Reader Question: Filters, Grains, Printing

by Joseph Linaschke

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Reader Jon Dobyns asks:

I am just discovering the B&W conversion using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2. I am also using Aperture 3.3, CS5, Color Efex 4 along with Photomatix Pro. My question is; Does a good B&W photo captured in the camera stand on its own, or do you believe applying filters to the color photograph prior to the conversion necessary? Is it the grain in the photo that achieves a more believable print?
— John Dobyns

Ooh, easy question—yes and no! ;-)

So obviously, it's a lot harder than that. I would say that if you want really, really good B&W images, you'll need to go into some other software most of the time. The B&W RGB JPEG created by the camera (the RAW will always be color, unless you have a specialized camera like the Leica M-Monochrome) is essentially just a greyscale conversion, and while it can help you visualize the final B&W image in the field, it's really not what you'd consider a superb B&W image.

That said though, I shoot with a Fuji X100 as my not-shooting-pro camera, and part of the joy of using a camera like that for me is NOT having to deal with all the post processing. I have dialed in a B&W setting that I really like on that camera—high contrast, crunchy shadows, high ISO (for the noise/grain), and for the photos I make with that camera, the results are perfectly fine. I don't even usually shoot RAW+JPEG on there, because I don't want to even be tempted to go back and tweak the image later!

As far as the grain part of the question; digital noise kinda sorta looks like film grain, but it's not the same thing. That said, how many people today even know what real grain looks like anymore? The images created now at high ISO and converted to B&W look "grainy", but unless you really know your stuff and are looking very closely, I'd argue that most people can't tell the difference. Or if they can see a difference, the probably don't know why.

In fact, many pros will admit that the easiest way to save a high-ISO, super noisy shot is to simply convert to B&W and call it "art".

Of course that's all just my opinion… this is mean to be a question for the readers; so readers—what do YOU think?