This is a question that comes up periodically, so I thought I'd answer it, so that I can point future questioners to this page.
First of all, it's not a technical issue. People who are technical and practical have a hard time grasping that. It's a procedural, visual, psychological, mental issue. It relates not to what happens in your camera, but to what happens in your head.
What happens for many good photographers (I believe all, but I'm not going to argue the point) is that they learn to see the way the camera sees. Whatever kind of camera you have, you learn from experience what the camera does, with more or less subtlety depending on your ability and your perceptiveness—and then you begin to see the world in terms of recognizing opportunities to deploy that camera's capabilities. Good photographers will not only make different pictures with different cameras, they will see the world differently when they're photographing with different cameras. This is why many great photographers settle on one camera or one type of camera for their work. It's because the way their camera sees suits the way they see with a camera.
Imagine if all you had available to you was a soft-focus lens, to name just one random example. Gradually, you'd learn to recognize (in the world, with your eyes) subjects that make the kind of soft-focus pictures you like. Gradually, you'd learn to ignore picture-subjects that depend on fine detail and clarity. Those pictures wouldn't be for you, so to speak. You wouldn't "see" them when you were out looking at the world with your camera.
A positive example this time, one I've used before: when Alex Webb began photographing in the tropics, he realized that the harsh sunlight and hard contrast was impossible to capture with slide film. So he decided that, since he was going to get black empty shadows anyway, he might as well embrace that and use them as a graphical element in his work. So he began to see pictures where the shadows would be strong graphical elements. That's not the way his eye saw them; it was the way his brain knew the camera would see them.
It's not just that the pictures would be different if his camera and film could record infinite dynamic range and shadow detail; it's that the pictures he saw wouldn't be there. He's not seeing the world alone. He's seeing the world how his camera and film will see it; he's finding with his mind the pictures that he knows his equipment and materials will see. Most good photographers do some version of this, even if semi- or sub-consciously.
It's the same with B&W. Taking a color picture and converting it to B&W is trivial. What's not trivial is learning how to see in B&W.
To name one trivial effect, you stop being attracted to, and taking pictures of, pretty colors. Why? Because your camera can't capture them. It ignores them. So you have to do so as well. Working with a camera that can convert color to B&W is not the same as working with a camera that cannot record color. The latter affects the way you see things when you're out photographing. When you know that B&W is all the camera will do, then you start to ignore colors and see luminances, tonal relationships, surface, and structure. It's a different way of seeing.
An analogous example is what happens to blind peoples' hearing. It becomes more acute. When you "can't see" color, your understanding of values becomes more acute.
Not everybody needs such a thing for their work. Only a small minority of people do. A small minority of those people are artists whose work might enrich the world. (And please, do me a favor here—if you're not amongst that small minority, have the flexibility of mind to acknowledge that that small minority exists, which is to say that other people might actually want choices you don't happen to want. I've acknowledged you; it's not too much to ask you to acknowledge me.)
From a technical standpoint it's not necessary to have dedicated B&W cameras. From a business standpoint it's no company's obligation to provide artists with the tools they might need. From a methodological, aesthetic, and educational standpoint, however—and speaking from a critical and cultural viewpoint—it's essential that this option remain available to photographers who need it for their work, as well as, perhaps, to students who could use it for their training and education. (A year shooting B&W-only will make any color photographer a better color photographer.)
That's why at least a couple of B&W-only cameras are needed, as a choice, and that's why the camera industry's failure to provide them is an increasing detriment to the art of photography, and collectively a shame.
For now we have film, and conversions from Bayer arrays. Be happy—because that's all we're ever likely to get.
There are sure to be a few arrogant comments to the effect that "maybe you need that, but I don't." Those will be from people who don't understand what I just wrote, or who aren't really B&W photographers, or who lack the aptitude to accurately appraise their own B&W skills or accomplishment, or who haven't actually carried out the exercise of learning to see in B&W—consider the fate of most tutorials, which is that we imagine ourselves doing them and imagine what we might learn if we did, which takes the place of actually doing the exercise and actually experiencing what there is to learn. It's why I don't write how-to books.
It's likely, as I say, that those of us who want some reasonable choice of B&W-only sensors will never get them; that's that "tyranny of the market" that I've written about before. Not enough money in it. (You might know that Leica almost made a B&W-only version of the M8, until the accountants closed the door on the idea. That was the rumor, anyway.) [UPDATE: Leica did introduce a BW-only camera, the M-Monochrom, in May 2012. At $7,950 for the body only it's too expensive for many people, myself included, but I know several people who own and like them. —MJ] On a more global level, our (and by "our" here I mean those who want B&W-only options) current fate is the eventual fate of us all. I have to admit that a cold wind blew through my heart when the Nikon 1 came out. We're looking at our future there, I fear.
