Common questions often lead to common answers, but the reasons the questions are common is often because the answers given are historically predictable, and sometimes people want more (or a different) perspective. Whether to shoot in black and white or convert later in post is one such question that I field rather often; so here’s my answer:
I don’t know. Not what you were looking for? Well, that was the raw answer, on the half-shell. It’s lacking specificity so here’s some for you: I don’t know if it’s better for you. As with any artistic endeavor, the words ‘should’, ‘never’, ‘better’ are hard to use in photography when speaking about expression – it’s subjective. But, be that as it may, I wouldn’t write off B&W in-camera in the least, and for many, it may just be the ticket you were looking for to tap your creative keg and improve your work.
Genesis vs. Revelations
For those of us who used to or still shoot B&W film, one thing that became necessary was to see in color and think in black and white. You had to, because once you loaded up your camera, for the next 24 exposures, you were shooting what many digital photographers today would think of as ‘blind.’ You were looking at the world in technicolor and had to mentally visualize how that all would transpose into something devoid of saturation. There was no chimping.
That required a rather specific understanding of what particular films looked like, and how colors and contrast would be rendered. It wasn’t uncommon to also shoot hand-in-hand with color filters to alter how certain colors and light and dark were rendered. If you’re like me, you’d live with a red or orange filter to lighten those skin tones and deepen blue skies. Then you either dodged and burned them yourself in a darkroom or specified to your developer what you were looking for.
Now you can do much of that in-camera, changing your mind like you change underwear, or even with each shot, without the need for real filters, and then do the rest in post. Actually, you can do it all in post which is why the question even exists; so here are some of the main reasons:
Developing Your Eye/Mind for Black & White Faster
It’s critical to develop the skill of being able to ‘see’ in B&W. When you’re able to do that, the scope of your work shifts, and you begin to look at things with the same eyes but with different vision. You begin to see more geometrically, to see more in values, more depth, and sometimes, do higher level thinking in terms of composition and framing.
If you’re always shooting in color, and then only see the black and white conversion when you get home, this skill will take a lot longer to develop. You may develop it, if you shoot enough, and are diligent enough, but doing it in camera is going to get you up to speed much faster. If you’re shooting on a camera with EVF, even more quickly. Actually, I think Sony does some of the best black and white creative filters around, and they are accessible to those shooting anything from an A7, Rx100, or the rest of the Alpha line like the A6000.
What’s Happening In Camera?
Understand that no matter what you do, if you’re shooting digital, your camera is going to take a color image, and then process it to provide you something black and white. Meaning, even if you shoot RAW and your preview on the LCD shows B&W, any RAW converter like LR or ACR will show a color image. The one major caveat to that is if you’re shooting a Leica M-Monochrome, which, unlike cameras with conventional sensors, has no need for color filters for individual pixels, thus it requires no interpolation for the calculation of luminance values – read: You get actual B&W in RAW.
This is a concern for many because it means if you want to get a solid B&W image in-camera, you will be shooting JPEG. But, first of all, not everyone shoots raw all the time nor needs to, and you don’t really have to choose. Most cameras today allow you to adjust your capture settings, so you capture both RAW and JPEG versions of the same image. And even if you choose to shoot RAW, your LCD will help train you as you’ll get an idea of how the image will look anyway.
Helps You Shoot Creatively, Easily
Setting up to shoot black and white is dead easy, and with a little bit of understanding of filters (which I’m about to explain), you can creatively express to a level you may not have known before. Also, not having to carry around filters that will fit all your lenses is a great thing. Shooting digital B&W has that distinct advantage of convenience. But what do these digital filters do and how do I do it?
I shoot Nikon almost exclusively, though the setup options are going to be there for almost any digital camera today. With Nikon cameras, you go into the Shooting Menu>Set Picture Control>Monochrome. If you get to this point, you’ll already be shooting in black and white, but if you make one more click, you’ll be presented with a deeper menu, and that’s where the gold is.
So you go one more, and you will see menu options for Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Filter Effects, and Toning, and all of this is for your B&W settings. What you’ll be most concerned about should be Contrast, but more so Filter Effects and Toning. I know it can look intimidating but there’s no need for it to be, as all the filters mean is that whichever you select, the camera will lighten the tone of that particular color, and make the color opposite on the color wheel darker. Case-in-point was mentioned above, where if you use a red filter, the reds in skin tones and so on will be lighter, and the blues deeper. I use this constantly for outdoor portraits and swimwear. Here are examples of differences you’ll see with filters:
In conclusion, there are many reasons you might want to shoot B&W in camera, and you shouldn’t be afraid of it at all, especially since it’s easy to set up and that you have the ability to shoot RAW and JPEG so if all else fails, you can drop the RAW shot in LR, click your favorite preset (I like Mastin Labs Ilford and SLRL B&W), and go that route.
* Tip: if you want to work on your B&W composition, try locking your iPhone to the B&W filter option. It helps.
If you like this, and more stuff like it, that may show you how to get more out of the gear you already have, whilst getting a proper foundation in photography, Photography 101 is worth looking into.