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The beauty of the black and white image

Jan Stimel (photocyan)

Keywords: color_management, basics, guides, tips_and_tricks, black_and_white, channels

Show pages (3 Pages)

It has been a long journey from the beginnings, when a photographic image was captured on a glass plate, to today’s megapixel silicon sensors. In the ancient days of the first developers and fixers there was only room for the many shades of grey found in black and white (B&W) images.

Photographers of that time mastered their hunt for a large variety of imagery while trying to improve the technical processes.  During those early days it was everybody's goal to produce a quality B&W image that would capture exactly what eyes were seeing in color.

True color photography came within a few decades, but despite this technological (r)evolution B&W photographs are still very popular and some famous photographers of our period continue to shoot on a B&W film material. They seek the near perfection achieved by such great names as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and James Nachtwey. B&W photographs are excellent at telling your personal stories and experiences by emphasizing contrast of chosen subjects, patterns and textures. 


Black and white photography using a chromogenic film

This picture was taken with a Carl Zeiss Werramat, a rangefinder camera
using a chromogenic film, the Kodak BW CN 400. 


A B&W portrait is kinder to the facial tones and skin pores. Blemishes are less noticeable and the skin looks smoother. The main difference between B&W and color photography is that a color image contains much more information and our mind may be overloaded with a mass of impressions. A color photograph is in many ways similar to a decorative painting and a B&W photography reminds me more of a hand drawing. The lack of color information emphasizes the nuances of textures and overall contrast.  Unimportant details vanish and the viewer can better understand the story implied by the main objects.

An image with no color information, such as B&W white image, can accentuate an important aspect, bring a different mood to your photograph and even make an average picture an interesting one. I have explored the attraction, beauty and depth of B&W imagery and would like to share my findings with you. I will go through various methods how to turn color images to B&W  such as the built-in filter in the camera and Photoshop filters (Channel mixer, Black and white) and various file formats.


Black and white photography

I hope we encounter no icebergs in the article.


The B&W post-process

Several roads lead to the same destination and various methods can produce the same effect. I would like to show you the basic tools: the built-in camera filter, desaturation, channel mixer and a dedicated B&W filter. It is important to shoot in the right image format and to know some basics in color blending, but let us first start simple.


The simple solution

You can find a built-in filter in your Nikon camera, but it is, I have to say, an insufficient solution. There are numerous ways to create a B&W image and today’s tools are capable of achieving more desirable results in post-process on your personal computer at home. Even if an in-camera filter may be easy and convenient to use, it works very simply by removing the vital color information and desaturating the picture after the shot. While it is easy to use and little knowledge is required, there are clear limits of this automatic function and the final picture looks mostly monotonous and flat. 


Black and white photography - A deep black grabs the eye.

A deep black grabs the eye.


I encourage you to shoot in a 14 bit NEF (Nikon's raw image format) mode to preserve the vital color information which will be used later by your graphic program. Although a Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) file is easier to handle it has limited options for further image alterations and it is compressed, which means inherent losses in quality. On the contrary a NEF file is an uncompressed lossless image taken directly from camera's sensor and it preserves best color information with at least 8 bits per color – red, green and blue. Today’s advanced Nikon cameras are able to record an image with 12 or even 14 bits per color. A NEF file has a higher dynamic range (this means the amount of tones from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight) it has to be processed later by a computer for full effect. You can freely adjust white balance, contrast, hue, saturation, sharpness and additional parameters on your personal computer. There are various methods to create a black and white image in a post-process and I will present you the most used.


converted NEF file

converted NEF file

JPG file

JPG file


The difference in quality is easy to spot. In the pictures 1 and 2 you can see the difference between the NEF and a JPG file. Look at the edges of the second image and observe artifacts in the cropped section. The cropped area magnifies file's compression. Compression makes image smaller, therefore it requires less space on the memory card, but at the price of quality. When the image is altered and retouched in any way, the compression artifacts turn more visible and create an unpleasing effect.

You will not find such artifacts in the NEF files. On the contrary, observe that the NEF file is richer in shadows and highlights details even there, where the JPG is overexposed. When the (so necessary) color and brightness information is preserved it can be used to make various changes in the image with no, or minimum, visible loss in quality.

As you probably know, every image consists of the additive primary colors red, green and blue (RGB). To turn it to B&W, we will have to subtract some color information, therefore it is necessary to have the image begin with highest possible quality. For your information, in the image altering procedures in the article, 16 bit TIFF images converted from Nikon's NEF file are used. I recommend you to do it as well when you plan to retouch your own images.


Black and white photography - filter settings


Black and white photography - filter settings

Small plastic figures. This is the same picture with different black and white filter settings.



