Getting black and white right in the camera (Part 1)

“You should get it right in the camera, much better than putting it right in Photoshop.”


Do you find this irritating or inspiring? Unless you’re a sports photographer, your reaction will probably depend upon the closeness of your relationship with your computer. It usually hides a misunderstanding about what job Photoshop and the like do for most photographers. But that’s another whole story.

I have always taken the view that creating a digital monochrome image is a game of two halves. I’ll capture (a horrible word for it!) a colour image with the camera then convert it in Lightroom or Photoshop.

But I wonder: am I missing anything as a result of knowing I can second guess myself when I get home and start looking at images in Lightroom? Do I spend too much time just to make sure the image I capture is suitable for further processing? Should I spend more time concentrating on the scene in front of me rather than on the camera?

I reckoned that the answer to all those questions could be yes. But how to prove it to myself?

How about returning to the way I worked when I used film exclusively? Could I reproduce a workflow that recognised the “one-shot” pressure that working with film entailed? How many “wasted” shots would I have? Could I wean myself off colours, post-processing and the security blanket of Lightroom?

How did it work in the days of film?

  • Load film, take pictures, develop film
  • Select frames for printing; crop to taste 
  • Sometimes dodge and burn for local adjustments under the enlarger lamp
  • Vary contrast by adjusting enlarger, or using different paper. Not often though.

How to duplicate this in the digital age?

Set my camera (a Canon 5dMk2) to save to small .jpg files. I was only going to view these pictures on-screen in this experiment.

  • Set the Picture Style to monochrome. This instructs the camera to discard all the colour information in a .jpg image. I like a challenge!
Set Picture Style to Monochrome and file type to small jpeg
  • Adjust the Monochrome Picture Style. Increase the contrast and sharpness a little and choose an orange filter to add some interest to any blue skies that might appear.
Set Sharpness, Contrast and Filter effect for the Monochrome Picture Style
  • Switch off image review on the back of the camera. Replicate that nagging doubt that you haven’t actually got the shot.
  • Set the ISO to 400. I used to use Ilford HP5 film.
  • Use only a 50mm lens. For that real old-school experience.
  • So off to the camera to set up a Custom Setting so I can switch into monochrome project mode with all these settings at the turn of the mode dial.

If you have another make of camera these settings may well have different names, and Custom Settings may work differently.

How about processing the images?

Why not view the images straight out of the camera with no further intervention? I could, I suppose, but that’s not actually how the process worked with film. I developed and printed my own work, so that’s what I want to replicate.

This part of the project becomes a little more arbitrary. Quite a lot of Lightroom is available to the experienced darkroom practitioner, but I will limit myself to techniques I used regularly with my own setup.

  • Use Lightroom (or Photoshop, doesn’t really matter)
  • Adjust only exposure, contrast and black/white points.
  • No sharpening or noise reduction. Definitely no Clarity or Dehaze sliders. 

But really what I want to do is use the software as little as possible. Confining myself to adjusting exposure and contrast feels close enough to the darkroom for me. In any case, the amount of processing you can do to a jpeg file is pretty limited until intolerable noise and other artefacts make an appearance.

Printing isn’t part of this exercise so I will look at the resulting images on-screen only. But I may come back to printing in a later article.

So how did it go?

Day 1

An evening walking round Kelso in bright sunlight. Probably far too bright to take good photographs, but hey, I know what I’m doing, right? Well, no. not so far as you would notice!

The first thing was getting used to the 50mm prime. It’s been a while since I used this lens for any length of time. It’s quite a way away from wide angle lenses I prefer. But after a while, I got the hang of it, and another couple of outings should see it, and me, working fine.

So did I get any decent pictures?

I took 17 pictures of which these 4 were the most presentable. Not that much different from my usual hit rate with my usual kit. They’re not really much to write home about and the main challenge was the unaccustomed 50mm lens. To my surprise, I didn’t miss the image review after taking the photos. The least satisfactory picture was the river view with the deep shadows. But I’ll persevere and report back after the next session.

Day 2

This time over at Berwick Upon Tweed for a couple of hours on an overcast day. I wanted to concentrate on framing my images more carefully so I really worked at getting the composition just so as I pressed the shutter release.

Some worked but not all as you can see. I took 33 pictures of which I have saved 9 to show here. All followed the conditions I set myself in this article.

Thoughts after 2 sessions:

  • I’m missing my wide angle lens. I’m constantly stepping further back and missing out on what I think are more dynamic compositions as a result.
  • … But not as much as I thought I would. Applying some of the lessons in composition from the wide angle lens to the 50mm lens has been instructive. The picture of the lane heading off into the sunset demonstrates that framing carefully can pay off with a picture that I would usually reserve for a 16mm lens. Focussing needs some attention though!
  • I take fewer pictures. I would normally have returned with over 100 images from a 2-hour session. Not being able to review what I’ve got means adopting more of a “take it or leave it” attitude. Although it has to be said if my livelihood depended on the outcome of the shoot I’d be a lot more profligate.
  • I’m surprised at how acceptable the tones and contrast can be. Remember I’m saving these pictures as jpeg files in the camera so the amount of adjustment I can make at home is limited. Even so, I can tweak the separation between blacks and whites just enough to make a difference to the on-screen image…
  • … but I’m missing some contrast so I will increase the contrast setting in the camera.
  • The unsuccessful pictures are typically images with no tone separation. Still getting sidetracked by colour- related separation which won’t work in monochrome.

More to come ….

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