Colour Results from Black and White Photos

This is about how I use my Sony NEX to shoot black and white photos, but can switch any photo to colour later.

There are long arguments about the relative merits of shooting RAW format or JPEG. Both have their good and bad points. While some people think shooting both together is a good idea, most see it as a waste of time and space. There can be at least one good reason, though, and an extra one that applies with the Sony NEX (Amazon UK, Amazon US) and probably some other cameras.

  • RAW files capture all the data the sensor could see, and can potentially be reprocessed later to give better results. You can recover highlights from shots you overexposed, to a limited extent, and you can recover from the camera’s JPEG algorithms that sometimes over-process things when trying to eliminate noise. They are quite a bit bigger than the equivalent JPEG files, though, so there’s a cost in storage space, and the camera will usually be slower.
  • JPEG files only store a final processed version of the sensor data. Most of the time, though, differences are pretty close to unnoticeable to most people (I can’t usually tell), and the files are much smaller.

I’ve changed over the years – when I first got a camera capable of saving RAW files, I used RAW all the time. My Nikon D90 was quite slow with RAW files though, and I couldn’t see the difference, so I started using JPEG files for everything. The camera was much faster, emptying photos from card to computer took much less time, the photos themselves took up less space. And I couldn’t see any difference in the results. It seemed like it was all win.

These days, I often like to shoot in black and white. Occasionally, though, a shot appears quickly that would look better in colour. Stop to change the camera settings, and the moment might be gone. Even if there’s time, it means more fiddling with controls, which I usually prefer to keep to a minimum.

Many people, even if they’re planning on producing black and white shots, shoot only in colour, then convert to black and white later. It can give better results, as you can do the equivalent of applying coloured filters when processing. I’m not so used to seeing in black and white, though, and I find it really helpful to see the black and white image in the viewfinder or screen when I’m shooting.

Shooting in RAW+JPEG offers an answer. I can still set the camera to shoot in black and white, and that’s how the JPEG files are written. The RAW files, though, are unprocessed, so they can’t be black and white. So the result is both a black and white and a colour image at once, saved at the same time. The camera display is black and white, so I see the scene in black and white as I’m taking the photos. When I import the photos from the camera into Aperture, I set it to import both files as a pair, using the JPEG file as the master.

I have all the files in Aperture, as usual, with any colour shots in colour, and any black and white shots in black and white. If I want a black and white shot turned into a colour shot, though, I just right-click the file, and choose ‘Use RAW as original’. That black and white photo becomes colour. Magic.

The other advantage is a bit more particular to the Sony NEX, when using manual focus – especially with old lenses. It has a feature called focus peaking. Wherever it detects high contrast in the image it’s looking at, it highlights the edge in yellow (or red, or white, depending on settings). Wherever the edges sparkle in the selected colour, you have good focus. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and it makes manual focussing quite quick and easy. Whichever colour you select for peaking, you sometimes find there’s too much of that colour in the scene, so the peaking isn’t easy to see. It’s not a huge problem, and I find bright yellow is best, but when the viewfinder or screen is showing you a black and white image, there isn’t a problem at all. The only colour in the viewfinder is yellow wherever there’s sharp focus.

It’s a convenient combination, and for me seems to be worth the extra space and time the RAW+JPEG pairs cost. And when making black and white images, I can either work from the JPEG the camera produced, or switch to the colour RAW file, and convert back to black and white from there, applying colour filters for different looks. I also process a lot of photos to a heavily desaturated look – colour, but only just colour – these are usually photos I took in black and white, and allowed a bit of colour back through in processing. It’s also useful for selective colour images – not something I do often, but it can be nice when done subtly.

In practice, I leave the camera in black and white most of the time, but I’ll switch to colour if I have time, for shots where the colour is important. I’m more likely to leave it on black and white when I’m using an old manual focus lens. Shooting with RAW+JPEG gives me the flexibility to have the camera working in whatever mode I want, but to always be able to restore the colour to any photo I take.

