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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

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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.



(13 Votes )
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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.

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