that way in-camera or shoot them in color and convert them to black-and-white using imaging software. Both offer advantages. Most of today’s D-SLRs provide a monochrome mode. When you use it, the images you see on the LCD monitor will be monochrome, which will help you think in monochrome. The LCD image also will show you at a glance if you have any annoying tonal mergers so you can do something about them using colored filters (more on this shortly). And you can apply in-camera colored filters and toning, too.
Shooting in color and then converting the images to monochrome using your RAW-conversion or imaging software has its advantages, too. For one thing, you’ll have color images as well as black-and-white ones. For another, you can use a wide variety of software and techniques to get a wide range of monochrome “looks.”
But there’s a method that gives you the best of both worlds: Shoot black-and-white (or would-be black-and-white) images in RAW rather than JPEG format. RAW images are better than JPEGs because they contain a much wider range of tones from black to white, aren’t compressed (or are compressed losslessly) and can take a lot more manipulation in the computer without suffering quality loss. And because RAW images are just data until you process them using a RAW converter, you can process them to monochrome or to color. If you shoot a JPEG image in monochrome, you can’t change it to color.
Since memory cards are relatively inexpensive these days, I set my cameras to shoot RAW + best-quality JPEG images simultaneously. That way I have both—a high-quality JPEG image processed in-camera to monochrome and a high-quality RAW file that I can process as I see fit.
Colored Filters For B&W?
When you shoot in color, the colors help differentiate among subjects in the image. Many scenes look great in color but dull in black-and-white. That’s because two very different colors might be about the same brightness and thus record as about the same shade of gray. For example, if your subject is a plant with red flowers and green leaves, in color, the contrasting colors provide interest. In black-and-white, the red flowers and green leaves reproduce as about the same shade of gray.
You can make the flowers lighter or darker than the leaves by using colored filters. Shooting the black-and-white image through a red filter will make the red flowers lighter and the green leaves darker than in an unfiltered image.
Another popular use for colored filters in landscape photography is to make cloud formations stand out dramatically against a dark sky. Use a yellow filter, and the sky darkens while the clouds stay light. Use an orange filter, and the sky darkens more. Use a red filter, and you get a very dark, dramatic sky.
With film, you have to carry a set of colored filters to achieve these effects. And you have to remember to apply the filter factors to your exposures, since the filters block some of the light from the scene. But most digital SLRs that have monochrome capability also provide built-in yellow, orange, red and green filter effects, so there’s less need to buy and carry filters. And better yet, the digital filters don’t require increased exposure.
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The vast majority of today’s D-SLRs provide monochrome modes; a quick check of the instruction manual’s index for “monochrome,” “monotone” or “B&W” should get you there. Set the camera for RAW (or RAW+JPEG) shooting, activate monochrome mode, and you’re off to the races. But even if your camera won’t shoot mono-chrome images, you can convert color ones to monochrome using image-editing software (see the sidebar below).
Canon’s current and recent D-SLRs (EOS 5D and later) provide a Picture Style setting called Monochrome. Select this, and your JPEGs will be in black-and-white. You can fine-tune sharpness and contrast, apply colored filters (none, yellow, orange, red or green) and apply a toning effect (none, sepia, blue, purple or green). The newest models have a handy Picture Style button on the camera back, which accesses the Picture Style menu window directly. Some earlier EOS D-SLRs also allow you to shoot images in monochrome, although they don’t have the Picture Style feature. And, of course, you always can convert a color image to black-and-white in the computer.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
While all of Canon’s current D-SLRs provide a Monochrome Picture Style, the EOS 5D Mark II stands out for several reasons: It provides the best image quality of any EOS D-SLR, its 21.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor provides a wide angle of view and beautiful bokeh (out-of-focus background effect), and it can shoot true HD video with any Picture Style applied, including Monochrome. A handy Picture Style button below the LCD monitor brings up a menu screen on which you can select Monochrome style, then apply a colored-filter effect (none, yellow, orange, red or green) and/or a toning effect (none, sepia, blue, purple or green). If you use Live View mode (including HD movie), the 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor will display the monochrome image, complete with chosen effects, making it very easy to preview tonal mergers and filter effects.