Asahi Takumar 50mm f/1.4 Lens

My Sony NEX-6 has a couple of features that make it practical to attach old lenses to it. I bought a few old lenses on eBay, but one of them is really standing out for me – an Asahi Takumar from around 1971. It’s heavy, the lens elements have gone a bit yellow with age, and mould has grown inside it, but I got it for a great price, and it’s producing some really nice images. Wide open, it tends to give things a warm, creamy look that reminds me of an oaky chardonnay. Stopped down a little, things quickly become sharper, and the colour cast is reduced.

The Experience

It’s a slightly different experience shooting with a manual lens. I learned photography with manual focus lenses, using a Canon AV-1, with a 70-210 zoom and 2x converter. Lenses at that time were all manual focus, and were designed for it. You twist a ring, and it stops at infinity (focussed on the far distance). Twist the other way, and it stops when it gets as close as it can.

Most modern lenses are autofocus, with a focussing ring to let you take over when you want to. The ring isn’t usually directly connected to the lens elements, though, and on many lenses, it doesn’t stop at the ends. It’s there for ‘emergency’ use more than as something they expect people to use often.

With a manual lens, the camera also can’t control the aperture – that’s set manually by another ring on the lens. Again, it stops at the widest and narrowest ends, and clicks between stops (well, most do). Set the camera in Aperture Priority or Program modes, and it works like Aperture Priority, you just can’t control the aperture where you normally would. Set it to Manual or Shutter Priority, and it’s all manual. I probably use Aperture Priority more than any other mode normally anyway, so it doesn’t feel like too big a jump. The aperture ring on the lens is a nicer way to change aperture than the control on the camera.

The camera doesn’t know what aperture was used, so you can’t check in the EXIF data when you’re looking at your shots later, which is a shame. It’s good for learning to be able to check what aperture was used for which shots. If you use old manual lenses, you might not even know what lens was used for a shot. I’ve taken to working around this by taking photos of the camera and lens with my iPhone, which then pops into Aperture alongside the photos I was taking. Make sure the camera’s time is set reasonably accurately, and the ‘notes’ should slot into the right places among the photos.

Live Preview

Because the aperture is actually being stopped down when you adjust the setting, not when you take the photo, you see the depth of field you’ll get live on screen. In that way, it’s even an improvement on the sort of SLR this lens was designed for.

Focussing

The camera can’t do it, so you have to handle focussing yourself. It’s easier than manually focussing with most modern lenses, but still takes a bit of getting used to. I haven’t had to focus manually for years, other than the occasional specialist shot, like when I took photos of star trails at night. Fortunately, the focus peaking feature of the NEX makes it relatively easy to see what’s in focus and what isn’t.

After using the Takumar a lot for a couple of weeks, going back to an autofocus lens actually felt a bit clumsy – less in control than I had been with manual.

The Results

You can see a lot of photos taken with this lens here on PigPog – they should all be tagged with Takumar50f14. A few of my favourites:

Civilian Labs Air Manila MacBook Air Sleeve Review

From a recent spending spree at Heinnie Haynes, the Civilian Labs Air Manila leather sleeve for my MacBook Air may be the only item that won’t get as much use as I’d hoped. And it isn’t the sleeve’s fault at all – it just doesn’t fit where I hoped it would.

When the first MacBook Air was unveiled, Steve Jobs produced it from inside a manila envelope, highlighting how amazingly thin it was. The Air Manila sleeve is a leather sleeve designed to look like a manila envelope.

Civilian Labs Air Manila (7)

It’s a bit brighter in colour, in an orange-yellow ‘mango’ colour. It’s quite a bit thicker than an envelope, too, as it’s made from leather, with a good layer of padding to protect your expensive computer. There’s velcro to keep it closed, but the twist-string closure is there too, completing the envelope look. There’s a really nice quality feel to the whole thing. It even smells nice – it seems like they’ve added a bit of mango scent to the leather. If the bright colour is too much for you, it’s also available in black. I usually go for everything in black, and really don’t like yellow and orange, but the bright cheery colour just seemed right for this.

