by Joseph Linaschke
We've said it before and I'll say it again — converting to B&W can be a great way to save an otherwise way-too-noisy high-ISO photograph. I have the privilege right now of playing with a handful of small cameras, and one I'm really, really enjoying is the Olympus OM-D E-M5. It's a micro four-thirds camera, which means the sensor is considerably smaller than my Fuji X100. I really didn't think I'd like the camera much because of it, but it turns out I really do. It focuses extremely fast, even in low light, and can shoot up to a somewhat ridiculous 25,600 ISO. More importantly, the images are actually very sharp and detailed at that point, if not understandably noisy. And of course, as would be expected, it's the kind of colorized noise that's really quite icky. Enter the B&W conversion.
Let's start with two relatively low ISO images, shot at a paltry 6400. These are shot by the mixed lighting of candles, Christmas lights, and dimmed overhead lighting. So you know, a veritable porridge of color temperatures.
Here's the same photo as it came out of the camera (well, as Aperture interpreted the RAW file), followed by an auto enhanced version, then a manually enhanced one, and finally the in-camera JPEG (shooting RAW+JPEG). These aren't unusable, but the colors aren't fabulous.
Here's another ISO 6400 example, converted to B&W with a splash of sepia. I felt the faint sepia returned the warmth of the evening to the images, which was lost by going to B&W.
Now let's see something at the extreme end. These next two shots are both at ISO 25,600!
The detail is amazing! I'm really blown away by this camera. But the point here of course is about the color noise. So let's see the last image before conversion. I've cropped it because the bokeh highlights went really weird in the conversion — more on that below under "technique".
Depending on where you're viewing this, you may not be able to see this full size, so here's a crop at 100% zoom, as grabbed in Aperture.
The B&W conversion was all done with Aperture. I'm including a custom preset here for you Aperture users, and I'd love to hear how this works on other images. Notice in this preset, one of the oddities here is that instead of adjusting exposure to save/restore highlight detail, I changed the color temperature. Since color temp doesn't matter for a B&W image, I was able to use it to my advantage here, and at least in this collection of photos, it allowed me to maintain a really nice skin texture.
However a bi-product of this on these specific images was that some of the highlight rings around the Christmas light bokeh went really, really weird. Like this kind of weird:
I was able to crop them out or retouch them on all the images, but still, that's something I'd rather not have to do.
Anyhow, there you have it… this holiday season, when shooting in crazy low light and you want to avoid using flash, keep in mind the B&W conversion to save those noisy photos! :-)
Happy holidays, everyone.