The colour filter settings are left over from the days of film photography. Photographers would buy coloured filters, and use them to alter the tones in black and white photos. For example, if your scene includes a blue sky, then using a yellow filter will make the sky a little darker, an orange filter makes it even darker, and a red filter darker still.
Aside from sepia and blue, a couple of camera manufacturers also offer green and purple toning settings. These are both less obviously related to darkroom techniques, and less likely to give attractive images – especially green. On the whole, I think it’s usually best to stick with blue and sepia.
Have you ever taken a photo and thought it looked great on your digital camera’s LCD, only to get home and discover an overexposed mess on your computer screen? Yuck.
There is also a place for green filters, which can bring out more detail in green subjects like leafy forests. Those four coloured filters (red, orange, yellow and green) have made their way onto most digital cameras as black and white settings.
Tweaking noise reduction and sharpness settings can accentuate or suppress noise, especially when shooting at high ISOs. To some extent this can mimic shooting with fast, grainy film. All cameras are different, so it’s difficult to make any specific recommendations here. But try turning down the noise reduction and turning up the sharpening to get grainier, grittier images.
In this example, the colour version is dominated by one shade, but with small yellow areas distracting the eye. Converting to monochrome turns the shot into a study in geometry, and boosting the contrast significantly improves the shot.
Black and white is a beautiful medium to work in, one which you will appreciate the more you practice. In the meantime – have fun and enjoy yourself. You are following a path trodden by some of the most famous names in photography. And of course, if you have any questions about working in black and white, please let us know in the comments.
Naturally, there are certain subjects that tend to work better than others in black and white; two in particular are landscapes and portraits. If this is your first time shooting in black and white, then these are great subjects to try out.
My ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White goes into the topic of black and white in depth. It explains everything you need to know to make dramatic and beautiful monochrome conversions in Lightroom, including how to use the most popular black and white plug-ins. Click the link to visit my website and learn more.
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.
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.
Most in-camera black & white modes are based directly on the standard colour processing, just with the colour desaturated. While this is a perfectly sensible thing to do from the manufacturers’ point of view, it can often leave monochrome images looking a little flat. This can be addressed by increasing the contrast setting to give the image a bit more impact, as shown:
Usually at this point I advise you to use the Raw format. In the long run it’s easier than using JPEG, and gives you better image quality. But I appreciate that if you’re new to photography you may still be working exclusively in JPEG. The rest of this article works on this basis.
There’s obviously a lot of overexposure in this photo, and the histogram shows that.
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Alongside their standard monochrome modes, many recent cameras also offer a couple of black & white options as processing filters – known by such diverse names as Creative Controls or Art Filters.
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Toning refers to colourising a monochrome image so it takes on a single overall tint. Historically, this comes from the practice of treating a silver-based print in the darkroom, normally to make it last longer without fading.
Luckily, on the most basic level, a histogram isn’t difficult to understand: The horizontal axis shows the tonal distribution (dark to light), while the vertical axis shows the number of pixels in a particular tone – and remember, the higher the peaks, the more pixels there are. The far left of the horizontal axis shows the darkest areas of the image, then moving to medium-gray in the middle and lightest on the far right. An image with a lot of light, for example, will see the graph’s data toward the middle and right of the histogram.
These filter effects can all be particularly useful when shooting landscapes. Technically it’s usually better to use in-camera processing for this, rather than use coloured lens filters, if you still have some lying around from shooting black and white film.
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Almost all cameras offer the option to produce sepia-toned images – the kind of yellow-brown tint that’s become synonymous with old prints. Most also give a blue-toned mode, which can be very effective for some images, giving a cool effect in contrast to the warm tones of sepia. Often these settings are a little overblown, but some brands such as Panasonic allow you to adjust the intensity of the toning to give a more subtle look.
Partial colour modes are a variant on black & white, where everything in the image is rendered in monochrome aside from a specific colour – usually a primary such as red, green or blue. There’s no doubt that this can be effective for some images, but it’s also all too easy to slip into the realms of cliché (red buses or telephone boxes spring to mind). When done well, this approach can be very effective, but it’s best used sparingly.
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.
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).