Civilian Labs Air Manila (1)

It feels like it will provide good protection, and it looks great. The only reason I probably won’t get much use out of it is that it doesn’t quite fit into the bag I bought at the same time. The Maxpedition Sitka Gearslinger is roomy enough for the MacBook Air, but not for the Air in the Air Manila sleeve. The sleeve adds a bit too much width.

Given the price, which makes it cheaper than most leather sleeves, and not much more expensive than many non-leather sleeves of much simpler design, it’s easy to recommend the Air Manila. As long as you have space in your bag.

More photos of the Air Manila:

Sony NEX with Legacy Lenses

I’ve already mentioned one unexpected side-effect of my recent acquisition of a Sony NEX-6 camera. It has set me off buying old lenses on eBay. Now, it’s time to introduce you to some of the needed parts, and to let you meet some of my new toys. Well – our new toys now, as Sam has now joined Club NEX with her own NEX-5R.

Adapters

Nikon

The first adapter I bought was for Nikon-mount lenses. I paid a bit extra to get one that can push the aperture lever on the back of the lens, so I can still have some sort of control of the aperture. It lets me use my Nikon lenses and my Nikon-mount Lensbaby kit.

The Nikon lenses probably won’t be used long term, as I gradually replace what they can do with other modern and legacy lenses. They’re worth too much to a modern Nikon user, so I’ll probably be selling them at some point. The Lensbaby kit will stay.

M42 Screw-Mount

I ordered one of these from eBay. It arrived, and worked with one lens and one 2x converter, but didn’t work with any of the lenses I most wanted it for. They’d fit on so far, but not far enough, and couldn’t focus on anything beyond around 3m away. I decided to hang on to it to use with a macro kit, as it had been cheap enough that I didn’t want to bother with returning it.

I ordered another one from Amazon. That arrived, and instead of an approximately 3cm thick adaptor, I received a tiny, approximately 5mm thick ring. It did look as though it might have the right connectors, but there’s no way it could work – the lens wouldn’t be far enough away from the sensor. Being in the wrong place by a couple of millimetres is a problem – being more than 2cm out really wouldn’t work. The picture was of a ‘real’ adaptor, so that one is going back.

I then ordered yet another from eBay, and this one works really well:

This one fits nicely at both ends, and looks good. I ordered another one of these for Sam to use too, and the second works just as well.

Lenses

Nikon

From my D90 kit, I had an 18-200 zoom and a 35mm f/1.8 prime. Both work ok on the Nikon adapter, but both make the camera really rather bigger than it ‘should’ be. The 35mm isn’t so bad, but the 18-200 and adaptor add up to a big heavy lens. It seemed a bit large on the Nikon D90, so it’s huge on the front of a NEX. It really makes it feel more like a lens with a camera hanging on the back than a camera with a lens attached.

Avoiding the size and weight was the main point of getting the NEX, so I won’t be using these a lot.

Lensbaby

I already have the Lensbaby Composer for Nikon, and it works well with the adaptor. Somehow, the addition of the adaptor doesn’t make the Lensbaby kit feel too big. The NEX can still auto-expose with the Lensbaby, which the D90 couldn’t, so it feels nicer to use too.

I haven’t really played with this kit much yet, but it works well, and will be easier (and so, probably, more fun) to use on the Sony than it ever was on the Nikon.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8

I got this one at a reasonable price on eBay. Possibly a bit cheaper than it would otherwise have been because it doesn’t say ‘Carl Zeiss’ on it – soon after the war, the Zeiss factory split when Germany was split up, and the original factory wasn’t able to sell lenses to some markets if they marked them as ‘Carl Zeiss’, so they’re marked as ‘Aus Jena’. Same lens, same original factory.