One of the great advantages of film is that, as a consumer staple, it was relatively cheap and relatively democratic. Sure, you couldn't use a film that didn't exist, but in general anyone could afford a roll of film, and poor artists could to some degree make up in work what they lacked in money: they could do their own processing and printing, and earn with their time and effort what they couldn't pay someone else to do.
But nobody can pay for their own sensor, even with money. We're eventually going to get what the market wants to provide for us, and no more. Those of us who want B&W-only sensors are already face to face with that brick wall; those of you happily using color Bayer sensors haven't felt it yet. That doesn't mean you won't. A sensor is an industrial product requiring the application of great expertise and investment by a specialized company. It requires a large potential market to support its creation and commercial dissemination. Right now, manufacturers are still exploring what's technologically possible—we find ourselves in that fecund period of innovation and competition in which manufacturers are trying whatever products they can dream up in order to find out what will be profitable, and happily competing in terms of quality for reasons of prestige. We photographers are following along, thinking we deserve this and that it will always continue. But the fate of industrial consumer products is that industry dictates what consumers get—and, eventually, industry will figure out the practical minimum that the largest part of the market will accept. Those who want or need something radically divergent from that will just be out of luck. Just like those of us now who want B&W-only options, or who wish Fuji's dual-photosite HDR sensor hadn't bombed in the market, or who wish Foveon were the main technological stream, etc.
Music is an instructive example. (The peril of choosing analogies for this argument is that people will then argue about the analogous cases, failing to see that providing the example in the first place is just a rhetorical gambit to help get the main point across. Oh well.) We as consumers don't get anywhere near the quality of music carrier of which technology is currently capable. Since the long-playing record, we have suffered not just one but two successive waves of demoticization and diminution of quality in the public standard—first to Redbook CD, which was superior in convenience and durability to LP but inferior in sound quality potential, and then to MP3, which is a debasement and simplification of the Redbook standard. Meanwhile, technology is capable of far, far better methods of encoding and playback—but consumers aren't getting their music in that form. Not enough people know the difference, and even fewer people see the need to pay for it. There comes a point where increasing quality becomes no longer mass-marketable, and that's the point where available products and the desires of the connoisseur minority begin to diverge. It's why I can't buy a good toaster.
We haven't reached that point with sensors yet, but we will eventually. The market has already begun to express glimmers of its indifference to infinitely larger and better sensors. That hasn't affected mainstream technological development or product offerings yet, but it will eventually. Sooner or later the sensor in the average phone will be the equivalent of the MP3 file—good enough for most people—and alternatives will get thin on the ground. "Good" cameras will be some spiritual descendant of the Nikon 1 (which is why it's the wave of the future): products designed deliberately to be good enough and no better. There will be a small prestige market for specialty professional products—we hope, anyway. But it will be expensive and to some degree elusive, like it would be if, say, you were forced to choose between a cameraphone, a Nikon 1, or a Nikon D3x or Leica S2 today.
I can anticipate that some people will respond that that's nonsense—that the market will take care of everyone and provide any product that anyone wants and will buy. But please remember the main subject of this post. That's refutation enough of that.
Someday, we (this time I mean enthusiasts who want the best possible image quality) could all at least theoretically find ourselves in a position uncomfortably close to that of those who want B&W-only sensors now, or those who wish everyone who buys music wanted and demanded 96 kHz/24-bit HD carriers—either forced into a little backwater of connoisseurship with limited and expensive offerings, or just plain S.O.L.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Joe: "I started with black and white film, Tri-X in 1967 or 1968, and I shot nothing but Tri-X for probably 20 years. I tried shooting color, but the added dimension was overwhelming. I couldn't 'see' my images in color. I had my hands full just framing and shooting the limited number of variables I was dealing with in B&W. But now that I've been digital-only for about seven years, I have lost my ability to see in black and white. The few times I've converted digital images to B&W, it's obvious that my eye just doesn't work that way any more. It's funny how our brains are shaped by our tools."
Featured Comment by Dan: "In other words, the medium is the message....
"I switched back to film precisely because the 'look' of a scene can change so much depending on what the recording medium is.
