How to Visualize and Shoot in B&W

How to Visualize and Shoot in B&W
Nik Silver Efex Pro / Alien Skin Exposure

Nik Silver Efex Pro / Alien Skin Exposure

Black and white photography is one of the oldest forms of photography; yet its popularity seems to have been on the uptick of late. With plugins like Alien Skin’s Exposure and Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2, digital photographers now have some amazing tools at their disposal to create black and white images of varying types.

But the problem with shooting for 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, and that’s what this week’s tip is about.

Most – if not all – digital cameras out there have a black-and-white 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.

  1. 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

    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 – be it Aperture or Lightroom – 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.

  2. 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

    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, as shown in the image above.

  3. Using IJFR to extract JPEGs from RAW files

    Using IJFR to extract JPEGs from RAW files

    Extract the B&W JPEG from RAW. If the idea of shooting in RAW+JPEG doesn’t appeal to you and you still want the B&W JPEG, but also don’t want to shoot in JPEG mode because you want the full RAW file, you’re in luck. The folks at have a great little utility called Instant JPEG from RAW (IJFR) that will let you extract the B&W JPEG, which is embedded in the RAW file. Once you install IJFR, you can use it as shown in the image here.

Either way, each of these methods gives you two 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 lots of data to manipulate in Photoshop later.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at


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