“Your most important gear is your eye, heart and soul.” ― Marius Vieth
This is the second publication of a series in which I’m addressing the topic of black-and-white. In this second posts I’ll cover the most specific topic of digital black-and-white photography. The goal is provide a general overview of the kinds of tools you’ll need in order to start creating digital black-and-white images. If you didn’t read the first post, you can do it here. Also, this series will include posts and videos that can be easily located by using the tag “learning-black-and-white” either in the search box above, or by directly clicking on the tag name at the bottom of this post.
In the first post I talked about the origins of black-and-white photography, and how this medium has become a popular option particularly among fine art photographers. Now, putting aside the film vs. digital debate that consumes the time of many photographers, and that I consider futile, I think that we all agree that in general mainstream photography has turned into a digital process in which the workflows to create images have radically changed.
So, from that perspective it’s OK and valid if you still want to learn film photography, as this can be a good foundation for your own knowledge on the subject. As a matter of fact there are still a small number of very specialized areas in which film still have the edge over digital. However, if your interest is more to create artistic images using market available, best of breed tools, then probably you have to learn to craft your images using digital tools, including camera and post-processing tools.
So, let’s get started. In order to shoot black-and-white using today’s digital cameras you have a vast array of choices to pick from, but let’s try to reduce those choices to a few categories — note: this is not intended to be a deep analysis of the different types of digital cameras existing in the market, but more an overview in order to provide some general guidance, so you need to do your own research and buy the camera that make more sense to your needs and budget.
DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Cameras. Today, there exist a great number models of DSLR cameras, but probably the first aspect you need to consider when buying one is the type of sensor you need either full frame or crop sensor. Full frame sensors are the same size of a 35mm film, crop sensors use a crop factor to reduce the size of the sensor that can be 1.5 or 1.6 depending on the manufacturer. Generally speaking, full frame sensors offer a better image quality, however if you usually shoot in normal light conditions probably you won’t notice the difference — as a matter of fact for some types of photography, especially those that require zoom lenses, a crop sensor is much more convenient than a full frame.
Mirrorless Cameras. Mirrorless cameras use a system in which light passes directly through the lens right to the image sensor, as opposed to DSLR in which the light coming from the lens is reflected through a mirror to the sensor. If you’re serious about digital photography, you will have a dilemma choosing between DSLR and Mirrorless; there are PROS and CONS for both of them, so the choice really depends on the kind of photography you do. For example, DSLRs still have the edge in autofocus (AF) capabilities, in very low light conditions, and obviously in the number of lenses and accessories existing in the market. In the other hand, the obvious advantage of Mirrorless cameras is the actual size of the camera and the shutter speed, so the lack of a flapping mirror allows them to shoot faster than DLSRs in continuous mode.
Point-and-Shoot Cameras. These are non-interchangeable lens cameras, usually inexpensive cameras, whose actual size can be an advantage for certain particular situations and type of photography (e.g. photojournalism). In general terms, if you’re planning to use one of this cameras you have to make sure the camera have at least the two following features: first of all the capability to shoot in RAW mode, in subsequent posts of this series, I will discuss why in black-and-white photography shooting in RAW mode is so important in order to get good results, and secondly, make sure the camera resolution is at least 6 MP or higher.
The three groups of cameras described above are cameras of general use that obviously shoot in color, so we’ll see in subsequent post different approaches and methods to convert those color image to black-and-white. As a matter of fact, there is a fourth option that is formed by digital cameras that directly shoot black-and-white images, but those are not considered here given they are super-specialized cameras whose price is out of the budget of 99.99% of photographers, like the Leica M Monochrome priced in ~$7,500 US Dollars or the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic medium format digital back (60MP) price in ~40,000 US Dollars.
Now that we have discussed the potential cameras to be used to create black-and-white images, let’s discuss the no less interesting part of the digital photography’ post-processing or image editing.
There are several approaches to create black-and-white images going from directly transforming images to black-and-white in-camera all the way up to using different post-processing tools, like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw to make general adjustment to the RAW files and then convert to black-and-white using either Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop. Also, multiple either Lightroom add-ons or Photoshop add-ons such as Nik’s Silver Effex and others can be used to optimize the black-and-white conversion process. In subsequent posts, I’ll cover the most common post-processing approaches that can be used according to the image particular needs, for now, it’s enough just to mention that all these software programs and add-ons (a.k.a. filters) will be used in different stages of the post-processing.
In the next post I’ll start discussing how to pre-visualize black-and-white images, moreover I’ll discuss the concept of “thinking in black-and-white”, what does that mean? and how to start applying it to your own image creation process.
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