Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 2

Monotone Menu - Oly E-PL2

In-Camera B&W

So. Let’s get started. The simplest way to get into B&W is to set your digital camera’s shooting mode to BW, Monochrome, Monotone, or whatever it may be called on your particular camera model. The above menu is from a Olympus E-PL2 and after it’s set my images are all greyscale rather than colour. You can take these images into a photo editor, play with the brightness and contrast sliders, and usually get a decent B&W image. This works, and a friend of mine who uses this mode quite frequently for his street shots does good work shooting this way.

If you’re new to B&W shooting, I recommend playing around with this mode and shooting some pictures with the in-camera B&W setting. One thing it does is teach you what the monochrome world looks like because you can see colour translated to monochrome on your LCD viewer. This is a good stepping stone for more sophisticated B&W shooting because you begin to develop a sense of tonality–a key feature in B&W photography.

If it’s this easy, why doesn’t everyone simply do it this way? Although it is the simplest way to do B&W, it’s not the optimal way. I prefer shooting in colour then converting to B&W in a photo editor for the reason that you carry more potential image information in a colour shot than in one where the camera’s computer has already decided what tones to present in monochrome and has cast aside other possibilities. When I’m creating a B&W photo, I want to make decisions based on all the information available. To see all the B&W tonal possibilities that exist in an image, you need a colour RGB (Red-Green-Blue) image.

RGB Images

To better understand B&W, let’s start with colour and the way it gets recorded on your digital camera’s sensor. The sensor is a flat chip and on it reside millions of photosensitive sites (megapixels) that respond to the Red, Green, or Blue of the light spectrum. Recalling your knowledge of Art 101, you know that red, green, and blue are the primary colours from which you can mix the entire colour spectrum.


The sensor site, or pixel, doesn’t actually capture the colour; it records a 1 or a 0 to indicate which colour it “sees” and then the camera’s image processing engine (call it the computer in your camera) either translates the digital information into an RGB colour image in the form of a Jpeg or packages the unprocessed information into a file called a Raw file, and records it on your SD or CF card. Raw files have extension names such as .NEF, .CR2, .ORF, .ARW, etc., depending on which brand of camera you are using.

We’ll talk about Raw files later in the series, but for now, let’s stick with Jpeg. For the reasons above, a Jpeg image is also called an RGB image and in Photoshop you can actually load the Red, Green, and Blue channels of the image separately. Let’s start with the following image which was taken with a smartphone camera in front of my local grocery store:

Tractor & Pumpkins

In Photoshop we can examine the individual channels by clicking Channels in the Layer palette in the upper right-hand corner:


RGB Green

When I click off the “eyes” on the Red and Blue channels, we see a greyscale image of the information of the Green channel. What you get is a very wide range of greys. When your camera converts to monochrome in-camera, it’s often the Green channel of information you’re getting most of the information from. The green channel is usually the most useful, most dependable, and offers the best image quality of the three channels, other factors being equal.


RGB Red When I click off the Green channel and click on the Red channel, we see a different world of tonality altogether. What a difference!


The red channel has subtracted tonal value from the orange/red pumpkins and made them ghostlike. It’s always worth a look at the Red channel, even though there’s not much to work with in this case. The Red channel tends to be a little noiser (grainier) than the Green channel, but it’s pretty useable, all in all.

RGB Blue

RGB Blue is the bad boy of the channels. It tends to be the noisiest channel (though not bad at all on recent camera sensors) and is generally avoided as the sole basis for a B&W image unless it has some special merit. Let’s look at  it.


Whoa! Look at that! The Blue channel intensifies the red/orange of the pumpkins and gives them a dark tonality. What I see here grabs me and makes me want to have at least some of that brooding blue channel in my image. The next question: is there a way to mix them so you can use as much of each channel as you’d like? Of course. The answer is a tool called the Channel Mixer (a tool also available in Gimp):


Once I click on the “Monochrome” checkbox, notice that the default starting point in Photoshop is 40% Red, 40% Green, and 20% Blue, a generally good balance.


We already know from looking at the channels that the Red channel isn’t much use to us, and that the Blue channel has the interesting tonality. I’m going to remix the channels to 0% Red, 30% Green, and 70% Blue (it’s best if the values equal 100%), so that it looks like this:


If you’re an experienced B&W film photographer you’re probably saying to yourself, this sounds like coloured filters to me. You’re quite right. If you know how to use yellow, orange, red, green, and blue filters for B&W film, you’ll find these trusty old friends hidden behind the Custom tab.