Choosing a graphic program

Numerous programs such as Adobe’s Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture and iPhoto, PictureCode’s Photo Ninja, Corel’s AfterShot Pro or PaintShop Pro,  ACDsee and Gimp on Linux to name a few, have the ability to alter image characteristics and appearance. You can freely choose which one to use because they offer similar graphic tools and filters. I have used Adobe Photoshop CS6 and I will refer to its functions in this article, nevertheless you should observe that additional programs have a similar functionality even if the name of the functions may differ. If you are an Adobe Lightroom user you will surely find interesting a previous article from Josh Larkin.

You can find more articles and others in the software section of Nikonians.


Basic function - Desaturation

The easiest and fastest way to make a B&W photo is to desaturate the image with the Desaturate function or with turning the Saturation level to zero (Image – Adjustment – Hue\Saturation). This method is quick but you will achieve the same look as with the in-camera B&W filter and the image will have the exactly look I would like to avoid. Desaturating an image means to throw the color information away leaving only the brightness information and this is why the image looks so flat.


Advanced functions


Channel mixer

A really great function, from which you can learn the behavior of colors, is the Channel mixer (Image – Adjustment - Channel mixer). One has to mark the checkbox saying “Monochrome” and then adjust and play around with the moving scrollbars. Unlike the previous destructive method which threw away all color information, Channel mixer works with the primary colors as well, so when you move e.g. the Red scrollbar by + 20%, all reds in the image will be emphasized by 20%. This function follows a rule that the overall tonal range of the image is 100%; this means when you mix the red, green and blue in a ratio of 100% the image should not be over- or underexposed. But you are not limited by the 100% value.  You can freely choose a higher or a lower value with all of the three colors. I call this function great because it gives the user a basic understanding of how a color filter works. By filtering a specific amount of light of a specific color, a black and white image immediately changes its visual characteristics.


A dedicated Black & white filter

A tool specially developed for B&W photography conversion is to be found in Image - Adjustments -  Black & white filter. It has a very similar, but more advanced, functionality with more options available as the previous Channel mixer. Besides the reds, greens and blues you can control the yellows, cyans and magentas by which you get more control over the color nuances. You may find the predefined filter settings immensely helpful as well.


A B&W image with a yellow-green filter

A B&W image with a yellow-green filter accentuates the textile textures and softens the skin tone.


Color filtering



The picture of three primary color circles - RGB


The picture of RGB circles is a good example how to explain the use of a color filter. I will now use the Channel mixer and filter only one color; let's take the red color as an example. I will apply an absolute red filter. That means the red color gets a 100% value and 0% green and blue color. With a full red filter only the reds of an image are visible and only their luminance is taken into account, therefore the additional parts, circles in this case, disappear. If I would filter only the greens (100% green, 0% both red and blue) then what is green in the picture would appear and the rest would not be visible. As you see, it is possible to make endless combinations of filtering colors, playing with percentage values and different variations. A general rule of thumb says that a color filter will lighten colors similar to its own and darken those opposite. To lighten an object, one has to choose a filter of the same color as the object. 


Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer

Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer. In the first picture all colors are given 33% strength and all circles are visible. The brightness increases within their intersection. In the second picture only red color has 100% and both green and blue have none, therefore only red is visible. Click on images for larger view.


“Why would you do that?” you may ask. Remember, your image is not originally black and white until it is actually processed by the graphic program.  A colored filter will alter colors as seen by the camera and change the representation of captured colors. A wise usage of a filter will grant your image a pleasant look and a truer rendition of the grey tones.


The real usage and a color experiment



You may know Andrea from older articles. The umbrella is new.


The skin tones of a portrait

After the theory let's handle a real life scenario. I asked Andrea to pose with a colorful umbrella. The picture in this paragraph remains the same, but as the filter will change from green through red to blue, you can observe how the skin changes its tonality, different colors on the umbrella are stressed and the overall image look varies. You can observe how the black color “travels” through the image, this effect is especially noticeable at the umbrella. A portrait is a common and appreciated choice for B&W photography, here you can really accentuate on the affect that the countless shades of grey bring to the person’s appearance.


Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer - Blue filter

Blue filter

Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer - Red filter

Red filter

Black and white photography with Channel mixer - Green filter

Green filter
Click on images for larger view


100% blue filter

The blue filter is definitely not good for the skin tones; it creates shadows and lets unwanted skin timbre appear. Every human skin contains some speckles and flushing. The hair has also some roughness. In combination with the blue filter all of this is now enhanced and because our skin and hair contains very little of the color blue and the filter strengthens that color.


100% red filter

The effect on the skin is clearly visible, the pores and speckles are not evident, the skin looks very smooth and also the hair has got a sprightly look, the look is almost featureless. The image could use an orange filter instead of a red one, and a slight exposure correction, to look more realistic.


100% green filter

A fully green filter would not be my first choice to use for a portrait, but the image looks quite good, even if the skin tonality appears to be much too blunt. The green filter gets an A+ for the glimmer in the eyes. Usually a color combination, a yellow-green filter, works as a standard portrait filter, it filters out the superfluous blue, so freckles and blemishes are honestly suppressed while adding some tone in peoples complexion. 


