B&W Essentials

A look at the essential gear you need for making your best black-and-white landscape, wildlife and travel photos
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While most landscape photography today is done in color, there’s a long tradition of magnificent black-and-white landscapes. From the likes of William Henry Jackson and Carleton E. Watkins in the 19th century through Ansel Adams and many others in the 20th to today’s landscape masters working with film and digital, black-and-white offers a classic way to picture the grand vistas, stunning formations and amazing lighting of nature. Without color, attention is directed to light and shadow, shapes and forms.

You can shoot black-and-white (monochrome), as well as color images, with your digital camera. Most DSLRs have a built-in monochrome mode, and this offers several benefits. First, the image you see on the LCD monitor in Live View mode, and on playback, will be monochrome, making it easier to judge what the image looks like in black-and-white. Second, you can apply built-in digital color filters and see the results on-screen (see the section on Filters). Third, if you shoot RAW rather than JPEG, you can process the resulting images to monochrome or color with your RAW converter (if you shoot JPEGs in monochrome mode, they will be forever monochrome; you can’t later process them into color images). With a regular digital camera, you can also take a regular color image, and then in Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer, click the Monochrome box, and adjust the color channels individually in postprocessing, giving you lots of control over the look of the monochrome image.

There are also special monochrome digital cameras. These eliminate the color filter grid that covers the sensor pixels in conventional digital cameras, which can produce sharper monochrome images and better performance at higher ISOs. But, of course, they can’t shoot color images. Check the accompanying sidebar to see if a monochrome camera might be for you.

Canon PIXMA PRO-10

The soul of any great black-and-white image is revealed in the print. Computer monitors and tablet displays do a beautiful job of rendering glowing images, but color shifts, brightness settings and the many unknowns of viewing conditions make these digital devices unreliable for showing the detail and tonality of a beautiful black-and-white image. Even today, in a world of Retina displays, the well-crafted print is the very best expression of a well-made photograph.

Today’s color inkjet printers from Canon and Epson can deliver excellent monochrome prints because their standard inksets include multiple gray inks along with the black and color inks, and printer driver technology has advanced a lot. Some printers use color ink along with the multiple monochrome inks to produce top monochrome results on a variety of papers.

Epson Stylus Pro 4900

Some inkjet printers use dye-based inks, while others use pigment-based inks. At one time, dye-based inks (consisting of fine colorant particles and additives dissolved in liquid) produced better colors, while pigment-based inks (with larger colorant particles and additives suspended in liquid) provided longer life and better water-resistance. Today, both types of inks can produce excellent colors (and monochrome tonal range) and long life. Most higher-end inkjet printers today use pigment-based inks.

Canon’s PIXMA PRO-1 ($999.99) is the company’s top 13-inch inkjet, featuring a 12-color Canon Lucia pigment inkset (including five monochrome inks—matte black, photo black, dark gray, gray and light gray—for deep blacks and smooth grayscale tones) in 36ml cartridges. The PIXMA PRO-10 ($699.99) features a wireless WiFi connection and a 10-color Lucia pigment inkset (with three monochrome inks—photo black, matte black and gray) in 14ml cartridges, plus multiple monochrome inks and Chroma Optimizer minimize bronzing.

Epson’s Stylus Pro 3880 ($1,295) is a 17-inch inkjet printer that uses Epson’s eight-color UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta pigment inkset in 80ml cartridges (including three monochrome inks—light black, light light black and either photo black or matte black, automatically chosen to suit the paper being used). Advanced Black & White Photo Mode provides presets for neutral, cool, warm and sepia prints, with custom controls that allow you to fine-tune the results (and even save your custom settings for future use). Epson’s Stylus Pro 4900 ($1,995) is faster than the 3880 and uses the company’s 10-color Ultrachrome HDR pigment inkset in 200ml cartridges (with the same three monochrome inks). Again, the multiple black inks improve image quality and minimize bronzing.

You can print color images in black-and-white, letting the printer driver do the conversion, but likely will get better results by converting the image to monochrome yourself and fine-tuning it, as desired, then printing the resulting image. You can always try it both ways to see which works best with your printer; today’s printer drivers are very good.

