I would like to try out photography in Black and White, specifically because it just has an awesome contrast and makes the motive "pop" in a certain way that color just detracts from (or maybe I have just discovered how much I like Ansel Adams' photos).

Most digital cameras are color cameras though, with a color filter in front of the sensor. From what I've seen, this takes away some quality because of the extra filter step.

The obvious choice what what I want seems to be the Leica M Monochrom, but it's priced WAY out of what I want to initially spend (<1000$, ideally <500$).

I wonder what would be the best option to do B/W on a budget:

  • Use a color digital camera, shoot in RAW, convert to B/W in Photoshop
  • Use an analog camera with a B/W film
  • Another option I'm not aware of?

4 Answers 4


There are two aspects here: quality images and a budget. The budget itself has two aspects - the up front cost and the ongoing cost.

Lets look at the budget first. It is trivial to get a cheap film camera. I'll start out by saying that lenses are a wash - you're either using a camera that has interchangeable lenses (and then its the same for digital and film) or you are using a camera with an integrated lens.

Go to a camera store and get a used Canon EOS rebel or Nikon N80, and you can find them cheap. Seriously, under $50 cheap for the body (KEH lists an N80 in EX+ conniption for $76 and rebel bodies in EX condition from $12 up).

The digital camera has a larger up front cost. You are going to need to get a more expensive body than you will with a film body. It also has the additional "you're going to buy some quality digital post production software."

Going from Ilford Lab Direct's mailer, its $12/36 or $9/24 for film processing. and another $4-$5/roll for 135 film itself. Those numbers add up quite quickly as an on-going expense. You might be able reduce that some if you're willing to set up a dark room in your house (it can be rather small, but then that adds significantly to your up front costs while only marginally reducing your ongoing expenses).

Lets talk about image quality. And this is going to delve deep into the realm of opinion.

Black and white film is the best way to do black and white. Its the only way to get the grain in there. The characteristic of ilford delta grain vs tri-x vs t-max... they each have a distinct quality to them... and digital is perfectly smooth.

Filters aren't things that you can slap on after the image is taken in digital. Those frequencies of light have all been quantized and averaged. No longer do you have a sodium vapor light with its at 589.3 and 589.0 nm... you've got something that has been blended in with all the rest of the image and you can't put a didymium filter on it to selectively remove that sodium yellow light. Putting a red 25A filter does different things to the sky when you are working with the wavelengths of light rather than doing it in post production - its a 575 nm long pass filter, and that information isn't something that you can find once the light has been blended together on the sensor.

<insert ranting about push and pull and the grain and zone system here... and the grit in TriX400 at 3200>

An important factor to consider in all of this is what you want to do with those images. There is a very different appearance (IMHO) between black and white printed in silver vs black and white from even a high quality inkjet... But that's delving way into the rant and opinions (and then there are bromoil transfers, platinum prints, sepia toning and all sorts of alternative photography processes).

My belief is that you really can't capture the essence of black and white film in anything other than black and white film.

Here's what I'd really suggest doing...

Get a used Canon EOS rebel film body and a 50mm f/1.8 lens and a 52mm thread 25A filter... and go out and shoot a roll of TriX 400 with it. The camera, the filter, and the film will set you back under $100. See if you like it and if it does what you want it to. If it does, great - keep shooting and learning. If it doesn't, get a current entry level Canon EOS DSLR. New, in a kit, this is about $550.

An important bit to remember is that whatever you do, to fully use the medium isn't something that can be captured and understood with one roll of film or memory card. Truly understanding how to use your chosen media takes years of trial and error.

  • 2
    +1, but with the gentle caveat that any other brands' current entry-level DSLR will do as well as the Canon.
    – mattdm
    Jun 16, 2014 at 4:10
  • 1
    @mattdm the brand was based on the film choice - the cheapest reasonable film body that has a lens compatibility with the entry level digital body. This rules out quite a few brands.
    – user13451
    Jun 16, 2014 at 4:28
  • Thanks for the very detailed answer! I just bought a Nikon N80 (Rant: Canon's Model names are weird, it was much easier to find the Nikon :)), Third-Party 28-90mm lens and a roll of Kodak TriX 400TX Film. I didn't realize just how much prizes on Film SLR's had fallen, though I'm not surprised. Do you happen to know any explanations/comparisons of B&W Film? One of my problems with my existing Digital Camera is that the noise is ridiculous (it's not a good camera though). I don't like noise, but a bit of grain is a nice effect.
    – Michael Stum
    Jun 16, 2014 at 7:38
  • 2
    @MichaelStum that would probably be a good separate question. Just as a summary, TriX is an 'old' classic grain - forgiving and with a bit more coarseness to it. TMax and Delta are both tabular grain films - they're finer grain, but can be finicky. Rollei even makes a fine grain techpan film (iso 25). freestylephoto.biz is probably one of the better B&W film stores now days. As an aside, if you are curious about film in the Ansel days, get some Rollei Ortho (its 'ordinary' of old). photo.net/learn/optics/edscott/pss00030.htm
    – user13451
    Jun 16, 2014 at 7:50
  • 1
    @MichaelStum the yellow is similar to the red in that it is a reduction of blue, but the yellow doesn't darken the greens as much as a red does. Its also useful for portrait if you want to de-emphasize freckles. I'd tend to an 8 over a 15 when starting out - Look at poyntsource.com/Richard/North_3.jpg for the long pass filters (the red and yellows), I'd be tempted to stagger them - an 8, 21, and 25a or 29. Some day you may want all of them, but you don't initially want to bunch up the long pass filters.
    – user13451
    Jun 25, 2014 at 3:16

