How to shoot black and white photos in-camera
Back in the days of film, shooting monochrome was a very specific choice. You loaded your camera up with a roll of black & white film, and for the next 24 or 36 exposures had no choice but to run with it. Of course, you couldn’t see how your pictures were coming out while you were shooting, so you had to try to learn how the colourful world in front of you would translate into greyscale.
If you were really serious about the process, you’d carry around a set of colour lens filters for contrast control. You’d probably also set up your own darkroom for developing and printing your film. Indeed, to get best results, you’d spend hours under a dim red safelight, dodging and burning your prints until they were just so.
These days, of course, times have changed. Shooting monochome on almost any digital camera is as simple as switching colour modes, which you can do on a shot-by-shot basis almost as easily as changing the aperture or ISO. But when you do this, you may well find that the mono output is disappointing, and lacking in impact and punch. Chances are you might try it once when you first get the camera, but never again.
Of course. it’s also simple to convert your pictures to monochrome in post-processing, with essentially the same control over how the final image will look as you’d get in the darkroom. This means that actually switching your camera to mono can appear pointless, especially if you shoot raw. Why shoot black & white photos in-camera when you can do it all later at your leisure, with more control?
In fact, there are some perfectly good reasons why you might decide to shoot mono in-camera. Firstly, not everyone wants to shoot raw all the time and post-process every shot – it’s a time-consuming business. Secondly, even if you are planning on post-processing, there can be real value in using your camera’s mono mode to give an initial idea of how well your shots will work out, to help fine-tune your compositions. Finally, with the in-camera processing controls now available, and some of the more attractive ‘filter’ modes, it’s entirely possibly to get attractive results out of the camera with no further manipulation.
What’s more, if you shoot monochrome using either a compact camera or a compact system camera that uses electronic viewing, it’s possible to see exactly how your pictures will turn out before you press the shutter button. This can be really useful, as it helps you ignore the distraction of strong colours when composing your images. You can also see more easily how different processing settings will impact your image. Much the same can be achieved by shooting with a DSLR in live view, as opposed to using the optical viewfinder.
In this article we’ll look in detail at shooting in monochrome mode, exploring the options available and offering some tips on how to get best results.
How to shoot black and white photos in-camera
Setting your camera to shoot in black & white is usually very straightforward. Simply locate the camera’s colour mode setting, and change the output to monochrome. Different manufacturers call these settings by different names, though, and some also have several different variants of their black & white mode. If in doubt, check your manual (as always).
It’s important to understand that, unlike with film, switching the camera to monochrome is purely a processing setting. The sensor is still recording images with full colour information, and if you record raw files alongside your JPEGs, they’ll still include all of it. It’s just the JPEG output that’s monochrome.
The manufacturer’s own raw processing software will normally recognise your intention to shoot in black & white, and display the images accordingly. But if you’d rather have a colour version of the shot, it just requires changing the setting back. Third-party processing software will most likely display your files in colour, but will happily process them into black & white anyway.
When to shoot mono?
One question that beginners often ask is when to use black & white, rather than colour. The simple answer is ‘whenever you like’ – there are no hard and fast rules. But it’s important to understand that shooting in monochrome is a rather different art to working in colour; some shots that look great in colour look dull in black & white, and vice versa. Indeed, getting effective results in mono often requires a fair bit of practice to understand the medium’s distinct characteristics.
Shooting monochrome removes the distraction of colour from your photographs, reducing them to the essentials of light and shade, composition and form. This means that it’s naturally better suited to some subjects rather than others – obviously if colour is important to an image, such as red flowers against green foliage, then removing it can destroy the picture’s impact. But likewise, when colour distracts attention from the main subject, shooting in black & white can be a real improvement.
There are, however, some situations to which monochrome is particularly suited. For example, in dull weather where the light isn’t bringing much to the party, then switching to black & white mode can give better results by emphasising the shape and form of your subjects. In strong, bright light, it can emphasise the interplay of light and shade.
Another situation where monochrome can come in handy is under mixed lighting. If you have both natural and artificial light illuminating different parts of the scene, or different types of artificial light, then those areas of the image will show ugly colour casts. This is something that our eyes and brains simply don’t perceive, so it looks particularly unattractive. In some cases it can be fixed in post-processing, using local corrections to remove the strongest colour casts. But often a simpler and more effective solution is simply to convert to black & white, which removes the distractions of mixed lighting completely.
Switching to monochrome can also be useful when shooting under artificial light at high ISOs, particularly with low colour temperature sources such as tungsten bulbs. Such light is strongly biased towards the yellow end of the spectrum, and lacking in green and blue in particular. The result is that, when trying to make a correctly balanced colour image, the green and blue channels have to be strongly amplified, resulting in an unpleasant increase in image noise. But if you deliberately set the ‘wrong’ white balance and shoot in black & white, this can reduce such problems with noise.
Give it a try, you will be amazed at the change on emphasis in monochrome.