Despite being one of the best ways to quickly and accurately judge your exposure, the histogram is often overlooked by amateur and novice photographers. After all, if you don’t know what it is, a histogram just seems like a weird graph, and many people have no idea how to use it to their advantage. Also, the “ideal” histogram is different for every shot and changes depending on the look you desire. So when you’re not comfortable with the histogram, there can be a lot of hesitancy to rely on it.
These filter effects allow the user to manipulate how light or dark objects of different colours are rendered in the monochrome image. Items of the filter colour are lightened relative to their surroundings, while those of the complementary colour are darkened. So, for example, if you select an orange filter, then orange objects will be rendered lighter, while blue ones will be darkened. One common use of such filter effects is to enhance blue skies.
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.
Most cameras these days have plenty of settings for tweaking the look of your monochrome images, and while they give lots of control over how your images will turn out, they can equally look daunting for new users. Here we’ll take a look a look at what they do, and offer tips and recommendations on how to use them.
Once in monochrome mode you will see some extra options. They help you set your camera up to produce the best results. Again, check your manual if you are not sure where to find them.
Image: A splash of colour in an otherwise monochrome shot can be effective, though some photographers consider it tacky
Before digital photography the only way to work in black and white was to use black and white film. Thankfully, now it’s much easier to work in black and white, just by switching your camera to Monochrome Mode (check your camera’s manual if you are unsure how to do so, look for Picture Styles settings).
You can also utilize the histogram in apps like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom to improve image quality during post-processing. It can help you more accurately match the look and exposures of a series of images you may be editing, or even just analyze your images after a shoot to see how you may improve your photography.
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Just as importantly, working in black and white can help you become a better photographer. How? It’s all to do with composition.
Shooting in monochrome can remove the distraction of strong colours, and neutralise the effects of mixed lighting
The model was standing in the shade when I took this photo. The light lacks contrast, and the black and white photo is flat.
It can be difficult to discern if an image looks good on a small, bright screen, but fortunately, there’s a tool you can use to determine whether your image is too bright or too dark: your camera’s histogram. This is a feature that used to be reserved only for more advanced cameras, but in recent years has been added to more and more base level units – even many phones.
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.
The histogram is a not a foolproof tool for shooting perfectly exposed photos, because that’s not always possible. You can’t push a button and make a picture better – not even the camera’s auto setting is smart enough to do that. But think of it as a useful tool that tells you quickly what your photo’s exposure levels are, instead of just guessing by looking at the image on the LCD. As your photography improves and you learn to adjust the settings to compensate, you will learn to read the histogram better too.
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.
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.
The dictionary definition of a histogram is a graphical representation of data distribution, usually displayed as a bar graph. In digital photography, this related to the pixels that make up your image, and a histogram on your camera displays where each pixel is distributed from pure black to pure white in terms of brightness. In practice, this looks like a chart with a series of peaks and valleys. The higher the peak, the more bright pixels. This is the tonal distribution of your image, and by reading it you can judge the exposure of your image on you camera’s LCD or EVF.
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Depending on the situation, sometimes an uneven distribution is OK. If you’re shooting snow, a white object, or something against a white background, the histogram will display more data points on the right. The opposite holds true when you’re shooting a dark scene or a black object. The key here is knowing what you want your image to look like and exposing it properly to get that result. On its own the histogram is just data, not right or wrong in any situation; you need the context of your desired image to gauge whether the data on the histogram will give that to you.
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Applying the Red filter setting makes the blue sky go much darker, creating a much more dramatic version of the same scene.
Cameras with electronic viewfinders automatically display the image in black and white, helping you see how the image will look, before you press the shutter. If you have a digital SLR you will get the same effect in Live View. This may be useful if you are working with your camera on a tripod (for instance, taking a landscape photo).
Also, neutral density gradients can help balance a bright sky against a dark foreground, while ND filters are useful for getting long exposures for motion blur effects.
As I mentioned above, it’s normally best not to use the coloured lens filters that were commonly-employed with black & white film – this is because the sensor is still recording full colour information (unless you happen to be shooting with a Leica M Monochrom). But some lens filters are still very useful, essentially the same ones as you’d use when shooting colour. Perhaps most useful of all are polarising filters, which can suppress reflections and darken blue skies.