Papers For B&W
If the printer is the engine for a well-crafted black-and-white print, the paper is where the rubber meets the road. The finest inkjet printers need paper that reacts properly to the printhead and the inks. This has been true since the days of the wet darkroom when master photographers experimented with papers like Oriental Seagull, Agfa Portriga Rapid, Zone VI, Ilford and more.

All inkjet papers can produce color or monochrome prints; it’s a matter of finding the paper whose surface, weight and brightness synergize with your printer and your project. High-gloss surfaces work well for some subjects, while others look best on matte surfaces. Textured surfaces hide fine details, so aren’t the best choices when fine detail is required.

You must select a paper suited to your printer’s inkset, of course. If your printer uses pigment inks, get papers suited to pigment inks; if the printer uses dye-based inks, use a paper suited to those. Some papers work well with both ink types. Some paper-ink combinations provide longer life than others. Check the specs for those you’re considering, and if several papers look good to you, pick the one that produces the longest-lasting prints (keeping in mind that manufacturer’s specs may be somewhat optimistic). Wilhelm Imaging Research (wilhelm-research.com) offers objective appraisals of print life with many ink-paper combinations and other information of print longevity.

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A collection of B+W filters

Color Filters. Old-school film shooters know the value of color filters for shooting black-and-white. Many photographers have shunned color filters in the age of software that can simulate their effects, but color filters still have value today. While your intended image may be black-and-white, the light isn’t. Color filters transmit light of their own color and absorb light of a complementary color, so a color filter will render objects of its own color lighter and objects of a complementary color darker in a black-and-white image. If you photograph red flowers against green leaves in black-and-white without a filter, you’ll probably get a dull gray image because the flowers and leaves both reflect about the same total amount of light. But if you shoot through a red filter, the red flowers will photograph lighter and the green leaves darker, providing a more dynamic rendering. Landscape shooters use a yellow, orange or red filter to darken a blue sky so white clouds will really stand out. You can also use color filters to adjust skin tones—green to darken them, yellow or light red to lighten them and minimize blemishes.

Since color filters absorb some of the light, you have to increase exposure when using them. The amount by which you must increase exposure when using a color filter is given as a filter factor: A factor of 4X, for example, means you must increase exposure four times normal (+2 stops) when using the filter so colorless objects will be reproduced normally in the resulting photo (and so objects of the filter’s color will be reproduced lighter, and objects of complementary color, darker). If you don’t apply the filter factor, objects of the filter’s color will appear slightly too dark, neutral objects, moderately too dark, and objects of the filter’s complementary color, way too dark, in the resulting image.

One nice thing about digital is that, in monochrome mode, you can apply color filters digitally, with no need to deal with filter factors (and with the ability to later undo the effect, if you shoot RAW). Note that monochrome digital cameras don’t have such built-in digital filters; with those cameras, you must use actual color filters over the lens to get these effects.

Polarizers & ND Filters. Color filters aren’t the only ones of use to the black-and-white photographer. A polarizer will work in black-and-white as it does in color, reducing or eliminating reflections from nonmetallic surfaces (an effect that’s really difficult to duplicate in the digital darkroom), darkening blue skies and cutting through some atmospheric haze to improve contrast. Neutral-density (ND) filters reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor without otherwise altering it, handy when you want to make very long exposures in bright light, as when blurring a waterfall. Graduated ND filters can reduce sky brightness so you can hold detail in both sky and dark foreground in landscapes. Good filter sources include B+W, Cokin, Heliopan, Hoya, Kenko, Pro-Optic, Singh-Ray and Tiffen.

While you can do a lot with a monochrome image in your usual image-editing program, there are a number of software programs dedicated to monochrome, which provide more control over monochrome images. These include DxO FilmPack 4, Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, onOne Software Perfect B&W 8 and Topaz B&W Effects 2, and for filters, Tiffen Dfx v3.

