How to Visualize and Shoot in B&W

Black and white photography is one of the oldest forms of photography. But the problem with shooting black and white is knowing what will look good as a monochrome image. It can take photographers years to look at a scene and know what it will look like when rendered in monochrome. The old adage of “If it doesn’t look good, just convert it to B&W and call it art” doesn’t hold very true. Rather, the axiom “GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out)” is much more accurate. You have to know what will stand out as a black and white image.


Same scene, different moods.

Most – if not all – digital cameras out there have a B&W or monochrome setting. For example, my 5D Mark II has a monochrome setting under the Picture Styles menu, as does my Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera. Simply select this setting and shoot. Your subject, whether it’s a portrait or a landscape or a street scene, will be recorded as a black and white image.

Shooting in RAW+JPEG mode creates two files

Shooting in RAW+JPEG mode creates two files.

Furthermore, if you want to see what an image will look like in B&W when you adjust your exposure, switch to Live View on your camera. If you have a smaller, Micro Four Thirds or Sony NEX camera, this is what you use anyway to take your shots. You’ll get a live preview of what a B&W image will look like. Adjust exposure, frame your shot, then hit the shutter.

Pretty simple, right? Well, yeah, if you just want a black and white JPEG image, that’ll work great. But if you want a color image of the scene as well that you can craft a custom B&W image from using a plugin or Photoshop or something else, then you’d be out of luck. The monochrome JPEG is all you’ll have.

Here’s how to get the best of all worlds…

Shoot in Raw Mode

Hopefully you already do this, so there’s good news here. Your camera is doing two things when you shoot in raw mode. The image you see on your camera’s LCD is going to be a B&W image, but because you’re shooting in raw mode, it’s also recording the image in full color. When you pull it into the image editing software of your choice, you’ll see that it actually has all the color info you don’t see on the back of your LCD. What you’re seeing on the back of your screen is the embedded JPEG preview that has all the camera’s settings, corrections, and filters applied to it, including the monochrome setting you selected earlier.

Shoot in Raw+JPEG

In this mode, you camera actually creates two files, one in raw format, the other in JPEG. You can tell Lightroom or Aperture to treat the two as separate files, or treat them as a single file. Of course, this adds to the the amount of files you have to manage and takes up more disk space, but the advantage is that you have both, the color raw file and the B&W JPEG file. When you do this, to make things easier, you would tell your image management software to treat the raw and JPEG files as separate “master” files. In Lightroom, this is set by going into Lightroom preferences and selecting the “Treat JPEG files next to raw files as separate masters” option, as shown. In Aperture, once you hit the “Import” button in the toolbar, you chose the “Both (Separate Masters)” option from the Import settings pane that appears.

How to tell Aperture to treat RAW+JPEG files as two separate masters

How to tell Aperture to treat Raw+JPEG files as two separate masters.


How to tell Lightroom to treat RAW+JPEG files as two separate masters

How to tell Lightroom to treat RAW+JPEG files as two separate masters.

These methods gives you crucial tools to shoot better B&W images. They let you visualize your image in B&W and get a good idea of what that B&W shot will look like and they still capture the full color spectrum your camera’s sensor sees, so you have plenty of data to manipulate later.

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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