B&W Toolkit

The first thing to understand about black-and-white image making is that it starts with color. Whether recorded as a color or black-and-white image, whether we start with an image recorded on film or a digital capture, black-and-white photographic images exploit not just the contrasts between different amounts of light, but also how different colors can be transmuted into gray tones.

Is it better to start with an image recorded in black-and-white or color? There are good points for both arguments. A digital image that starts with a monochrome capture is technically purer, but starting with color leaves multiple interpretive options open. All the color we see is created by either transmitted or reflected light, and all the colors we can see are created by adding together varying amounts of red, green and blue light. The relationships between these three primaries are the basis for the color wheel; one consequence is that any color opposite another color cancels its opposite. Red plus green creates yellow, and yellow cancels out blue; red plus blue creates magenta, and magenta cancels out green; green plus blue creates cyan, and cyan cancels out red. In black-and-white photography, this provides the opportunity to create contrast between colors of similar brightness. Back in the early 1930s, Ansel Adams was one of the first landscape photographers to exploit this principle as a creative tool when he had the forethought to use a deep yellow filter on his lens while photographing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Thus was born the idea that led to the Zone System and previsualization.

With cameras fitted with digital monochrome sensors, we still need to use filters in front of the lens to control contrast, but it’s a global effect. But with a standard digital camera, we not only can post-visualize what the best contrast filter is for a shot, but we can apply multiple filter effects to an image by processing a raw file multiple times with different virtual filters, and then combine the different files using layers and masks in Photoshop.

Topaz B&W Effects


Beyond Adobe, there’s a stew of other monochromatic digital-processing tools. DxO Film Pack, Google’s Nik Silver Efex Pro, ON1 Photo 10 and Topaz B&W Effects are the leading dedicated color to black-and-white conversion tools. All are worth exploring and all offer a free trial period. Tiffen’s Dfx v4 software (available as both a standalone or as a plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom) simulates more than 2,000 of Tiffen’s glass filters, including a very full black-and-white contrast series. Alien Skin takes a different approach with the black-and-white effects in Exposure 7, emulating not just the look of how more than 20 different types of classic black-and-white films convert real-world color to black-and-white, but also the look and virtual feel of those films, including their grain structure.

Photo by Ellis Vener


If you want to take the purist approach and start with a black-and-white image, there are options. The real advantage of a dedicated black-and-white digital camera is that you start with greater resolution of fine details than you’ll get from a conventional camera with the same pixel count. This is because a dedicated monochrome digital camera is a simpler tool than a color camera.

All imaging arrays in digital cameras are true monochrome devices, with each pixel only recording the intensity of the light striking it. To make color photographs, virtually all of today’s digital cameras rely on variations of a system of physical filters and algorithms invented by Dr. Bryce Bayer at Eastman Kodak in the mid-1970s. In a Bayer filter array, a matrix of red, green and blue filters caps the pixels on the sensor so that each pixel site only records the red, green or blue filtered light striking it. Bayer demosaicing algorithms then calculate the full color value for each pixel location by combining the output of each pixel with those from surrounding pixels.

For most purposes, this works very well, but some definition is lost in the process, and in some circumstances, you’ll see two kinds of detail-destroying artifacts—false color along an edge where one solid color meets another, particularly along red/blue edges, and moiré, as well as the “zipper effect,” an on/off pattern where an otherwise well-defined edge in the subject is blurred. To prevent these problems, most digital cameras use an anti-aliasing filter as part of the filter stack on the front of the sensor. This low-pass filter works by slightly blurring the image.

RED EPIC-M Monochrome

Because the sensors in monochrome-only cameras don’t need to create color, none of that is needed, and the result is an image with higher resolution. For dedicated black-and-white digital cameras, there are only a few options: Leica rangefinders, the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic medium-format back and the RED EPIC-M Monochrome.

Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246)

Leica makes the M Monochrom (Typ 246) rangefinder, and even though it’s a Leica, it’s the least expensive of the purely black-and-white digital cameras available today. From the front, the classic body design is something a time-traveling photojournalist from the 1950s through the 1990s would instantly recognize as a Leica rangefinder. Utilizing the superb line of Leica M rangefinder lenses from 16mm to 135mm, the digital heart of this Leica is a “full-frame” (23.9×35.8mm) 24-megapixel CMOS sensor with an ISO range from 320 to 25,000. Even ISO 25,000 images are strikingly noise-free. The back is dominated by a 3.0-inch (diagonal), 921,000-pixel LCD, and keeping with Leica’s traditional minimalist approach to design, there’s a minimum of function buttons (LV, Play, Delete, ISO, Menu and Set), and to the right of the LCD, a bidirectional info button. The M Monochrom shoots both JPEG and RAW formats.

Interestingly, Leica chose to go with DNG as the RAW format, and you can shoot your RAW files in either losslessly compressed or uncompressed form. The sensitivity of the ranges from ISO and even at maximum sensitivity has extremely low noise. Shutter speed selections range from 8 to 1/8,000 sec., plus B for exposures down to 60 seconds. The Live View function allows for video shooting at either 1920×1080 (25p/24p) or 1280×720 (25p/24p). Images are recorded to a single SD card, and there’s no tethering port. There’s also no autofocus—it’s a true optical rangefinder camera—and the only two auto-anything functions are an aperture-priority exposure mode and auto-ISO selection. The MSRP is $7,450 (body only).

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic

From the beginning of the digital revolution, Phase One has led the charge in medium-format digital backs. The IQ260 Achromatic medium-format back is a 60-megapixel unit built around a 53.7×40.3mm CCD array that’s more than twice the height and width and just over 2.5 times the area of the full-frame sensor used in 35mm film-based bodies. Its 6×6-micron pixels give the IQ260 Achromatic the ability to resolve extremely fine details. Dynamic range for the back is 13 stops at the base ISO of 200, and top IS
O is 3200. The back can be used on Hasselblad V- and H-type, and Mamiya medium-format bodies, and via an adapter, large-format view and technical cameras, as well as Phase One and Mamiya bodies.

The preview screen is a 3.2-inch (diagonal) touch screen. On Phase One cameras, the IQ260 Achromatic can shoot a full-resolution frame every 0.9 or 0.8 seconds, depending on whether you’re using a focal-plane or leaf-type shutter. When shooting tethered, the camera can be connected to your computer via FireWire 800 or USB 3.0 cables. As you might expect, all Phase One backs are best paired with Phase One’s Capture One Pro software, which is included. The MSRP is $43,990.

In a trio of outliers, the RED EPIC-M and EPIC-X Monochrome are the most outlier-iest in several aspects. For starters, you’ll also need a RED EPIC camera system. The Mysterium-X Monochrome sensor has 13.8-megapixel capture resolution in a 27.7×14.6mm array, roughly equivalent to the APS-H format. While those specifications sound limiting, what it has going for it are two fundamental characteristics.

It was designed for shooting movies at up to 120 fps in 5K, but the quality of individual frames is high enough that it can be used for retail advertising and portraiture. According to Peter Bradshaw of HMI lighting company 5600K, many advertising and catalog shoots are now being done this way instead of having separate video and still shoots. And the dynamic range is huge—13+ stops—and using RED’s proprietary HDRx processing software, it soars to 18+ stops.

As noted, there are two RED EPIC Monochrome versions, the X and the M. The X Brain is machine-assembled, with an MSRP of $20,000, while the M Brain is built entirely by hand and comes with an extra year of warranty, with an MSRP of $25,000.

Epson SureColor P600

On the output side, most modern pigment printers like the new Epson SureColor P600/P800 and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 that use eight or more inks do an excellent job printing dynamic black-and-white images. Those eight-plus inks would include two types of both cyan and magenta, yellow, either photo black or matte black, depending on the paper, gray, and depending on the make and model of the printer, the so-called “spiker” inks—red, blue and sometimes green in the case of Canon imagePROGRAF printers and orange in the newest Epsons.

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000

For the purest monochrome output, the way to go is with Jon Cone’s Piezography products. Cone has created two specially formulated inksets: Carbon K7/K6 inks produce a warm-toned image and are said to be the most truly archival pigment inks yet made; and Neutral K7/K6 inks, which are truly neutral. Cone’s current Piezography inks work only in printers built for Epson’s UltraChrome inks.

Ellis Vener is an Atlanta-based commercial photographer. You can visit his website at ellisvener.com.

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