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TOP TO BOTTOM: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2; DxO Optics Pro 4; Tiffen Dfx 3.0

Nik Silver Efex Pro, for example, incorporates unique algorithms that produce such effects as Dynamic Brightness, Soft Contrast, Amplify Whites and Amplify Blacks, and an advanced Grain Engine. You can emulate nearly 20 film types, use such presets as Hi Contrast Red Filter, Antique Plate 1 and Warm Split Tone, and compare different edited states and undo adjustments at anytime via the built-in History Browser.

onOne Perfect B&W, part of Perfect Photo Suite 8.5, makes it easy to replicate the looks and moods of classic black-and-white films and darkroom techniques, using brushes designed specifically for black-and-white photo processing. There are tools to optimize the balance of tones and contrast, and to adjust shadows, midtones and highlights. Finish images with vignettes, darkroom edge effects and borders.

There’s also HDR (High Dynamic Range) software. Some cameras have HDR built in, but postprocessing HDR software provides much more control and capability. HDR can produce some creative, yet unreal artistic effects, but it also can be used to produce images with detail from darkest area through brightest—far beyond what film can do. With HDR, you shoot several bracketed frames, then use the HDR software to combine the best of each—highlight detail from the underexposed image(s), midtones from the “properly” exposed one and shadow detail from the overexposed image(s). Many recent cameras have in-camera HDR; if yours does, try it, but combining the bracketed images in postproduction provides much more capability and control. Nik HDR Efex Pro, HDRsoft Photomatix Pro and Unified Color HDR Expose 3 are effective HDR programs.

Sigma Foveon
Sigma’s digital cameras (the SD1 Merrill DSLR, the DP1, DP2 and DP3 Merrill, and the DP2 Quattro compacts) use unique Foveon sensors, which don’t employ the Bayer filter grid used by most other sensors. Instead, the Foveon sensors stack three pixel layers, taking advantage of the fact the light penetrates silicon to different depths, depending on wavelength: short (blue) wavelengths penetrate a little, medium (green) wavelengths, deeper, and long (red) wavelengths, still deeper. Thus, the top layer records mostly blue, the middle layer, mostly green, and the bottom layer, mostly red light. It’s really more complicated than that, but this simplified explanation makes the point: Unlike Bayer sensors, Foveon sensors record all three primary colors of light at every pixel site, so there’s no need for RGB filters, demosaicing or an anti-aliasing filter. The result is better resolution than a Bayer sensor of similar horizontal-by-vertical pixel count provides.

A side benefit is that monochrome images are also sharper than those from a Bayer sensor of equal pixel count. And, unlike the monochrome digital cameras, the Sigma bodies with Foveon sensors are affordable (they start at under $1,000) and provide three color channels, allowing you to adjust each individually for optimum control over the final monochrome image. The drawbacks are that there’s some light loss (i.e., high ISO performance isn’t as good as with the monochrome cameras), and the Foveon sensors are all APS-C—smaller than the sensors in the monochrome cameras. Contact: Sigma, sigmaphoto.com

One key advantage of monochrome cameras: no Bayer array on the sensor, thus no interpolation. The Sigma Foveon sensor is full-color, yet due to its unique technology, there’s no Bayer array so it has that same advantage.

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Monochrome Digital Cameras
The photodiodes (“pixels”) in digital image sensors can’t detect color; they detect the amount of light that strikes them, but not what the wavelengths are. To obtain color information, most digital cameras use a grid of red, green and blue filters—a Bayer array (named for the Kodak scientist who came up with the concept) over the sensor—so that each pixel receives light of only one of these primary colors (see the “Sigma Foveon” sidebar). The missing colors for each pixel are then derived by interpolation, using data from neighboring pixels and complex proprietary algorithms in a process known as demosaicing.

