Thinking black and white?

2010, Photography

Last night was very interesting at the photography club. We were introduced with “problematic” photographs or series from some of the members who had been dealing with it for some time and needed or wanted help. Our group also got the question from a new member. He is a longtime photographer, used mostly B&W film in the past, but went digital in recent years and started to get doubts about staying at B&W or giving color a chance. Since he had been shooting B&W for so long and he likely trained his eye to see visually strong impact forms, structures, textures, and contrast that work so well for B&W, we thought he sought confirmation to keep on doing B&W. Of course it is best to do what you want, but we were generally convinced that he wanted to remain a true B&W photographer.

And just that had me thinking last night after the club meeting. If you’re not shooting B&W film anymore, go for digital and get color photographs which you intend to convert to B&W in post processing, how much do you remain a B&W photographer? With film you had B&W film and there was never any color introduced in the process of developing and printing the film. Of course your eye is trained and you feel how your composition will look like in B&W, but with digital, somewhere in the stage of ingesting the photographs, selecting, and processing color is (likely) introduced. I try to ignore it, import the photographs with a B&W preset into Lightroom, but I still know that I have the RAW photograph besides the B&W jpeg.

Now I am for most of the times really pleased with my B&W jpegs, but do know that the RAW photographs could help in more difficult and challenging situations. But I personally don’t like it that the RAW doesn’t have a monochrome white balance by default. That is also why I don’t understand Sigma. The Sigma RAW software has a monochrome white balance setting that gives really good B&W photographs, but there is no chance to apply that white balance in-camera. If camera manufacturers are not willing to invest in a true B&W sensor than this could be the best other option for me.

I just like it that a decision is permanent. Using a B&W film meant you couldn’t get color (or you had to use a second camera with color film or slide). Nowadays we all seem so convinced that B&W conversion is best in post-processing and there are so many techniques for Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Nik Silver Efex, or whatever. In the last few months (in particular since I got the Ricoh GR Digital I at the end of last year) I have gone for a total B&W workflow from in-camera B&W jpegs to my final processing for overall and local contrast enhancements (including the photographs in this post). But what about you? Keeping it true B&W, color to B&W conversion, or did you depart from B&W when you went digital? I really like to know.

And speaking of digital. One of my regular readers has a mint Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm f/1.7 lens for sale which he bought on 28 November last year. And the warranty covers until the end of November 2011. He thinks of selling it for 600€ and will pay for the shipping from Spain. In case you’re interested, you can contact him here and request more information.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma

26 thoughts on “Thinking black and white?

  1. Interesting, I was planning to write a story about this issue for Photofacts.

    I’m always shooting in-camera B+W’s (currently phone shots), because I really think it should be a creative choice, not an editing choice.
    And yes, some subjects are “begging” for color, so I’ll switch to color mode. But even then it’s a creative choice. A true photographer’s choice.

    B+W shots are about contrast, light/shadow, patterns etc. I guess it’s good to be aware of that while shooting. You’ll get better pictures that way.

    1. That is excellent said and exactly how it feels for me too. A creative choice and not an editing choice, which is more and more the feeling I get when hear or read people mentioning their preferred B&W conversion techniques. And look, I’ll be fair. I know and prefer some of the techniques for conversions too and they give great results (because I always intended to go for B&W anyway), but I feel more and more that I absolutely want to be in the creative mood. And for me that mood is total commitment and 100% B&W, not only after, but also before taking/making the photograph.

  2. For years, I had been wanting to do B&W landscape, but never had a stable living situation where I could have a darkroom, etc. So- I kept shooting Kodachome (and loving it.)

    Digital has made it possible to do the B&W I always wanted to do. Maybe it’s getting a little too easy now?

    Ironicly, I now live in a place where I could have a darkroom and I’m seriously considering it. Prices have come down to the point where i could get that Hasselblad I always wanted…

    BTW- Another web site pointed out that film sales are up! Other people seem to missing the craft of film photography.

    1. I thought the return of film was not so much those who had done it before, but more those photographers who jumped into photography when everything actually turned digital. But still quite fascinating.

      I personally would love to go for film too, but the cost keeps me from doing it. A starter could be to get Ilford XP2. But for now, working in B&W and having no color intermediates is what I kind of really like.

