All the consumer digital cameras I know of shoot color.  Back in the ancient days of film, the photographer had to make a choice between a film stock that made images in color or black & white.  It took planning since most pro film came in rolls of 36 frames, and the shortest 35mm film available shot 12 frames. If you wanted a few images in color and a few in black & white you needed to carry two cameras, be willing to throw away a batch of film stock, or go through the difficult process of unloading & reloading film.  Of course if you were shooting with a sheet film camera you could change stock between each shot, but most photographers quickly took advantage of the convenience of the smaller, multi-shot 35mm bodies.

Believe it or not, as the owner of a digital camera you have the same choice the sheet film photographer had.  Almost all digital cameras have a black & white mode.  You may need to dig deep into your camera’s menu system to find the setting, but it probably is there.  Even if it isn’t, most editors provide several means to transform the color images from your camera into high quality black & white images.

Before discussing how, it might be useful to think about why.  There are a couple of reasons that a black and white photograph will have more impact than color.

  • There are many cases where the photographer wants to duplicate the style of an older photograph.  The use of black & white, particularly if sepia or other tones are added, will help establish a time & mood for an image.
  • An obvious reason is because it is different.  Seventy five years ago a color photograph would stand out simply because it was not black & white.  Today, a black & white image does the same.
  • If the major elements of an image is the form or texture of the subject, removing color will draw the viewer to those elements.
  • There are many times the colors in an image are distracting.  They may be so busy they distract the viewer from what the photographer is attempting to record.  Be eliminating color the image can be simplified.
  • The photographer has complete control over the contrast of a black & white image.  Anywhere from hundreds of steps to as few as one can be made between the lightest white & the deepest black. Although the same control is available in a color image, it usually doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it does in black & white.
  • Color filters can be used with black & white film to change the tone of colors, making them darker or lighter.  One point – if you plan to use a color filter to make these changes, be sure to either set your white balance without the filter in place or use manual white balance.  Auto white balance will cancel most or all of the effect of the filter.
  • And finally, there are images that are simply better as black & white.  You will often need to experiment to find what makes them better, but it is worth the time.

As to how, there are a couple of ways to end up with black & white images.  The traditional way would be to set your camera for black & white.  The advantage is you can see the result while taking the photographs, and you can use the physical color filters designed for black & white photography. Why use a color filter when shooting black & white? Because it allows the photographer to control the strength of the different colors as they are transformed to black & white.  Filters lighten the same color & make opposite colors darker. For example, place a red filter over the lens & a blue sky darkens.  A green filter brightens tree leaves.  Some examples of the effect of color filters on black & white captures is at this ePhotozine article. The disadvantage of shooting in black & white is unless you are shooting RAW, you lose all the color information. While that is what you are trying to do when shooting black & white, if you can take the color information to your photo editing program there are many thinks you can do in the process of creating a black & white image. Even if you decide to shoot with your camera set to black & white, I’d take at least one exposure in color to experiment with using your favorite editor. Again, if your camera shoots RAW and you set it for black & white you will have the best of both worlds – you will see a black & white jpg version of your image on the LCD, but, because you have also captured the RAW file, still have all the color information available.

The simplest way to create a black & white image when using an editor is to desaturate the image.  This removes the color information.  The problem is it doesn’t always result in the best transformation. A better approach is to use the tools your editor provides to make the change from color to black & white.  For example, you can electronically add the effect of the camera mounted color filters described above. Try using the Black & White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop (Image>Adjustments>Black & White) to duplicate the effect of a physical filter covering the lens of your camera.  I find that it doesn’t work as well as real filters, but it is far more flexible, less expensive, and includes an “undo”. Other options include choosing the number of steps (bits) between black & white producing high contrast images, or turn it into a sepia like print by using the effects built into most editors.

Below are some examples of the original & some modifications done in Photoshop or Picasa. A useful Flash video by Rick Sammon that describes a number of techniques for producing gray scale images is at Layers Magazine. Many of these techniques will also be available in Photoshop Elements & other editors. Another tutorial that may be useful is this Studio Lounge page that describes the use of Photoshop CS3’s Black & White Adjustment layers.

There are many images that end up more interesting in black & white than in color.  You might take some time to go through your images and try converting some to see what works. Look for images that have poor skies, lots of detail that does not depend on color differences, or scenes that have a nostalgic feel. If you plan to print the images, be sure to find a printer that is designed to print black & white.  Many of the better photo printers have multiple black cartridges so that they can provide a wide range of grays.  You will get better results going to a real photo printing service than your drugstore printing kiosk.

Leave a Reply


  1. Mark Skotek

    One thing I miss is double exposing. I want night scenes with light to see more detail. An example of what I like is the street lights on in the day or night skies in daylight. If you know a way to achieve this let me know.

  2. Double exposures are easier with digital cameras than film, providing you use an editor such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Picasa, or InfraView. You take each exposure as a separate image & combine them in your editor. Of course this works best if the camera is on a tripod, however some editors do a very good job of correcting misaligned combinations.
    By working with layers, you can choose the amount (%) that each image contributes to the final photograph, far easier than trying to determine exposures when shooting double exposures on film. You can also use HDR techniques ( to combine exposures that capture scenes that have too wide a dynamic range for film or digital cameras.
    Although there are a few digital SLRs that let you combine multiple images in camera, an editor will work with images from any camera.

  3. Jon,

    About B & W photography with a digital camera–one reason that I have always bought Canon rather than other brands is that they remain consistent in what the consumer wants/needs. Shooting B&W to me is just about as easy as shooting color. That’s because I rarely shoot using AUTO anything. I almost always use the Manual mode and within that you can do more things than I ever was able to do with a 4×5 Speed Graphic or 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 Graflex. While at times I wish I still had the Speed Graphic, finding film and getting it processed would be more than I could bare these days.

    I think if more people really USED their digital cameras and by that I mean using them in Manual mode–I think they would be blown away with all the things that they can do. I certainly was when I got my first Canon EOS D30 digital. Now I’m enjoying one of the best Canon has ever made — the new Powershot SX10 IS. It has more features than anything I’ve ever used.

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