For black and white photography, will there be any quality difference between using the built-in black and white mode, or shooting in color initially and then removing the color later using Photoshop (or similar application)?

I have a high-end compact camera, the Canon S95.

  • 5
    I was thinking about this just yesterday: it'd be nice to have a "B&W display mode) on-camera. This way you can get a quick preview of a B&W scene while doing the real conversion back in post. Jan 21 '11 at 15:09
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    @Craig Walker - if you shoot RAW and set your camera to B&W...thats pretty much whats happening
    – rfusca
    Jan 21 '11 at 19:26
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    Just a reminder since you are new, it is customary to accept an answer when you are satisfied with one.
    – Itai
    Jan 27 '11 at 1:03
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    In-camera you're stuck with whatever conversion it chose. In post processing, you can try different things and pick what you want. For example, you might try downweighting blue to get a darker sky. Mar 14 '12 at 0:30

Yes, there is a huge difference: You cannot change your mind if you set your camera to B&W.

Another difference is that there are multiple ways of converting to B&W, some people do not simply use luminance and will favor certain colors during the conversion. In the film days, it was possible to use a colored filter with B&W film to reduce the resulting look. Some cameras let you control this in-camera but you have a limited number of options (0-12).

Then again, if you have complete confidence it's what you want and don't want to waste your time on a computer, it is up to you.

  • I'm not sure I'd call the difference minor....
    – mattdm
    Jan 21 '11 at 16:53
  • @mattdm - Fair enough, changed it.
    – Itai
    Jan 21 '11 at 17:27
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    The S95 has a RAW mode. You are assuming this has been bypassed in favor of in-camera JPEG compression, right?
    – whuber
    Mar 9 '11 at 21:29
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    Obviously, as B&W mode has no effect on RAW files.
    – Itai
    Sep 6 '11 at 13:25
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    @naught101 - Yes. That is the usual implementation. Some cameras allow to simulate filters, so the do some color-shift before converting to B&W.
    – Itai
    Sep 19 '12 at 2:13

In General

It is almost always better to convert to black and white in post, because you have much more control over the process. If you use the in-camera conversion, you get it the way it converts. If you shoot in color, then you have many different ways in post to convert the image.

Here is an overview for B+W conversion (in GIMP).

Another way to think about it:

Suppose that you are told that you can have one free item from a candy counter. In camera conversion is like asking for the one in front without actually looking. Doing your own conversion is like looking through the selection and picking your favorite.


I actually prefer to shoot RAW, so I do select black and white in camera, but that is because in RAW mode, the only difference is the mode that is listed in the EXIF data. The actual image data is exactly the same as if I had selected color. If I were shooting JPEG I would probably never select monochrome because I don't want to lose control of the conversion.

  • And as @cryovac mentioned Photoshop—well, Photoshop's B&W conversion options are probably more thorough than camera's B&W settings. Mar 9 '11 at 15:07
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    At least in my camera, one can fine-tune the "candy" the black and white conversion gives, by changing between one of half a dozen "color filters", by changing the contrast (separately for shadows/highlights if you want), and etc. This is definitely not as much control as mixing the channels carefully by hand after the fact, but isn't quite grabbing sight-unseen either.
    – mattdm
    Mar 9 '11 at 18:03
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    The "free" part of your analogy is really kind of irrelevant.
    – rfusca
    Mar 9 '11 at 18:45

The best for chimping is shooting in black and white, as you see the finished result directly. It's hard to see how a color image will look in black and white until you have converted a lot of images.

The best for post processing is shooting in color. You have a lot more options for how to do the conversion to black and white than the camera can offer.

The best of both worlds is shooting RAW in black and white. The camera shows the image as black and white, but as the image data will be saved with all color information intact, you still have all the control in the post processing.


Yes, there is a difference. When you use the black and white mode, the camera takes a regular picture and then applies its own algorithm to convert that color image to a black and white one.

Converting to black and white is just not about removing colors.. it is about highlighting certain elements of your composition and removing some away. Every artist uses their own secret sauce to do the conversion. For e.g. Check this from Chase Jarvis' blog. No camera can do that on its own.


When using a camera with monochrome sensor, such as Phase One Achromatic+, or a camera converted by MaxMax, B&W photos will have significantly more detail.

There are three reasons for this:

  • These sensors do not use Bayer color filter, so every pixel will record full spectrum luminance value instead of only one color channel - no need for interpolating in post-processing.
  • Not throwing away part of spectrum on each sensel results in better sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Missing anti-alias filter means image won't be slightly blurred between pixels (although moiré might become problem in some rare cases).

The information coming off the sensor has to be interpolated and mapped to a color space in order to be seen. When you set your camera to the monochrome setting you are, in effect, choosing a BW "color space" except that the information isn't assigned a color but a shade of grey.


I once tried shooting B&W on my camera (Nikon D90), and when I imported the raw images to Aperture, they came out full colour!

The 'black and white' setting merely set the way that the raw data should be interpreted, and that RGB data from the sensor were sill stored in the file.

I don't know if Canons work the same way, but I suspect they do if you shoot raw. So, since then I've normally just post-processed to black and white.

  • See @Guffa's answer....
    – mattdm
    May 1 '11 at 13:14

The B&W setting is simply only applies to JPEG. It configures the in-camera image processing to create a B&W JPEG image. If you shoot JPEG only, you will only get a B&W image. If you shoot RAW, basically nothing will happen, as the setting is only for the JPEG conversion. If you shoot RAW+JPEG, you will get a regular RAW image, plus a B&W JPEG image.


Since I started doing my post-processing work in ShowFoto, I always shoot in colour, because the software allows me to not only retrospectively convert, but also to choose from a wide variety of film types. If you shoot in B&W in camera, you'll lose that ability.

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