For the budget? Go digital, but don't worry about those monochrome sensors. Sure, they're strictly better in terms of per-pixel awesomeness, but even entry-level DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have high enough resolution to make up for it — especially if your comparison point is 35mm film. And the color information let's you easily make color filter choices in RAW conversion rather than before each shot with a physical filter — and with much more flexibility and nuance than a whole bag of filters.

You could go analog and set up a darkroom, but overall, the cost per shot is just plain going to be orders of magnitude higher. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its own appeal, and I expect that film (and pre-filter processes) will outlast digital as we know it (just as vinyl records outlasted CDs). But for the budet? Digital wins.

If you have a lab develop the film, you're looking at something like 25¢ per frame. And that's just developing — add that again for high-quality scans, and probably again for high-quality prints. The cost per frame for digital is effectively nothing per frame.

You can do it much more cheaply if you have your own darkroom. For black and white, that can be fairly cheap, assuming you have an adequately ventilated space that you can make light-tight. Still, you'll easily spend the difference between a digital body and a nice analog camera. Your cost per frame will be dramatically reduced after that, but still something like pennies as compared to that effective 0. And that's not even considering any option to scan your results — pure analog.

If you have the time, space, and interest, I wouldn't discourage you from going analog at all. But only then! If you're interested in getting great black and white results, you can do it either way. And if you make money your deciding factor, digital wins, and, really, the cheapest RAW-capable camera you can get your hands on.

  • Vinyl outlasting CD Discs is debatable, but nothing should outlast images stored in the cloud in multiple locations across multiple drives with recovery options like raid 5 or 6.
    – GlassGhost
    Jun 16, 2014 at 16:33
  • @GlassGhost Not outlast in terms of archiving, but in terms of being vital as a media. See for example this 2013 album available on vinyl or MP3 download, but no CD. Or Jack White's new album, which does come on CD but clearly the vinyl is where all the love went
    – mattdm
    Jun 16, 2014 at 16:49
  • I'd like to see the number of Jack White's vinyl vs download sales. I would bet CD's blow vinyl away. Vinyl is quite in the hipster camp in my opinion. Jun 16, 2014 at 20:08
  • @mattdm Do you know anyone who uses CDs? It's 2014, clearly people who want a Physical Media for display in their homes are going to want vinyl. In terms of usage, I'd be very surprised if Digital Media was anything less than 90% of all UserMinutes consumed.
    – GlassGhost
    Jun 16, 2014 at 20:41
  • @TomHubbard Sure. For now. But (since we're on the topic of music) it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. You could also argue that film photography is "in the hipster camp".
    – mattdm
    Jun 16, 2014 at 20:52

Personally I'd say based on your question to go analogue and get some b/w film!

You're looking for that 'look' ? You'll get that with film. You can get C41 process black & white film which can be dropped off and processed at any store that does regular colour processing. Or, get regular film and learn how to process it yourself at home.

Film doesn't have the immediacy of digital, but you'll enjoy the results when you get them.

As much as I love my Canon 5D I still have an older EOS 3 that I take out occasionally with a roll of b/w in it.

Oh also -- as you only get 24 or 36 shots, it forces you to be more thoughtful about the images you take!



It really depends on how many photos you want to take. You can get a film camera dirt cheap and slap some B&W film in it, but you are going to pay an arm and a leg for film and development. You'll get better quality than you'll get with a cheap digital, but you'll also rapidly exceed the cost of a good digital if you do much shooting since you'll be paying probably upwards of 50 cents every time you press the shutter.

If you just want to dabble, go film for the cheap quality results, but if you want to be able to really shoot a lot and get used to working in black and white, then get a digital camera and work from that. You'll give up a little in quality of the images, but you'll actually be able to shoot images without being concerned about breaking the bank.

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