It works ok, though the focus ring is very stiff. Results are good – a bit of a ‘cold’ look, but nice and smooth in the out of focus areas (the almighty ‘bokeh’). I like it a lot, and it could see a lot more use if it wasn’t for…

Asahi Takumar 50mm f/1.4

It’s a Pentax from the days before ‘Pentax’ – back when they were the Asahi Optical Company. The coatings on the optics include radioactive materials. The same coatings go a bit yellow with time, and give all your images a slightly odd warm tint. It’s also gone a bit mouldy inside. Given the price I paid, though, I’m really very happy with it. It tends to do nice things with the photos I take.

At f/1.4, images aren’t perfect, but the depth of field is wonderfully tiny. I like tiny depth of field. Stopped down just a little, and the images become sharper, and can still have quite small depth of field. Either way, it gives a nice warm bokeh.

It’s still very early days of testing, but I think this one could be something of a favourite.

It cost me less than £20, including delivery – I got lucky with this one.

Others

Other lenses I’ve picked up on eBay, generally at very low prices:

  • Chinon 135mm f/2.8. Quite a wide maximum aperture for the focal length, and reputedly, almost all 135mm lenses are pretty decent. Not really tried it yet, but I’d expect decent results.
  • Hanimex 200mm f/4. Not a bad maximum aperture for the length, but I don’t expect good results from this one. Cheap 200mm lenses can be bad, and Hanimex were never renowned for their optical quality. Maybe it will surprise me when I get around to trying it properly, but a few quick test shots from outside our front door don’t make it very hopeful.
  • 2x Converters. I have two of them for m42 mount lenses. Both were very cheap. I’d expect really crappy results when adding them to pretty much any other lens, but they were so cheap I couldn’t resist the idea of stacking two 2x converters on the above Hanimex, to see how bad the results can get.
  • Cosinon 50mm f/1.7. Should be good, but I just got caught up in how good the Asahi was, and the interest of seeing how good a Zeiss lens really is, that this one got ignored.

So

Quite a bit of enjoyment so far, for relatively little money. Plenty more fun to be had trying out more of them. And not too much wasted if I end up only getting real use out of one or two. Cheaper than most modern lenses for the lot.

Exeter with the Sony NEX-6

We had a day in Exeter today, with my parents. I took my new Sony NEX-6 along, and it seems people may be interested in seeing what it can do. I’ll add a few more notes after the gallery, but first, the photos:

The indoor shots were all taken in Chaucer’s, an underground pub. It’s dark in there. In our alcove, we used a torch to read the menus. The NEX-6 still got reasonably good shots of the food, using the handheld twilight mode.

General Use

In general, it handled really well again. It fits fairly neatly in my coat pocket, and it’s small enough that it doesn’t feel too conspicuous around my neck. I do sometimes feel a little noticeable using my Nikon D90 and 18-200 zoom in the street. I don’t know how different it really looks from outside, but it certainly feels more subtle from where I am.

Rich Monochrome

It’s hard to say just how much I love the Rich Monochrome mode. It fires three shots, then builds the final image from them. I think it’s doing an HDR effect, really, but in monochrome it looks good. Smooth, rich tones, without the strangely unreal look that colour HDR shots have.

Most of my favourite shots to come out of this camera so far have been with this mode. I’ve liked doing mono shots before, but it’s always felt like work to do it in Aperture, and like a compromise on quality to do it in-camera. With the NEX-6, I feel like I’m getting the best quality, with the least effort. It doesn’t work with things that are moving much, but seems to be fine with smaller movements, even coping ok with people walking while it’s getting its three shots.

Indoor

The pub we went in for lunch, Chaucer’s, was dark. Even there, though, it seemed to be able to get reasonable shots. The white balance looks way out in those shots, but they’re quite usable for simple foodie pics. Not photos I’m proud of, but decent enough snaps for those who think people might be interested in what they ate.

Comparing the NEX-6 with the NEX-5R

I had trouble making up my mind between these two cameras. The 6 has some nice extra features, but the smaller size of the 5R was very tempting. I got chance to see the 5R in Jessops while we were out. The size difference is less than I expected, and I’m very glad I didn’t decide to miss out on the 6′s extra features. I use the mode dial a lot.