Rekindling the Romance of Black and White, Part One.

There is a renewed interest in the romance of black and white photography for several good reasons. First, hyped color is becoming boringly predictable. Second, automated software provides a predictable variety of predigested looks that can be applied to any image. Just as Hollywood movies seem to fall into the same predictable themes, digital photography has lost its creativity. As you noticed, the common trap is predictability. Serious photographers want to do serious work and that means cranking up the power of black and white.

But before you set your camera to capture Black and White (aka Monochrome and Grayscale) pictures, you should understand why digital cameras capture and record spectral data differently than film cameras did decades ago. If your recent experience with digital B/W has resulted in disappointing results,  I have good news. If you (like me) loved B/W film, you’re gonna love digital even more.

Tybee Window S-S

You can make a stronger statement with black and white than you can with color. Nothing “pops” like good black and white.

The dynamic range of black and white film is fundamentally different than the range captured by today’s digital cameras. A simple conversion to grayscale is about as exciting as oatmeal. There’s something missing and I think I know what it is. I shot film and produced marvelously rich prints for a decade before digital took over and I intend to pick up where I left off. It took a while to figure it out, but now, watch out!

The truth is, your digital camera’s color settings significantly influence the way additive primary (see The Visible Spectrum: RGB Color Voodoo) colored light transitions into monochrome captures. While the brand of your digital may describe these controls differently, the essence of these settings will be similar. More on this in the follow-up post.

Hawaii Lava Rocks

This original RGB capture of the lava pools in Hawaii presented a challenge. How to capture and delineate detail in the extreme shadows and highlights. Tough enough for color but almost impossible for monochrome.

Hawaii Lava Rocks +

The RGB image above provided over 4 billion colors that could be pushed and shaped. This monochrome shot provided only 256 tones to do the same job. With film, this would be nearly impossible but with digital…

Black and white photography transports your mind into a playground of creative thought; a semi-guided tour into your imagination. Black and white photography doesn’t enclose you inside the bookends of a specific color scheme; it sets your imagination free to discover a place full of emotion. Black and white photos deliver moods, not just pictures.

Color literally captures your mind, but not always in a good way. Here’s what I mean. Once you see a color picture, the die is cast. You can no longer imagine the scene your way. Before you know it, you find your mind subconsciously critiquing the color rather than interpreting the subject. Black and white gifts you with the freedom to dream.

Both film and digital cameras capture color information and transpose it into black and white images. But when photographic film is in the hands of an old-school darkroom artist, he can produce prints that are absolutely captivating. Here’s why.

Film cameras make use of the light-response attributes of silver-halide and black and white films and papers are composed of various formulations of silver and bromide (and other coatings) that record light frequencies of color that influence its visual transition from color to black and white. I know it’s weird to speak of chemical compounds and romance in the same sentence, but that’s the difference.

Digital cameras follow a purely analytical recording process based on electrical current. Now if chemistry left you numb, electrical current should absolutely paralyze your brain, and it does… that’s the problem! Photo cells in your camera’s circuitry simply count photons (the atomic level of light measurement), and use electrical current to set the gray levels (based on the camera’s ISO settings). Digital cameras simply use math to convert colors to grayscale. Pretty sexy. Digital images are by nature very calculated and sterile, unless you understand how to put your personal fingerprint on the process and use colors to shape the mood of monochrome images.


This is the original RGB image shot in San Juan Puerto Rico

Here’s the problem. When a digital image is captured in monochrome (Black and White) mode and JPEG format, the camera discards all RGB information and retains a very sparse number of gray tones. While this sounds like a logical way to arrive at black and white values, it negates the nuances of spectrally-weighted color transformation. Quite simply, it neuters the image. Each camera manufacturer determines how each color of light gets parsed as a gray value. Emotional content designed by mathematician computer scientists. Hmm-m. The same sensitive folks that developed JPEG.


This is a simple conversion from RGB to BW with no adjustments

When you capture images in black and white (monochrome or grayscale) mode, you are literally at the mercy of the engineers who wrote your camera’s algorithms. While some very interesting color/monochrome translations are provided by some camera manufacturers, you are still locked into someone else’s interpretation. So what to do?


This is the conversion from RGB to Grayscale using Camera Raw’s HSL Grayscale tools. The intensity and saturation of eight different colors determine the internal contrast of the gray tones.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem. First, record all images in both B/W JPEG and RAW formats. 1) Great results can be achieved when grayscale images (usually referred to as “monochrome”) are captured in your camera’s “scene” variations when certain other of your camera’s color settings are in place. 2) When digital images are captured in RAW format, all spectral (color) information can be accessed and used to influence the tonal values. When these controls (provided by a number of post-processing tools) are involved in shaping the spectral information into B/W, some absolute magic results take place.

When either of these processes is put to work, you, the photographer become creatively involved in converting colors into gray tones and the magic of silver halide interpretation gets replicated in the digital process. And here’s the kicker… using digital controls, you can surpass the mile markers established by the black and white masters of the past. This is scary good stuff. Ansel would have loved this control.

If I got your attention with this challenge, subscribe to this blog (upper right hand corner) and I’ll tell you the secret ingredients for these powerful imaging recipes. Only if you are signed up individually will you see Parts 2 and 3. You don’t want to miss this! Join me for this series and together we’ll rekindle this amazing art form. I’ll want to hear your feedback and see examples of your own conversions in future posts.

If you shoot digital, this is a subject that you should understand. That’s the way I sees it. Let me know what you think.

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If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to and get Bright About Light!

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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2 Responses to Rekindling the Romance of Black and White, Part One.

  1. Horton says:

    Very interesting. Digital color is fun, but to my eye black and white almost always delivers a serious artsier feel to an image. I would love to learn more about the technical tools and methods to get the best B&W image quality.

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