Reader Question: How Do YOU Shoot in B&W?

by Joseph Linaschke

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Reader Tamara Gentuso asks:

When shooting in B&W, how DO you do it? Are you shooting strictly in B&W (whether digital or film), or are you going back and using software to convert color images to B&W? Why? What are the pros/cons of the method you have chosen?
— Tamara Gentuso

Thanks for the question Tamara. First, let me state some technical points and then get into a more philosophical approach to the question.

Technically speaking…

Maybe you know all this, and if so just skip ahead. But for those who don't, this is a primer on what's actually happening when you shoot B&W on a digital camera.

If you're shooting digital, no matter how you set your camera, you're shooting in color (unless you own the Leica M Monocrhom camera, the only digital camera in the world that actually has a monochrome sensor). You may choose B&W in the camera settings, but the sensor in the camera is an RGB (red, green & blue, i.e. color) sensor, and all images are recorded in RGB. Then, software in the camera will convert it to B&W, and show you a B&W image on-screen.

Notice I did not say a greyscale image. The actual file you download from the camera is still RGB—it's just been rendered monochromatic.

Now here's where it can get confusing to users who shoot in B&W then import to iPhoto or Aperture or Lightroom and find themselves presented with a color image. If you're shooting JPEG, then the color data is discarded and all you'll have is the B&W JPEG—what you were expecting. However if you're shooting RAW, then the RAW image will still be in color. So why do you see B&W on the back of the camera, and depending on your software, perhaps see the B&W image momentarily on your computer screen before it goes to color?

Because every RAW file contains an embedded JPEG file, which is rendered by the camera using whatever "picture style" you've chosen in camera—whether that's a super saturated, low contrast, 'infrared', or even B&W picture style—and embedded inside of the RAW file. This embedded JPEG is what you see when you look on the back of your camera (you're not looking at the RAW file, you're looking at the embedded JPEG), and when you import to software like Aperture, you will first see the embedded JPEG, and then Aperture will render the RAW file and show you the results of that—now in color.

So if you're shooting RAW, how do you get to keep those B&W files the camera produced? By shooting in RAW+JPEG. When you shoot in that mode, you get to keep both the original RAW file as well as the camera-generated B&W JPEG image. And depending on the software you're using in the computer, at the time of import you can choose how to handle those two files.

Now on to the actual question

I pretty much never shoot film anymore (with the exception of a plastic Holga 120 I bought a few years ago and pushed a few rolls of 120 through), but of course that's just me. There are still loads of people who shoot film, and I'd love to hear from them on their thought process behind it in the comments.

How I shoot depends on the camera I'm using and my intentions. If I'm shooting with a dSLR, I may or may not have the intention of converting to B&W in post at the time of capture. It really just depends on the scene, mood, etc. Sometimes I look at a scene and immediately think
"yeah, B&W" and shoot with the intention of converting later. However on my dSLR I never use the picture modes to preview what it will look like. I think the reason for that is I know that I can do much, much more in post than the camera can do, and if I actually look at the very limited capabilities of the camera software's conversion to B&W, I may end up talking myself out of it. As in, "oh, that's actually not a very good image for B&W after all" because I just had my vision skewed by the in-camera conversion. I've learned to trust my instinct, and I know what I'm capable of doing in Silver Efex Pro, so I just shoot it with B&W in my mind's eye.

Sometimes I don't decide to do B&W until later. There are countless examples of photos I never expected to do in B&W, but then tried it and was blown away at the results. Example below—when shooting this Safari park, B&W was the furthest thing from my mind. But the results were spectacular (IMHO, of course!). These were shot on Canon dSLRs and a variety of lenses, converted in Silver Efex Pro II from Aperture.

On the other hand, when I shoot with my smaller carry-everywhere camera (currently the Fuji X100), I do have a B&W preset that I've set up, and when I want to shoot B&W, I switch to that mode. I preview the B&W in-camera, in realtime while shooting, and decide then and there if I'll shoot B&W or not. However you have to understand that for me, the intention of this smaller camera is NOT to edit in post later. I do shoot RAW+JPEG still, but honestly that's just a safety net, in the event that I capture an amazing image that I really want to do more with, and want to go back to the RAW source. 999 times out of 1,000 I never even look at the RAW, and when I import into Aperture, I choose to make the JPEG the primary image.

The Aperture RAW+JPEG Pairs handling option on import

The Aperture RAW+JPEG Pairs handling option on import

It's just about simplicity and enjoying shooting, and not worrying about editing later. I've even gone so far as to add an Eye-Fi Pro X2 card to the camera so I can transfer my images to my iPhone right away, for posting to Instagram. (That's something I'll talk about in a future post). The photos shot on the X100 are meant to be complete at the moment of capture, and I like it like that.

Pros and cons?

In general the pros of doing your conversion in post is control. You have total control, and way, way more options than you do in-camera. The cons of that approach are the pros for doing it in-camera — time and spontaneity. There's a time and place for each.

What about you, reader?

Tamara's question is open to all of us. The above are just my thoughts on the process, and how I do things… what about you? What's your approach, and why?