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Take away color in a photograph and the world of the image needs to be conveyed by texture and form, shadows and light. By eliminating color, the largest distraction to the emotional content of the image creates an opportunity for the photographer to think and feel differently in the way he or she sees the world. You could easily say that seeing in black & white versus color requires a completely different set of eyes.

The digital world is, by default, a world built around color. RAW color. Digital sensors are built to see and shoot in color in RAW mode. If you want the most digital information in your photographs, RAW is definitely the way to go. But if you are interested in black & white photography, there are two ways to go: do you shoot RAW and convert to B&W in post-production, or do you eliminate RAW shooting in-camera in favor of direct, Black & White JPG?

Shoot In-Camera or Convert in Post-Production?

The answer is both and either. Realistically, there is no good answer. At very least, there is no correct answer. One side of the argument says shooting RAW with all the information available is the best way to go, that there are more tools available in post-production for converting to black & white than there are in the camera. The other side of the debate says converting in post is the easy way out, that it is simply an effort to make poor pictures better. This latter argument takes the moral high ground. They claim that seeing in black & white is a far superior and ultimately more difficult way to work artistically than sitting in front of a computer after the fact and trying to figure out which way to go with an image.

See more: How to Properly Convert a Color Photo into Black & White


In future articles, there will be technical discussions concerning each approach, but for now, it is a matter of philosophy. One way to look at this debate is to go back to the day when digital cameras first presented the argument of whether film was superior to digital. At one point in the evolution of digital cameras, film was better. But as the sophistication of digital technology increased, that argument lost steam, so much so that at this point there is no real argument anymore. We might make the argument that view cameras make a more magnificent image in larger print sizes, but for most of us, the discussion is over. Digital is better. And for those of you who still argue this chicken and egg question, understand that digital is here to stay and film isn’t going to make a comeback anymore than the eight-track tape deck. There will always be a small segment of the photography community who will continue to work in film. That is their choice. But it’s not the most popular one. 

When the conversion from film to digital first took hold, people shooting film had the same tools to utilize as the digital people. Cameras were still ruled by ISO, shutter speed and aperture. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the film photographer had (and has) only two other concerns: film choices, broken down by speed (ISO) and color temperature, and of course, black & white or color. What the digital camera gave photographers was menus, a bewildering array of menus. Suddenly you could alter in camera, saturation, tone, white balance, color temperature, color space, and a disorienting spectacle of custom functions. This made the digital camera more versatile and, at the same time more confusing to operate when shooting RAW color. However, when the photographer chooses to utilize the black & white functions in the digital camera, nearly everything gets reduced back to the days of film, when contrast and filtration were nearly the only afterthoughts to consider. Life just got simple again. All a photographer needed to do was concentrate on the world beyond the lens and their emotional response to it from the perspective of their thought process behind the camera. The argument shifted from a technical question to an emotional one. For the post-production mind, technique was their avenue to artistic success while the in-camera devotee let their heart lead the way. It isn’t so much an argument as a choice about which perspective suited the photographer with the camera in hand.

female portrait-black-white

The post-production advocates are correct: there are more tools at the photographer’s disposal in software like Photoshop than you could possibly hope for. Most of them don’t get used by the average photographer, whereas in even the best digital cameras, the black & white mode is nearly an afterthought, as if the designers agreed with Paul Simon when he sang, “everything looks worse in black & white.” Everything doesn’t look worse in black & white. In fact, some things look much better. What the post-production camp knows is that certain photographs, usually mistakes by the photographer, can be corrected and made better photographs by converting them. What you should know about shooting exclusively in black & white in-camera is that you cannot shoot RAW. Thus far digital cameras, when switched to their b&w settings, completely eliminate the RAW option. You have no choice but to shoot JPG. But ultimately, when you save a RAW file conversion, it is most likely you are going to save it as a JPG anyway, so what we are talking about are two roads that lead to the same destination.

So, all technical questions aside, you need to determine which camp you’re in. Or maybe you don’t even have to enter the argument. Maybe you can be one of those people who don’t care to argue and utilize both ends of the spectrum. The tools are all there, no matter which road you care to take. Staying out of the discussion and making use of everything that is available to you as an artist will only make you a better photographer. Try both. Then decide. You may find that using both methods will provoke you into thinking more about your work and more about what works best for you.

James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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