Note: there is a strong element of play involved here. There are no right or wrong answers in B&W photography and B&W is much more pliant than colour. My interpretation of a B&W photo will almost certainly not be yours. B&W is, by it’s very nature, an abstraction of what you see in colour. Whether you go for a dark, brooding look, or an unusual white-pumpkin look, try out the options and have some fun playing with tonal values. The more you do of this, the more you’ll begin to sense what you like best in terms of B&W tonality. As I said, I like the dark tone of the pumpkins in the blue channel and here’s what my personal final image looks like:


Notice I went for a dark look with silvery highlights. The final image has also had a subtle bit of vignetting applied and has been sharpened, all things we’ll cover in subsequent parts of the tutorial.

To sum up Pt. 2, then

  • You can shoot B&W directly in your camera, and you should try it out for the experience.
  • If you shoot in colour, it brings more tonal information into the image which can sometimes be just what you’re looking for.
  • On your own, on colour images, try out the Channel Mixer or the equivalent control in your photo editor to customize the tonality of a converted B&W image.

Next up: Pt. 3 will be where the fun really begins as we delve into how to use Layers, how to use Levels and Curves, and how to Burn and Dodge (darkroom terms of making selected areas of an image darker or brighter).

Until then, check out B&W images on your favourite photo sites (e.g. Flickr) and begin to study them to see what types of image tonality you respond to. And just try stuff out. If it turns out badly, put it in the trashbin and try something else. B&W photography is a voyage of discovery.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 1



In the earliest periods of its history, photography was about black-and-white, or monochrome, images in the form of photographic prints, tintypes, and daguerrotypes. Later, colour films were developed–both colour transparency and colour negative films–and colour and black-and-white film coexisted side by side, as they still do in specialty camera stores. At the time digital photography arrived, most serious film photographers owned at least two camera bodies: one for colour film and one for black and white. Today there’s no longer any need for an extra camera body because beautiful black and white images can be crafted from digital colour images.

Despite the understandable popularity of colour images, black-and-white (B&W) photography still thrives as an art form. B&W photography is a parallel but different medium to colour photography and it offers a different kind of artistic experience. Rather than relying on beautiful and/or striking colours, it relies on strong subjects, interesting contrast and lighting, texture and form, and a silvery essence to set the mood.

Traditionally, B&W images have been crafted in the photographer’s darkroom, with an amber or red safelight and trays filled with developer, stop bath, and fixer. With the advent digital photography, this has been replaced by the digital darkroom: photo editors allow you to recreate the craft of B&W photography in the comfort of a well-lit room with no chemical smells.

What we will do in this series of tutorials on digital B&W photography is explore the craft of creating beautiful monochrome images to post in your online galleries or to hang as finished prints on your wall.

Autumn Melancholy

The requirements for this tutorial are simple: a digital camera to take photos with, and a good photo editor to turn them into compelling B&W images. The camera can be your cell phone, a compact point-and-shoot, a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera, a DSLR or, maybe if you’re hobbyist, one of each. You don’t need a fancy digital camera to get started.

One thing you do need is a strong photo editor. While there are many easy-to-use, lightweight editors around, like Apple’s Photos for the Mac, and Google’s Picassa, you’ll need to use a more sophisticated editor to get the best results in producing B&W images. Aperture, which Apple has discontinued, is still a good medium-level image editor, as is Adobe’s LightRoom. On the iPad and Android tablets you can do good work in apps such as Snapseed.

For best results, however, you may want to use an editor that allows you to work on layers. These editors range from the top-of-the-line Adobe Photoshop CS, and its remarkably capable yet inexpensive cousin, Photoshop Elements, to the excellent, free, editor, GIMP, available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and BSD. The advantage of Photoshop and Elements is that there are a number of commercial plug-ins for black and white that can be used with these products, like the amazing Silver Effects Pro, from Nik Software (now owned by Google). The advantage of GIMP is not only that it’s free, but that it’s a sophisticated editor offering layers as well as other advanced tools. In this set of tutorials I will be using Photoshop CS for my examples, with references to corresponding features in GIMP.

Your Instructor

My name is Gene Wilburn and I’ve been captivated by photography since the age of 12, which was now over 50 years ago. I grew up developing film and making black-and-white prints and, although I shoot a lot of colour, I’ve always had a special fondness and affection for black and white. When I was growing up I devoured the technical photo books by Ansel Adams and was influenced by the writings of the great photography teacher David Vestal. I am, and have always been, an amateur photographer, delighting in photography for the sheer joy of it.

When I discovered digital photography, in 2002, I was hooked immediately, though I still shot film for several years after. Above all, I fell for Photoshop, for the images it would allow me to craft in both colour and black and white. What I hope to do is pass on some of the techniques and tricks I’ve learned along the way in the hope that you’ll find black and white photography as interesting and fun as I do.

For the most part, the tutorials will not be overly technical. I’m a believer in the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) approach to photo editing and will stick to the basics, with a few twists.

If you find these tutorials helpful, or have a question about technique you can’t find the answer to, drop me a note at or post in the comments section following each tutorial and I’ll do my best to reply.


Gene with PEN and Lumix Lens