  3. Great set of photos Wouter! And interesting topic. I’ve heard that Sigma dumbed-down their B&W white balance setting such that it’s not as useful in the latest version of SPP. Dumb idea, if true!

    I would love to be able to shoot RAW B&W, would love a camera with a B&W-tailored sensor. Still, I’m not sure. I sometimes go out intending to shoot B&W work, but end up liking some of the color shots better. So it’s nice to have it both ways, so to speak. I can always shoot RAW+JPG and shoot the JPGs as B&W like you have been doing.

    I can see that coming from B&W film to B&W digital could be a challenge, but many I’ve know who have done it end up preferring the digital workflow (after an adjustment period and training) because it allows them more control over their creative vision.

    1. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

      Sigma SPP still has the monochrome white balance, but I think it is horrible on high ISO photographs. I am considering using my Canon 10D for the color work. There is no in-camera B&W setting and the 10D did not have many picture styles.

      But what I find more interesting for myself is that I processed some of the photographs I took a couple of years ago. In that time I mostly did Saturation and Luminance B&W conversion in Lightroom. I now started to edit the additional B&W jpegs in Photoshop and what I get from the B&W jpegs is to me just so much more pleasurable than the older B&W conversions. And I have already made A3+ prints from B&W jpegs that hold up extremely well.

  4. Interesting article. I actually like having the colour RAW file, I would like to just see it in B&W though if shot as B&W. The main reason I like the colour RAW is that I can then use different colour ‘filters’ to help with contrast enhancement after the shot has been taken and I then don’t have to carry a set of B&W filters around with me and keep swaping them. I generally try to previsualise what I want when I shoot, and then in post apply the ‘filter’ for that previsualisation. I find this quite liberating.

    1. I agree that digital gives so many new possibilities, but part of the attraction of photography for me was also the feeling of making definite decisions. Choosing type of film (B&W or color), exposing, composing, developing. It was all very definite. With digital only the exposing and composing are more or less definite, but everything else can be done over and over again.

      Maybe partly because it can be done, but maybe also for a constant desire for perfection I think. Go figure, when someone has an expensive camera and lens and shoots jpeg people are all saying the photographer throws away so much quality. Why else did he spent so much money? But a Leica M6 with a 35mm Summilux for instance was also a lot of money and still many people used more grainy and contrasty ISO 400 Tri-X (maybe even pushed).

      I have always said that I like limitations. That is also why I kind of prefer the small sensor cameras with there limited dynamic range. I also like the thoughts of dealing with definite points of no return. Exposure, the composition, B&W or color. For me that is the liberating thought that I can make those creative decisions not after the photograph has been taken, but while taking the photograph.

  5. Hi Wouter, congrats for the great images you are always posting. You have been playing with a lot of cameras here but you consistenly obtain very good pictures. I really love your stile and your B&W pics.

    I have a question regarding the lightroom presets: I thought that the GRD series had setting for the B&W pictures like contrast, sharpness, etc… ¿Don’t you prefer to do this on the camera? I am asking because I am shooting B&W with my GX100 and I would love to adjust the B&W settings in the camera. For this reason, sometimes I would like to own a GRD but I never bought one because I am afraid I would miss the step zoom and the EVF… anyway… Do your thing is it possible to adjust the B&W jpegs with a GRD in order to avoid or minimize post processing? With the GX100 I am also using always the same contrast and sharpness PSD actions…

    1. Hi Jordi, I either have a Lightroom preset or one or tho Photoshop actions that handle B&W jpegs pretty good for me. Yes, it is true that there are more settings to apply in-camera with the GRD series, but the GX100 B&W jpegs were really good I think. Lovely texture and nice tonality. The GX100 lens produces less contrast than the GRD series, but as a result the GX100 B&W jpegs are like really good negatives with a slightly flatter look.

      Besides in-camera settings like contrast and sharpness I think the most conscious first decision I like to make in the first place is selecting B&W or color. In film a lot of contrast, etc. was introduced while developing the film and the printing.

      So the Lightroom presets are more something like an added s-curve. Things you also can do in Photoshop.

  6. Hi Wouter,

    When I shoot B&W, I like to shoot B&W jpeg. I, too, like to commit to that choice, so there is no going back. I’m sure some people say this is crazy, but it is no different than loading B&W film into your camera instead of color film.

    Viva B&W!

