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Digital black & white photography

Think black & white and become more creativity with your digital photography.

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Words and Pictures Peter Bargh ePHOTOzine

Many modern digital cameras have a series of mono modes in their advanced menu settings. These can be used if you want to be more creative with your photography. You may want to use them to illustrate a newsletter, add a sepia tone to give your picture an olde-worlde look or to copy documents and ensure the text stands out.

The three options you'll often find include:
Black & White: takes a black & white photograph comprising range of grey tones.
Sepia: takes a picture with a range of brown tones.
Document: A high contrast mode used to make text stand out.
Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography

So what happens when you switch to this mode?
The first thing you'll notice is the colour LCD becomes greyscale.

So you see how the picture will appear when it's recorded. When you take the picture the colour signal is still recorded by the CCD, but the image is desaturated when processed to remove all colour.

Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photographyDigital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Black & white can offer a more creative view of your world

If the Sepia mode is used a colour shift is applied to create the red/brown hues. If you do not have a computer it's essential to switch to one of these modes if it's the kind of output you require. But computer owners can desaturate a colour image using even the most basic image editing software and its Hue and Saturation mode.

Sepia used here to create an old feel

Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Tests that have been performed by various magazines and web sites over the last few years prove that there's no advantage in shooting in the mono modes if all you require is a basic mono output.

What to shoot
There's no reason why black & white cannot be used with any subject - it's used often for portraiture and landscapes and can also be very effective in abstract shoots offering a graphical view of the subject.

In all cases one of the biggest challenges is to start to visualise the subject as greyscale, as the conversion of tones from colour to black & white is not always obvious. Also some tones that are easy to differentiate in colour, such as a light blue and yellow, will look almost identical when reproduced as grey tones. Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Landscapes suit black & white
Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography

Black & white forces you to think differently and imagine colours. Here the red and green tones look almost identical in mono.

Where shooting in black & white becomes more interesting is when filters are used. Then you can play around with how a particular colours appears in black & white. We covered this in an article last month here: Using filters for black & white photography. But briefly, a red filter, for example, placed over the lens when you take the photo will lighten any red colours in the image so they appear lighter shades of grey than blue or green colours.

So if black & white is something you enjoyed doing with a film camera you can more or less repeat the process using your digital camera. You'll need a filter holder so the filters can be attached or you can hold them over the lens while you take the shot. The viewfinder won't show you the change of tones, but once the image is taken you can preview on screen and see what's happened.

Digitally recreating filter effects
Once again, the effect of any filter can be recreated electronically in a colour image by using the Channel mixer in Photoshop. It's one of the more advanced Photoshop options and with this you edit each of the red, green and blue channels that make up a colour image to lighten or darken each part of the spectrum and affect the brightness of each tone. Become familiar with this and you have the most versatile method of adjusting the tonal range of a black & white image.
Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Using the Channel Mixer has helped adjust the tones of this converted black & white so that the flower is lifted from the background.

More life like results
Another characteristic of black & white is grain. Photographers often use different film/developer combinations to enhance or reduce grain. Digital photographs are grain free and often look "digital". Most image editing programs have a filter that adds grain (or Noise). And there's usually a slider to control how much is added. You can even play around and create infrared style results and almost emulate the hard grain achieved using Kodak High Speed Infrared film.


Monochromatic Noise was added to the picture below.

Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography
Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography Digital black & white photography: Digital black & white photography

Printing black & white images
When you're happy with your black & white digital files you'll want to print them out and here you need to consider the printer's settings to ensure the pictures come out as you see them on screen. When an inkjet printer is left on automatic it will print using colour mode and convert the file to output as a CMYK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Black) image and the four (or six) inks are combined to make the various shades. You may find using the normal settings that the prints produced will have a slight colour hue. Sometimes this is effective, but is often not required so a tweak in the software is required to make the tones neutral. You can also go into the properties option when you are about to print and select greyscale mode which will print using just the black cartridge, but this can often surpress tones and you end up with an average quality result. Another option if you have Photoshop is to convert the photograph from RGB to greyscale then back to a Duotone which gives you an image made up of two colours which can be adjusted to get very fine colour hues such as blue or sepia that print out wonderfully.

For the more advanced users who have certain Epson or Canon printers you could consider taking out the colour cartridges and replacing them with a set of black inks that produce accurate black & white images. These are made by companies such as Lyson and come in various forms offering neutral cool or warm tones.

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dontforgetme Avatar
Some good tips in there, especially the Grayscale to Doutone stuff, but the method to add grain does not really add realistic grain to an image, as the grain should be more evident in the dark areas only, (and the darker the area the more grain etc).

This can be achieved by adding a layer, filled with a midtone of grey, and an blend mode of 'Overlay', then add the Noise (around 5%) is usually ok) and then just set the opacity of the layer to suit and voila, authentic looking black & White grain.


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