Nikon’s most recent D-SLRs (D3, D300, D700 and D90) provide a Picture Control setting called Monochrome. You can shoot straight black-and-white, apply colored filter effects (none, yellow, orange, red or green) or tone the image (none, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue-green, blue, purple, purple-blue or red-purple). You also can adjust sharpening in 10 steps, contrast in seven steps and brightness in three steps. With earlier Nikon models (D40, D60, D80, D200, D2XS, etc.), you get monochrome via the Optimize Image feature, which converts already-shot images in-camera. The newer models also allow you to convert color images to monochrome copies in-camera.
Like its D3, D300 and D90 brethren, the D700 provides Nikon’s Picture Controls, including Monochrome. We like the D700 because it provides the top-of-the-line D3’s 12.1-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor (and excellent image quality, due in part to those huge pixels) and excellent AF and metering systems in a lighter, more compact and much lower-priced package. There’s also a sensor-dust reduction system to help keep that big sensor clean. Two Live View modes let you preview monochrome filter effects on the 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD monitor, so you can detect and fix tonal mergers. In the shooting menu, highlight Set Picture Control and press OK, highlight Monochrome, then press the right-arrow key to bring up the settings menu. Adjust sharpening, brightness and contrast as desired, and apply a colored filter (none, yellow, orange, red or green) and/or toning effect (none, sepia, cyanotype, red, yellow, green, blue-green, blue, purple, purple-blue or red-purple).
Olympus’ current and recent D-SLRs provide a Picture Mode setting called Monotone. Select this, and your JPEGs will be recorded in black-and-white. You can apply a number of black-and-white filter effects (neutral, yellow, orange, red or green) and Picture Tones (neutral, sepia, blue, purple or green).
All of Olympus’ current D-SLRs offer similar monochrome capabilities, but the top-of-the-line pro E-3 model features a tilting/swiveling Live View monitor that makes it easy to shoot those monochrome images at odd angles and preview the effects of filter settings. Olympus calls its monochrome mode Monotone, and you access it by pressing the OK button to call up the Super Control Panel screen. Select Picture Mode, then Monotone. You then can adjust contrast and sharpness in five steps, choose a filter effect (neutral, yellow, orange, red or green) and select a picture tone (neutral, sepia, blue, purple or green). If you want to check for tonal mergers or see the effects of filters, activate Live View mode by pressing the Live View button. The mirror will flip up, and the image will appear on the LCD monitor.
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Panasonic D-SLR users gain access to in-camera monochrome via three Film Modes: B/W Standard, B/W Dynamic (increased contrast) and B/W Smooth (reduced contrast). There’s also a Multiple Film Mode that lets you shoot color and black-and-white images simultaneously.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10
All Panasonic D-SLRs provide monochrome capability via their Film Modes feature. We like the DMC-L10 for its free-angle Live View monitor with movable guidelines to help keep things aligned—especially handy for keeping the horizon level in landscapes, no matter where it appears in the frame. You can choose from three monochrome and six color Film Modes. B/W—Standard is great for general shooting, B/W—Dynamic for added “snap” and B/W—Smooth for lower contrast. Press the Live View button, and you’re in Live View mode, where you can preview the monochrome effects.
Pentax’s current and recent D-SLRs provide a Custom Image mode called B&W that lets you shoot monochrome images. You can choose straight B&W, add a colored filter effect (green, yellow, orange, red, magenta, blue, cyan or infrared color) or tone the image warm or cold at one of nine levels. Many Pentax D-SLRs also let you convert color images to monochrome in-camera after shooting via the Digital Filter feature. You can convert an image to B&W, apply a red, green or blue filter effect, or sepia-tone the image. The filtered image is then saved under a new name, leaving the original as it was.