    1. It all has it’s pros and cons, but I just want (and I guess you too) to be in a mood for B&W. Many photographers find/found it so normal to load B&W film in their cameras, not to be distracted by the grain and less sharpness, but when we go for digital all of sudden many want to go for optimum quality and flexibility.

  7. Good post Wouter, and timely too as I am preparing to shoot two colorful street events this weekend. I’ve been playing around with in-camera B&W jpegs on my GF1 anyway so I’m going to do RAW/B&W jpeg and see what happens.

    1. Look forward to your experience.

      And to add to it all. I just don’t like it when people say you make great B&W conversions. It is not at all about conversion techniques. If the technique does matter, are you than still a photographer or more the Photoshop guru?

  8. I selldom convert a photograph to black and white nowdays. I have decided that when i want to do black and white photograpy, i do it directly in the camera. And use filters to get the mood and greyscales i want.
    It works for me, and i don´t have to decide if the photograph is better in colour or in BW.

  9. the Epson R-D1 and software allows you to stay in black and white throughout the process.

    you only see B&W on the screen (if you chimp) and your parameters are passed on to the RAW as well. you never need to see colour — though, because you’re shooting RAW, the information is there.

    it is still the most organic and filmic of any digital camera i’ve used.

    1. With the exception of white balance the RAW photographs of my GRDIII remain pretty much untouched. But, partly family life, partly work, I don’t feel the attraction of long editing on my RAW photographs. I already spent too much time on PC anyway. And I still clearly remember my slide photography. You just had to get the exposure right.

      Maybe when I can get the look I want in Lightroom I will stick to importing the RAW photographs with one of my presets. Otherwise I will try to stick to my B&W jpegs as much as possible. It is just the thought that you know that the color information is still there which kind of bothers me in my creative process. I just want it to be either B&W or color. And not basically B&W, but always the option of color. What some find the beauty of digital is for me the most negative part of photography.

      I will prepare 3 to 4 A2 size prints this week and I am considering the B&W jpegs. Keep you updated Cam.

  10. i’ll definitely be interested…

    but, truly, knowing there is colour has never bothered me. i am a black and white photographer through and through.i see that way and i shoot that way. period.

    whilst colour (i’m a sucker for red) may attract my attention when taking the photo, i rarely use it… it’s just not what attracts me to a photograph, whether it’s my own or somebody else’s. whereas black and white thrills to me the core and even when i have to look at the RAW file, my brain is seeing B&W…

    i was long a proponent of JPEG only but, after seeing what i can recover in RAW, i could never go back to only shooting JPEG (except with the original GRD — where i could have a baby in the time it takes to process)….

    i recently took a pic that i LOVE on the GRDII in JPEG and i’m furious. i know what could have been if i had been shooting RAW but wasn’t, and thus i lost the shot… perhaps that’s part of the difference in our views? the GRDIII definitely does have a better JPEG engine.

    1. Like you I am a true B&W photograph, but maybe I am more traditional. Just don’t know. Photography for me is the moment, not the recovery. And the RAW photographs are quite smudgy without the texture of the jpegs which I just love. I see your point and do remember I have seen it all myself.

  11. lol! photography is more about the moment for me as well… it’s why i still have months worth to catch up on — i prefer the moment much more than slogging through the processing. still, i know what i saw and won’t settle for less. i don’t believe there is an in-camera JPEG processor that lives up to my vision… probably not yours either, but you are so much more generous with sharing often.

    1. You’re welcome, but I do hope you start sharing soon too.

      First and for all my post was not with the intention of in-camera JPEG versus RAW. Not at all. Like many, I do process my photographs too. Dodge and burn, contrast, etc. I noticed that for what I envisioned the in-camera JPEG with my processing comes even closer to my intentions, my perspective, and it feels as a fixed and carefully taken decision when I wanted to take the photograph.

  12. Let me clearly explain that I do post-processing. Maybe with the exception of some of the Olympus cameras there are no camera in my opinion with a perfect in-camera setting. I meter carefully and don’t necessarily need the recovery information (I just think that sounds too technical and unphotographic). I either edit my jpegs in Lightroom or Photoshop and do like the look I achieve.

    I prefer the jpegs, because it keeps me in a pure B&W mood. Another option is to import the RAW photographs with a B&W preset into Lightroom, but for me the RAW’s add too little extra. Yes, you win some in highlight recovery. But I do miss the texture and perception of sharpness I get from the jpegs.