Bratislava landscape

The original in color and the samples in B&W follows. Another example of B&W filter
usage in landscape photography. Click on the image for larger view.


Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer - Blue filter

Blue filter

Black and white filtering with the Channel mixer - Red filter

Red filter

Black and white photography using Channel Mixer - Green filter

Green filter
Click on images for larger view


The general usage of filters:

Green filter – For pleasing skin tones. Foliage, trees and grass appear lighter.

Yellow filter – For pleasing skin tones, darkens the sky and creates contrast with clouds.

Orange filter – Produces dramatic skies, darkens foliage and reduces haze. A light orange filter may be used for portraits as well. Orange is many times referred to as a “glamour filter”.

Red filter – Stronger effect than orange filter, very dramatic skies

Blue filter – Emphases exceptional and uncommon details, it increases effect of haze. A blue filter is not commonly used, but can intensify something that isn’t really all that dramatic in real life


Summary with a sepia


Red filter and a sepia effect

A red filter and a sepia effect of Bratislava, my hometown.


A B&W image does not have to be grey all the time, a sepia image is also considered to be a black and white photography, even if it is colored. It's because toned photographs appeared already in the 1880s to make photographs look better and the colorant (made from a cuttlefish found in the English Channel) slowed down the aging and degradation process. I like the sepia coloring method for two reasons: with the black and white filter one can emphasize objects and simplify the scene (as I described in the article) and in the meantime give the photography a touch of delightful warmth. The sepia effect can be applied to a picture either directly in the Photoshop's Black and white filter, or by applying in the Colorize option in Hue / Saturation.

There is no right way to process an image. Numerous filters, methods and programs may be used and I have barely touched the surface in terms of how to create a B&W photo. I advise you to take your picture in the 14 bit NEF format to preserve as much color information as possible and not to use the camera's internal filter but process the images on a computer instead. Also try more filter settings, I have mentioned the most important filter arrangements, but near an infinite mix of filter adjustments is possible to achieve.

A general rule, that a B&W color filter will lighten colors similar to its own and darken those opposite, will help you to predict the final result. For the inquisitive experimenters out there – try using some screw-in color filters on your lens and then shoot in B&W mode. Or stay in the color mode, experiment with the white balance and later do the B&W post-process. Photography has the ability to show common and ordinary objects in a new unequaled light and I think this is a good way to try it out. Also experimenting and practice are the keys to expanding the application of your creative abilities.




(13 Votes )
Show pages (3 Pages)

Originally written on March 4, 2014

Last updated on December 30, 2020

Jan Stimel Jan Stimel (photocyan)

Bratislava, Slovakia
Basic, 19 posts


Thomas Horton (Otto Phocus) on June 23, 2015

Thank you for this article. B/W with my DSLR is an interest with me.

User on April 3, 2014

I enjoyed your article. Great information. I look forward to experimenting with my Aperture software. Thanks

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on March 15, 2014

A good remark, Richard, thank you.

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on March 15, 2014

Thank You, Kenneth.

Richard Chevalier (Rikfoto1) on March 14, 2014

All good stuff. I think the main thing to remember for correct B&W prints is to have a pure white and a pure black. If not, the image will probably be a bit dull with no life to it. Look at Adam's images and you will always see a pure white and pure black somewhere in them

KENNETH JACKSON (f5titan) on March 11, 2014

This article allowed me to dramatically improve my LR4 black and white imaging by enhancing and modifying various color channels before selecting the basic black and white treatment setting. Thanks for the guidance.

User on March 8, 2014

Excellent article. I now produce an equal amount of work in both colour and B&W and also belong to two active specialist B&W groups. I still refer to Ansel Adams zoning to achieve good results with my Bronica. Regarding post processing digital images and as already mentioned, I would highly recommend Topaz B&W effects which I now use in preference to Nik Silver Efex pro. Richard


There 2 Swoftwars in market- Topaz's BW Effects and On One . Both gives lots of option in color filters . On One will give you different film range,Namely Kodak,Ilford,Fuji etc. these filter will simulate grain stucture and full range of gray sheds for rendering personal taste.

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on March 6, 2014

Thank You, Tandy, good to know. Anselm Adams´ images are astonishing, it is always an inspiration.

Jan Stimel (photocyan) on March 6, 2014

Hi Kurt. If the single click option (I don´t know which function do you mean, is it the desaturation?) makes a good looking B&W image, then it is ok. There are more B&W filter options in Lightroom to create an appealing image, Josh Larkin wrote a good article about Lightroom and B&W photography some time ago It is about the personal preference, as you pointed out. And when an easy function helps to create a fine image, we should make use of it :)

User on March 5, 2014

Great article! It was the use of an #10 Red Filter that made Ansel Adams famous.

Kurt Pedersen (KurtP) on March 5, 2014

This was an interesting article but would have been better with a fuller description of the process. In light room there is a single click option to change a color to black and white but is there more you would recommend or is it personal taste beyond that? Thanks for the article.