Monochrome Sensor versus Color Files Converted

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Unless you frequent the Pentax Forums, you might not have seen this link. TOP reader Chris Feola emailed it to me the other day:

Your musings as you decided on your monochrome camera helped me decide to take the leap and buy a Pentax Monochrome when they were released last year.

I was so blown away by the quality of the Monochrome; it’s really like a different type of photography. But all over the internet there have been so many questions about how much of an improvement the Monochrome is over, say, black-and-white conversions from the K-3 III. So, being an old reporter dude, I decided to dig into it.

Here’s the bottom line: I interviewed the Monochrome engineering team, and they said: ‘At high sensitivity, the image quality from a monochrome sensor should be higher than an image obtained with the regular model using Pixel Shift.’


I ended up writing it all up for Pentax Forums.

He’s an excellent writer and has original things to say*.

Bliss in B&W

My own experience leads to three conclusions:

One: a converted sensor is inherently sharper than a converted color file. The difference is not earth-shaking or world-beating, and it won’t take your breath away, but it is kind of addictive. I’m not even a “sharpness guy” and yet I have to say I’m very taken with it. The detail is very clean as well. My 24-MP sensor gives about the same sharpness as converted Nikon D800 files—maybe even a little better—so my sense is that the converted sensor gives the same visual impression as a bayer-array sensor with 1.5X as many pixels.

Two: The conversion makes the sensor more light-sensitive. Not much, but noticeably. And probably measurably, although I have not attempted to measure it.

Three: Higher ISOs are much easier to work with, making sensors with no Bayer array much superior to converted color files if you often shoot in very low light. Chris talks about this in his article.

I strongly suspect that a Pentax Monochrome, which has a 25.7-MP APS-C sensor, will be absolutely all you need for extremely pleasing monochrome files. In fact it’s probably overkill. But read Chris’s article.

Of course the biggest advantage for me is that I visualize better in black-and-white when that’s all the camera sees. Some people do not experience this, but it’s emphatically true for me. I missed that for many years, ever since my cameras contained Tri-X, and I noticed the improvement again almost from Day One when I started using the converted sensor.

Here’s that quote from Chris’s article:

PentaxForums conducted an email interview with Pentax parent Ricoh Imaging, who translated our questions into Japanese, routed them to the appropriate executives, and then translated their answers into English for this article.


They said even they were surprised by the Monochrome’s image quality, especially at ISO 100,000 or higher. ‘Resized images do not fail even at ISO 1,600,000,’ they said. ‘At high sensitivity, the image quality from a monochrome sensor should be higher than an image obtained with the regular model using Pixel Shift.’

B&W from color files

Does this mean that you can’t do good work converting files from monochrome? Absolutely not. I’ve done that very successfully, and remember that sharpness never made a bad picture good. And there’s one big advantage of converting from color: you can apply virtual filter effects in post-processing for a wide variety of tonal adjustments. If you’re very sensitive to tonal relationships, you might find that this is the overriding consideration for you. But you’d also have to have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of color filtration effects, or you might either a.) get lost amongst all the possibilities, or b.) find yourself creating pictures one-by-one that aren’t cohesive in terms of their tonal “signature” or overall look.

B&W has a much broader range of interpretive and expressive possibilities than color; in the old days you picked the film, developer and paper that suited the look you liked, and they stayed constant from picture to picture and project to project. Having more freedom in digital means you have to have a better sense of maintaining that consistency intentionally.

Good work can be done in B&W using either approach, but I’d suggest not dismissing the idea of a dedicated B&W sensor cameras until you’ve tried one.


* …Unlike most of the internet which even has a dumb-repetition bot, known as AI, to help it churn out dumb repetitive things literally mindlessly. I got my first AI-written comment the other day, or at least I suspect it was. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think civilization is making progress.

Original contents copyright 2024 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

MikeR: “From actual experience using a monochrome-only camera, and then making a print on a monochrome-only printer, I must say, ‘Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.’ The only thing I use my Huawei P20 Pro phone for is its terrific Leica-engineered monochrome camera. Otherwise, it’s always in airplane mode, with any connectivity shut off. Why Huawei P20? Because I’m retired, and don’t have a lot of money to throw around for a Leica ‘Monochrom,’ or a converted Sigma. I just recently converted an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer to a carbon-based inkset. The prints I’m able to get from it, using the images from the P20 Pro, are jaw-dropping.”


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