    But most importantly I didn’t want to turn this post to into a RAW vs. JPEG battle. I wanted to know how photographers think about a true B&W workflow. The best I can advice is to experiment. Whether you have a lot or little post-processing experience, but try it. If your camera can save both the RAW and the JPEG use it. You can use both photographs to experiment and practice. Many want to learn and especially learn from others, but I do believe that it is actually best to practice yourself. Because what I may like, or Cam, or Jörgen, or James may not be what is best or feels best for you.

  13. Dear Wouter,

    A very thought provoking post.

    Oh, if I could tell you of the hours I have agonised over this issue of what constitutes a satisfactory BW work flow.

    I’ve been using digital since 2002 with my purchase of the EOS D60. Primarily, I have always been a BW shooter using a variety of film stock. Sometimes I fancy shooting FP4+ or Neopan 400 or Delta. I can chop and change at will. Sometimes I like to develop in HC-110, or very dilute Rodinal or with Pyro, or my own Catechol based developer.

    With Digital you’re stuck! One sensor, one processing engine and a plethora of software engineers.

    The main thing for me is I don’t like shooting in colour, I hate JPGs, I hate ‘conversion’. Which is ironic because digital cameras ‘see’ in monochromatic light levels and not colour. I hate all that clever software and abdicating control to an increasing number of software engineers. You don’t make an image anymore, it’s you and a whole team of developers, managers, marketeers, code heads and share holders etc. etc. etc.

    And now what is happening?
    For the first time I now have a colour gallery ( on my site and my shooting is becoming polarised. Digital for colour (EOS 40D and G11) and film for black and white.

    With film I have regressed back in time and I use cameras with no electronics, no computer control, no plastic, no software. I don’t even use a lightmeter. I have recently started to make salt prints and cyanotypes. I buy the raw chemicals, mix them and coat the paper myself. In fact, eventually, I aim to bring the whole process ‘in-house’ and manufacture the whole lot by myself. I have already started to look for an 8×10 inch wooden Victorian camera. Now-a-days I either scan the negatives or make an enlargement on film for contact printing.

    With digital I shoot weddings and portraits and the digital work flow is fine here. I am happy with it. Its a job. It works. It’s enjoyable. But for my own personal work, which is largely B&W, my digital work flow doesn’t fit at all.

    In Summary:
    I am still unhappy about a digital monochrome workflow. Especially shooting colour pictures and ‘converting’ to monochrome. A toned digital picture feels fake, false, artificial. With film, its me, my camera, my chemistry and I. Reality and not virtual reality.

    The Solution:
    A digital camera that can shoot either a B&W RAW file or to remove that silly bayer sensor arrangement with its colour filters and have a pure monochrome camera.

    and Finally.
    The right way is the way that works for you.

    1. That is so true Chris: “The right way is the way that works for you.” And thank you for your lengthly and detailed reflections and thoughts.

      Developing and printing would be too time consuming for me now with my family, but I would still love to do it. Thankfully I consider prints to be so much more enjoyable than viewing photographs on screen. A print makes a photograph come to life. Be it ink or wet paper printing.

  14. Wouter,maybe between all of us a petition to ricoh for a black and white sensor in a module for their gxr with a bare leica m mount to suit all tastes might help things along.Much as I love my tri-x Im sure Id jump ship for such a camera.Wether Id be jumping as one of the wise or one of the rats Im honestly not sure!Other thoughts lead me towards a M8-2.Used without filters over the lenses the colour image is useless because of its inaccuracy ,…Neil.

  15. Wouter: Great article. In my own workflow, when I want to go B&W, I choose to set the camera (a Canon G9) in “Black & White” mode, and saving RAW. This way, I can compose the photo in B&W, I see it BW, but the RAW file has still all the colors and I can after convert it in Lightroom.
    Anyway, I’d like to see in Canon cameras dedicated B&W settings, as in Ricoh’s.

    And in response to Chris Bryant: Kodak made in 2002 the DCS 760m, a dSRL monster with an amazing, in that time, 6 megapixels sensor, that took only B&W pictures. It was very, very expensive: $ 10K for body only. It tooked marvellous photographs, but has a limited success. Read this article:
    I’d love to see a modern digital compact that shoots only B&W pics 😦

    Greetings from Argentina.

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