"It seems to me that digital cameras have been evolving toward a platonic ideal of a camera that can do everything—no matter how challenging the scene, or what the needs of the photographer, the camera will be able to record it. But to me, that suggests a paralysis of choice, where a photographer is easily overwhelmed by the infinite interpretations she can apply to the scene.
"I actually like the specificity of film—artists work best when constrained. I walk through an autumnal orchard and do feel regret that I've nothing but HP5+ in the bag—but I was never a photographer of pretty colors, anyway."
Featured Comment by William Porter: "I don't get this, Mike. Serious black-and-white shooters (and I think I'm one of 'em) have everything we could ask for RIGHT NOW. I shoot all the time using raw + jpeg capture, and with the jpeg set to B&W. This allows me to see B&W on the camera's display and keeps my brain in B&W mode. When I go to post processing in Lightroom, I convert to black and white when I import—but I still have all the color info. This is hugely important to me. In my view shooting B&W in this way is way better than what I did decades ago shooting B&W on film."
Featured Comment by Paul Glover: "Like everything else these days, we're in a downward race toward generic boring mediocrity. Everything average, unless you want to pay insane premiums and even then only if someone is willing to risk making it or you really are a money-no-object person and can have it custom-made.
"Sometimes, average is OK. My rock music collection is migrating to MP3 because I don't listen to it as much as I used to and MP3 is perfectly adequate for my needs. My classical section, which I listen to much more often, will remain in CD form. 'Average' just doesn't cut bait for that.
"Anyway back to cameras: modifying the firmware and raw converter of a Bayer-filtered color camera to only display black-and-white misses the point. If you only ever shoot black-and-white and you're comfortable with using filters for contrast control, the Bayer filter is a waste of light and resolution. You're dividing your sensor resolution by four to get color, interpolating it back up to the sensor resolution, then throwing away the color information you just lost 3/4 of your sensor's actual pixels to get. Seems kind of silly to me.
"Lose the Bayer filter and you could either get the full resolution from the sensor with no interpolation, or you could do some sort of averaging to reduce noise.
"What I wonder is if you could maybe even do something with the extra pixels (a Bayer-type ND filter array?) to expand dynamic range and allow a digital camera to finally have a proper toe and shoulder in the response curve instead of just abruptly clipping to black or white.
"Of course, chances are only Mike will buy the blasted thing, while I'd love to but can't afford it. Bah. Just have to stick to cheap medium format gear and help keep Ilford in business!"
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "FYI, those of us who actually enjoy manually shifting gears in our cars are encountering a similar problem. And despite many claims to the contrary, using 'flappy paddles' to shift gears manually isn't the same thing, even if it is a technically superior method in every other respect...."
Mike replies: Don't get me started!
Featured Comment by John Camp: "I saw a startling example of your argument somewhere on the web the other day, but can't find it now. They were photos taken by Farm Security Administration photographers in color, during the Great Depression. A number of shots by FSA photographers are among the most famous American photographs—and these famous shots are all in B&W.
"Because of those photos, and the harshness of that era, I think of the Depression in black and white. But it wasn't that at all, and these color FSA photos bring that home in a way that I found almost shocking. The subtle grays of weathered wood (which seemed like metaphors for the lined, weathered faces of the migrant workers, or the bleak grayness of the entire era) suddenly become brilliant chrome yellow, or some other bright color.
"This reinforces the whole idea that B&W is its own aesthetic, particularly now, when we can so easily switch from B&W to color and back."
Featured Comment by Glenn Gordon: "I think 'Taking a color picture and converting it to B&W is trivial' puts it too dismissively. I've been using a G12 which 'presents' in color, but that hardly means I'm 'seeing in color,' or enslaved to jujubes, or that conversion of the image to B&W is trivial—not if B&W was my intent all along. You see past or through or beyond the color on the screen or in the viewfinder of any camera, film or digital, no?
"I shot this in NYC a couple of weeks ago—'in color' but not really...it recorded as color but color had nothing to do with it."
Mike replies: Enough people aren't getting my point that I think maybe I might have to try again.
Featured Comment by michael walker: "I'm sorry, I only got to the picture and started browsing through Alex Webb's pictures. How comes I didn't know that guy? Thank you Mike! And I'm sure you're right!"
Featured Comment by richard: "Is the question about learning to see in B&W? I don't actually believe that we 'see' in colour, or at least it's not our primary visual perception. Shape, proximity, light and shade, movement—all come before colour. As an adjunct I think it's well known that most people do not have good colour memory—witnesses of accidents for example often cannot recall the colour of a car."
Featured Comment by George LeChat: "My freezer is filled with black-and-white sensors. I don't see the problem."