Making pictures with professional photographer John Enman

Black-and-white photography: film vs. digital

I have always been drawn to black-and-white photography.

At one time I even believed that was the only medium serious photographers worked in. To me, a black-and-white photograph has a mood and conveys a tactile quality. That’s why many of my personal image files get converted from colour.

During film’s reign, photographers had to decide whether to use black-and-white film, colour film or slide film. Most of us carried at least two camera bodies for that. But today, the decision to make a black and white image is best left to post-production; there is no need for that second camera. Post-production is the intricate combination of computer programs, printers and papers that now rivals the quality of chemical-based, traditional black-and-white photography.

Traditional black-and-white depended first on the brand and type of film (for example, Kodak Tri-X, Ilford Delta 400, etc.) then on the camera’s initial exposure, how the film was developed (what chemicals were to be used), and finally, the choice of paper for final printmaking.

The digital sensor has more latitude than film and getting a usable exposure is very easy. If one overexposes it usually isn’t a problem. An overexposure with digital does equal a loss in image information, but much of the time it’s still a usable photograph.

With film, we used to hear “shoot for the shadows.” With digital all that has changed. And of course, we can check our exposures using the histogram.

Most digital cameras have a black-and-white mode available in the menu, but I don’t recommend using that. It does nothing more than create identical red, green and blue channels in the final picture file. Just de-saturating a colour data file in-camera will give a black and white image, but it doesn’t include control of the different tonal values that make up a black-and-white image.

When I first started making black-and-white pictures years ago with Photoshop, I used a conversion process using the channel mixer. To do that I first opened the image, then I went to the menu and selected adjustments, then in the drop-down list I selected Channel Mixer. I checked the monochrome box at the bottom left; I changed the red channel to 60 per cent, changed the green channel to 40 per cent, ignored the blue channel and changed the constant to +4. Fin,ally I clicked OK and I had a black-and-white image.

Those days are long gone with modern programs like ON1 and Luminar that have many pre-set black-and-white offerings. Making a good black-and-white is as easy as choosing the tonal value that one prefers. And, of course, there are many more, just do a search.

A black-and-white photo depends on its ability to communicate, as it doesn’t attract with eye-catching colours for its’ visual presentation. Those that stand out combine attention to lighting, composition and perspective.

Black-and-white photography is far from being left behind in the past; and in my opinion, with the current processing software, updates in high quality printers and the latest in printing papers, black-and-white image-making will continue to be an option for serious photographers.

These are my thoughts for this week. Contact me at or Stop by Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops. I sell an interesting selection of used photographic equipment. Don’t hesitate to call me at 250-371-3069.


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