Leica M Monochrom

The problem with this is that each pixel receives light of just one primary color, which cuts down on resolution (because a portion of the data for each pixel is interpolated) and sensitivity (because the filters absorb some of the light that would otherwise reach each pixel). And the demosaicing process creates moiré and exacerbates aliasing that occurs when a pattern in the subject or scene conflicts with the pixel grid of the sensor. To reduce the moiré and aliasing problems, most sensors have an anti-aliasing (AA) filter (also known as an optical low-pass filter, or OLPF), which reduces those problems by slightly blurring the image at the sub-pixel level. Obviously, this further reduces resolution. If you convert one of these images to monochrome or shoot in monochrome mode, you still have these problems of reduced resolution and sensitivity, and aliasing.

To solve these problems, a few manufacturers offer dedicated monochrome digital cameras. These omit the Bayer filter grid, since color data isn’t needed, just luminance (brightness) data, and eliminates demosaicing and its problems. So every pixel receives all the light possible, improving sensitivity, and every pixel provides luminance data. Since there’s no demosaicing, there’s no need for the resolution-reducing AA filter, further enhancing sharpness. These monochrome cameras are ideal for photographers who specialize in monochrome, providing increased pixel-level sharpness, enhanced contrast, smoother tonal transitions and increased sensitivity (higher ISOs). Their primary drawbacks are cost (they start at $7,950), and the fact that you can’t shoot normal color images with them.

Leica M Monochrom. The M Monochrom features an 18-megapixel, full-frame (35.8×23.9mm) CCD sensor that was designed specifically for monochrome digital imaging with legendary Leica M-series lenses. It delivers 14-bit uncompressed or losslessly compressed RAW (DNG) files or lightly compressed JPEGs. A special layout of microlenses atop the sensor helps produce uniform exposure and excellent sharpness from corner to corner. A special glass sensor cover blocks infrared radiation above 700nm.

Because there’s no demosaicing, the M Monochrom can provide a histogram of the RAW data. This is useful, and much better than conventional Bayer-sensor cameras, which can only display histograms for camera-created JPEG images from the RAW data because it shows actual clipping points, not JPEG clipping points. The camera also allow you to apply toning effects to JPEG images, in-camera. Estimated Street Price: $7,950. Contact: Leica, us.leica-camera.com.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic. The IQ260 Achromatic is a medium-format digital back with a huge 60-megapixel, 53.7×40.3mm CCD sensor designed for black-and-white photography. Not only is there no RGB Bayer filter grid or AA filter on the sensor, there’s no IR cutoff filter, so the camera can be used for infrared and UV, as well as visible-light photography. The IQ260 captures 16-bit losslessly compressed RAW monochromatic black-and-white files, and outputs TIFF-RGB, TIFF-CMYK and JPEG. ISO range is 200-3200 (vs. 50-800 for the Bayer-array IQ260 in full-res mode), a two-stop improvement. Dynamic range is 13 stops. The back can be used on a wide range of medium-format and technical cameras, including the Phase One 645DF+, Mamiya 645DF+, Hasselblad H1, H2 and H4, and Contax 645AF, and via FlexAdapter, 4×5-inch Arca-Swiss, Cambo Linhof, Toyo, Sinar, Plaubel and Horseman. Estimated Street Price: $45,000. Contact: Phase One, phaseone.com.

RED EPIC Monochrome. Maker of high-end pro DSMC (Digital Still & Motion Camera) devices popular with pro filmmakers, RED offers monochrome versions of its EPIC camera. The EPIC-M DRAGON Monochrome ($31,500, body only) features a 6K DRAGON monochrome sensor, and the EPIC-M Monochrome ($25,000, body only) and EPIC-X Monochrome ($20,000, body only) feature a 5K Mysterium-X monochrome sensor. These are great devices for shooting professional black-and-white video, of course, but they also deliver excellent still frames: 6K is 6144×3160 pixels, or 19.4 megapixels (the DRAGON can record 6K at up to 100 fps); 5K is 5120×2700 pixels, or 13.8 megapixels (the EPIC-M and EPIC-X Monochrome can record 5K at up to 120 fps). Dynamic range for the DRAGON is 16.5 stops, for the others, 13.5 stops. Focusing is manual; mounts are available for Canon, Nikon, Leica and PL lenses. Contact: RED, red.com.