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: