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Tips & Tricks

Better To Shoot in B&W Or Convert in Post?

By Kishore Sawh on January 22nd 2016

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.

DSC_6774-EditThat 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.


Creative Filter High Contrast B&W from Sony A7II

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:


No filter – flat


blue filter – obviously horrid


red filter – works


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.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Robert Powell

    There may be an exception to the guideline of “shoot RAW, convert in post”.  I recently photographed a band on a stage that was lit in magenta and blue lights (with some light yellow).  

    The camera was set to shoot B&W (but in RAW), and the resulting, downloaded images were so incredibly bicolored that it made the “conversion in post” impossible.  

    The B&W image on my original camera LCD were perfectly acceptable, but the post-converted RAW file could not seem to give me what I wanted.  

    If the original scene had been properly lighted with a correctable light (light that could have been properly balanced to begin with), then I completely agree that conversion in post is the best way to go.

    Going forward, when I know I will be shooting in B&W, I will set the camera to shoot in RAW+JPEG.  That way I’ll be sure to capture the pure B&W image on the JPEG file, and I’ll have the RAW file as well.

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  2. Andy & Amii Kauth

    Really fun article to read, bro. Dope concept. Good thing we heart our b & w presets or we’d be spending the week trying to plan to simultaneously shoot a wedding in color and b & w/ a pair of D750s. Hmmm …

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  3. Bill Bentley

    Nik Silver Efex Pro ftw. :-)

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  4. Ralph Hightower

    For me, the process is simple. If I’m shooting digital, then I’ll shoot color; visualizing a photo as B&W is not what I have in mind. But if I’m shooting film, then it depends on which camera I have with me because with my Canon A-1 (bought new 1980) and F-1N (bought used 2013), one is loaded with color and the other with B&W.

    I’m a newcomer to digital with my purchase of the 5D Mk III in December 2013. I still think like a film shooter and I turned off the image review mode since I don’t use it. I will review photos afterwards, but I won’t review an image immediately after the shot.

    Visualizing in B&W:
    I rediscovered the classic look of B&W in the summer of 2011. I bought a three-pack of Kodak BW400CN to photograph the final Space Shuttle landing; I figured that shooting color during the pre-dawn hour of the return of Atlantis would be wasted. Prior to the landing, I had to finish a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 used for the launch and tour of KSC. Finding Ektar 100 turned out to be a scavenger hunt.

    I photographed the local Greek Festival with BW400DN and that’s when I rediscovered the classic looks of B&W.
    I made a decision that I would shoot the year 2012 exclusively with B&W film and use the B&W contrast filters, yellow, orange, and red.

    For 2012, I used mostly C-41 B&W films for the convenience of getting it developed locally along with C-41 color film. I had two yearlong projects: 1) photograph the sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices and 2) photograph the full moons sunrise and sunset. For the full moon project, I used traditional B&W film.
    It took me about three months before I learned to visualize in B&W. It was a learning experience for me.
    I shot an air show that featured the US Air Force Thunderbirds; my film budget for the day was 6 rolls of film. I put in a fresh roll prior to the Thunderbirds performance and I had to reload; fortunately, that was during a lull in their performance. The next weekend, I photographed a nighttime baseball game from the bleachers. I had three rolls of ISO 3200 B&W film, 2 of Kodak TMAX 3200, and 1 of Ilford Delta 3200. I decided to sandwich the Ilford between the Kodak and I could see the differences between the films.

    With my experiences with C-41 B&W films, Kodak BW400CN and Ilford XP2, I had to adjust the saturation in Lightroom to make the photos look more like traditional silver-based B&W; BW400CN has a sepia tone and XP2 has a cyan tone. I started using Lightroom in 2011 for its photo database capabilities.

    I haven’t tried putting B&W contrast filters in front of my 5D and shooting in B&W (I need to get Cokin P-sized filters). Sticking with my “film” mindset, the white balance for my 5D is set for daylight, unless I remember to change it for fluorescent lighting.

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  5. Richard Olender

    If you set your camera to B&W, can you get proper colour in post? I have never thought to try.

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    • robert raymer

      Yes, but only if you shoot RAW. Shooting RAW, what you see on the back of the camera is only a display of the camera “editing” the shot internally, while the RAW file is unchanged, in color. However, if you shoot monochrome jpeg, your final image will also be monochrome because the camera is exporting the internally edited shot as final file. (I tried to simplify, hopefully that makes sense).

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  6. Stephen Jennings

    I put my color settings to “Monochrome” when I bought my D800 .. it’s never been changed since. I “see” better viewing my images in BW while shooting, I can tell if the photo is better exposed, if the detail or focal point is where I want it, and really lets me think more creatively not being bombarded with colors. Importing into LR all the photos are converted back into color, because I use RAW not jpg. BUT .. I think the difference is that shooting in BW leads to generally better BW images when re-converted because you shot it with BW in mind, or maybe it’s just always staring at BW images you get better at editing in monochrome? Anyways, I love BW imagery, the vast majority of my personal stuff is all BW. :)

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  7. robert raymer

    As you said, it is different for everyone, but here is my OPINION…

    For professional work ( i.e. for clients, important personal projects, etc) I see little to no benefit in shooting in .jpg (and hence, BW .jp in camera). With the exception of journalism, in which many editors now want .jpg’s to help quash any retouching/ethics questions, and sports, which often require immediate uploads of often thousands of images, I don’t see much benefit in shooting in .jpg. Sure, it saves space on a hard drive, but space is honestly pretty cheap and getting cheaper every day. Considering that you give up creative control (you let the camera decide how to process the image based on its internal algorithms), and considering that any post processing done to a .jpg is destructive, I just don’t see the value.

    Sure, you can shoot “in black and white” and use the digital filters to manipulate that BW image in camera, and come out with a BW image, but if you want more control over your final image I would still suggest shooting RAW and converting in post. In fact, the only time I would suggest shooting BW in camera is shooting a monochrome sensor such as the Leica or the Phase One monochrome back (I forget which model it is) in which the sensor only “sees” light and dark and creates a RAW file that can be edited non destructively. Doing otherwise puts too much control in the hands of the camera for me to be comfortable with.

    That said, if you have trouble visualizing BW, you can still shoot in a monochrome picture setting while shooting RAW files. While the preview image on the back of the camera will be BW, the image will be color when opened in a RAW converter. This allows you to both have a RAW file to convert as well as a good pre-visualization of how you want your conversion to look and how to get there. To me this is a win-win.

    Additionally, I have also used this RAW monochrome technique when shooting images I know are going to be in color. Often when shooting color images we get so caught up in color that we fail to see the qualities of the light we are shooting (one reason people have trouble “seeing” BW). I already have a good idea of how colors will show up in an image just by looking at the subject/scene I am shooting. By shooting in RAW BW it takes the color information out of the previews and I can focus on getting the qualities of light (direction, intensity, fall off, hard/soft, etc) I want, knowing that the color will be present in the Raw file when I upload it.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      JPEGs can be manipulated. I haven’t done it for journalistic purposes, but because the color casts of C-41 B&W film didn’t look like traditional silver-based B&W film.

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    • robert raymer

      Yes, any file type can be manipulated, but many outlets, including Reuters, have banned RAW because it is far more obvious when a jpeg file has been manipulated than when RAW file has been. They still allow for minor cropping and levels correcting.

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