Shooting in mono allows you to draw attention to lines, shapes and textures
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Most modern cameras let you change the aspect ratio. The reasons why you might want to do that are a little complex, but the main one is that it lets you shoot in the square format, something you may already be used to if you use an app like Instagram on your smartphone. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder, it will display a square image for you, making composition much easier.
Finally, you may have the option to tone your images. To be honest, unless your camera lets you apply toning affects subtly, I wouldn’t bother with these, as the effect is usually too strong.
Still unsure? Check out this video from Creative Live that demonstrates how the histogram works.
This scene works quite well in black and white, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as it could be.
Black and white portraits emphasize expression and quality of light.
Black and white emphasizes the textures of the rocks and sea in this landscape photo.
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Where normal mono modes use the camera’s standard image processing in terms of contrast and detail rendition, filter modes are much more stylised. They’ll often use exaggerated contrast and tonality, and perhaps add in film grain effects, soft focus, vignetting, and so on.
If you take a photo in flat light (for example, a portrait of somebody standing in the shade) the photo may look flat (two dimensional). So, you need to compensate by increasing the contrast. You can either do this in Photoshop or Lightroom after the photo has been taken, or you can do it in-camera with the contrast setting.
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.
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.
If you’re printing at home, then toning can help overcome one common problem with inkjet printers, which often struggle to maintain neutral tones throughout the greyscale from white to black. High-end printers overcome this by using one or more grey inks, but this option isn’t available for many users. However, adding an overall colour tone can help mask any colour casts in the midtones.
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.
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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.
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.
Green filters (left) will lighten foliage, while red filters (right) deepen sky tones more than orange or yellow, further enhancing contrast against white skies
Using a polarising filter can help to darken a blue sky. Compare this shot to the unpolarised version below.
If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may be wondering what the appeal is. After all, isn’t it a little like black and white television or silent movies – an anachronism in our modern, high-tech age?
One important point to note is that not all brands will allow you to shoot raw files alongside processing filters anyway, although some will. If not, you may wish to think twice about using them – it can be pretty galling to find out that you’ve taken a great shot in the wrong mode.
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A yellow filter (left) will slightly darken a blue sky relative to any clouds, while an orange filter (right) will do something similar, but with a stronger effect
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The histogram can usually be found on an image by image basis when you scroll through your photos (depending on your camera’s playback mode, it may or may not be on by default). Many cameras now also allow for a live histogram view, either on the rear LCD or — in the case of mirrorless cameras — on their electronic viewfinders. This is incredibly helpful, because you can watch your histogram change as you frame your image and adjust your exposure.
Here’s the shot in colour for reference, and the unfiltered monochrome version.
This is the same shot without a polariser – look at the sky at the top of the frame
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?
You’ll lose details where your image is too bright or too dark, and you’ll notice if a photo is overexposed or underexposed in the histogram as missing pixel information on the far left or far right. This is when you should adjust your settings to compensate – try a different shutter speed, choose a larger or smaller aperture, increase or decrease the ISO, or adjust the exposure compensation.
Because of this, processing filters are generally best seen as an end in themselves – giving finished pictures in their own right, rather than as a guide to how post-processed raw images will turn out.
Some brands include filter settings that mimic the tonality-controlling effects of using coloured lens filters with black & white film. They’re usually named after the most popular filters that were used: yellow, orange, red and green. They’ll probably be pretty baffling to anyone who started photography in the digital age, and isn’t familiar with the concepts involved.
Cropping to the square format emphasizes the shapes of the three pots.
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The histogram in this image shows that the majority of pixels are in the far left, indicating that there are a lot of dark tones.
Colour is very powerful, and tends to dominate the photo so much that it’s difficult to see other elements like tonal contrast, texture, shape, form and quality of light. Experienced photographers instinctively see these things, regardless of whether they work predominantly in colour or black and white. But if you’re just starting out, you may need some assistance to do so, and working in black and white photography will help you.
The answer is no, definitely not. In the photography world, black and white is considered an art form. Some would even say only the best photographers work in monochrome. It’s a medium with a rich history, (look at the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson for examples) and a bright future.
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.