Pentax’s top-of-the-line K20D is a 14.6-megapixel, APS-C sensor model with very good image quality and AF performance, Live-View capability, and a dust- and weatherproof body. It does monochrome images via its Custom Image feature. Press the Fn button, then press OK to bring up the Custom Image menu screen. Use the left-right keys to choose the Monochrome Image Tone. Use the up-down keys to choose Filter Effect, Toning, Contrast or Sharpness, then the left-right keys change to select the desired effect. Press OK when done. To enter Live View mode, focus on the subject, then turn the main switch to the Live View (iris) icon. The mirror raises, and the image appears live on the LCD monitor.
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Samsung D-SLRs essentially provide the same monochrome features as Pentax D-SLRs, including, in the top-of-the-line GX-20 model, the ability to convert already-shot color images to monochrome in-camera and saving them under new names.
The virtual twin of the Pentax K20D, the GX-20 provides the same advantages and monochrome capabilities, accessed in the same manner. The in-camera image-processing engine is different, though, and the two cameras produce somewhat different images from the same Samsung/Pentax CMOS image sensor. We haven’t had a chance to use the GX-20 yet, but expect that its monochrome performance would be very similar to the K20D’s, which is very good.
Sigma’s SD14 doesn’t have a monochrome mode (the unique Foveon X3 full-color-capture sensor’s forte being color), but the color images convert beautifully to monochrome using Sigma Photo Pro or other image-processing software.
Sony’s D-SLRs provide a Creative Style mode called Image Style, B/W. Select B/W, and you can shoot black-and-white images; select Sepia, and you can shoot sepia-toned images.
Sony D-SLRs do monochrome via their Creative Styles feature. The DSLR-A900 is our favorite, for its class-leading 24.6-megapixel resolution, full-frame Sony CMOS sensor, effective five-step Dynamic Range Optimizer and 3-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor. The A900 doesn’t have a true Live View mode, but its Intelligent Preview function lets you see effects of such things as white balance, Dynamic Range Optimizer and exposure compensation in real time, without filling your memory card with test images. To get monochrome images, select B/W (or Sepia, if you prefer sepia-tone monochrome images) from the Creative Style menu. If you activate Intelligent Preview after engaging B/W or Sepia mode, the B/W or Sepia image will appear on the LCD monitor. There are no built-in colored filter effects but, of course, you can use real colored filters as black-and-white film photographers do.
What Is Monochrome?
“Monochrome” means “one color.” A monochrome print consists of one color on the white paper base. Generally that color is black (in various densities from black through very light gray). It also can be black tones with a warm (brownish) or cold (bluish) tone, or sepia, or any single color. For this article, we use the terms “black-and-white” and “monochrome” interchangeably.
Converting Color Images To B&W
There are lots of ways you can convert a color image to black-and-white. Photoshop offers several. The two simplest—change the mode to Grayscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale) or move the Saturation slider all the way to the left (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation)—are easy, but offer little control. You can get a bit more variety by using the Channels palette: Click on the Red, Green and Blue channels to see if one gives the look you want; if it does, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale and save it as a new file.
Probably the best way to convert a color image to black-and-white in Photoshop is by using the Channel Mixer (Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer). Click the Monochrome box, and you get a black-and-white image. You then can adjust the three sliders to adjust Red, Green and Blue, remembering that moving the Red slider right makes red tones lighter and to the left darker, moving the green slider to the right makes green tones lighter and to the left darker, and moving the blue slider to the right makes blue tones lighter and to the left darker. It’s a good idea to keep the percentages of red, green and blue combined around 100, but some images might work better with a little higher total (for a brighter image) or a little lower total percent (for a darker image).
Other image-editing software (Adobe Camera Raw and Apple Aperture are popular ones) offers various means of converting color images to black-and-white; experiment with yours to see what gives the best results for a given image.
There’s also special black-and-white software, such as Nik Silver Efex Pro and Alien Skin Exposure 2, which provides extensive conversion tools, including the “looks” of classic black-and-white films.
We don’t have space here to cover every possibility for converting color images to black-and-white. For more ideas, see our sister publication Digital Photo Pro’s website: www.digitalphotopro.com/technique/software-technique.html and scan the pages.