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 (Search for "Sony NEX" on: DuckDuckGo, 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.

Aperture’s Repair Tool

Sometimes, the marks that Aperture’s repair tool just won’t remove from a nice plain background are a hint that you need to clean your screen.

I’ve also learned that the extra time spent to clone a few tiny dirt marks off the car bonnet in a photo can easily be worthwhile, because it saves time later, when I repeatedly try to clean those same marks off my screen when I use the photo as wallpaper.

Scripting Aperture to MarsEdit to PigPog

Posting photos to PigPog (a WordPress blog) has always been a bit of a pain. I’d made things as smooth as I could, but it was still a bit time-consuming. I was doing this:

  • Take photos.
  • Process photos in Aperture, usually in batches.
  • Export photos to a ‘queue’ folder (sitting in Dropbox – doesn’t need to be, but that way I could do the next steps on a different machine if I wanted to).
  • Repeat for every image…
    • Create a new post in WordPress, through the web interface. Fill in the form. I have to enter a title, description and tags. I usually se these in Aperture already, but if I want to get those now, I have to open Aperture, find the image, then copy/paste those bits in.
    • Add media, dragging the file into the browser window, wait for upload.
    • Schedule the post.
  • I often then juggle posting dates and times around with the Editorial Calandar plugin.
  • Sit back and watch as the posts appear automagically, then also automagically, cross-post themselves to Flickr.

Not too bad, really, and not much harder than posting them to Flickr, but I wanted it to be easier.

After a (somewhat frustrating) morning playing with AppleScript, I now have a setup where I do this:

  • Take photos.
  • Process photos in Aperture, usually in batches. Flag photos that are ready to post.
  • Open MarsEdit, and run my script from its menu.
  • Sit back and watch as posts automagically appear, set up thusly:
    • ‘Photos’ category set.
    • Title set from photo title in Aperture.
    • Description set from photo caption in Aperture.
    • Tags set form keywords in Aperture.
    • Date set to one week’s time, so I have plenty of time to reschedule things.
  • The photos are exported to my queue folder, which opens itself up. I have to drag images into their matching posts where I want them to appear.
  • Save each post, at which point MarsEdit uploads the scheduled post to WordPress, uploading the image attachments.
  • I can then change publishing dates and times to a better schedule.
  • Sit back and watch as the posts appear automagically, then also automagically, cross-post themselves to Flickr.

This list looks pretty long still, but most of the things listed there happen automatically, or are at least being done locally rather than through a web interface. There’s a lot more Sit back and watch to do. I haven’t tried it out for real yet, but I think it’s going to make it faster for me to get photos out there. The less time I have to spend copying titles and descriptions around, and moving files from place to place, the more time there is for taking and processing photos.

The script also sets the colour label for files it’s dealt with, so I know they’ve been posted (or at least exported ready to), which should help me avoid the situation I’ve found myself in a few times, of not knowing if I’ve already posted something, or even posting the same photo twice.

Aperture Tests with Asahi Takumar 50mm f/1.4

Just a few test shots I took from outside our front door. The garden in the background is four floors below the railings in the foreground.

Starting wide open, and f/1.4, the background is completely blurred out, but the camera also can’t get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid over-exposing quite a bit.

f-1.4 (overexposed)

At f/2 the exposure is closer, but still over, and it’s still a very blurred background.

f-2 (overexposed)

We’re about at a good exposure at a 4000th of a second shutter speed, and f/2.8.

f-2.8

At f/4 we have a good exposure, and the background is starting to look a little more detailed.

f-4

f/5.6 now, and the background is starting to get distracting.

f-5.6

At f/8 the background is starting to look a bit more clear.

f-8

f/11:

f-11

f/16 is as narrow as the Takumar lens can get. Now the background is still blurry, but we can see quite a bit of detail. In a tiny thumbnail image, it almost looks sharp.

f-16

No great conclusion here apart from the obvious, that wider apertures give you less depth of field. We knew that, though, didn’t we? Kind of nice to see it demonstrated, anyway. It suggests I could really use a Neutral Density filter, too, so I can shoot this lens wide open in bright light.