Testing Which Camera Has the Best Black and White JPEG Profile

I love the beauty and simplicity of black-and-white photography, and there’s little process simpler than setting a camera to your preferred black-and-white mode and running wild with straight-of-the-camera JPEG files. But not all black-and-white picture profiles are equal, so which is the best?

My photographic journey began in the dark room, developing my film and making prints. Nowadays, chemicals have given way to RAW files in Photoshop, and I digitally make all my contrast and tonality adjustments. Most of us prefer the versatility of shooting RAW color files and converting to black-and-white, but two things occurred to me. Not everyone knows or wants to do significant editing to their files. As a camera reviewer, I’m always curious to see what the manufacturers choose to do to the overall look of their images. I wanted to know, for my own curiosity, as much as anything else, what the manufacturer’s black-and-white profiles look like when compared to each other.

We began our experiment at The Camera Store in Calgary with an exterior scene.

So, this was the impetus for a grand experiment. I would shoot three different and repeatable scenes: a high-contrast sunlit outdoor scene, a low-contrast tonally rich scene, and a portrait. I’d shoot each camera’s default monochromatic black-and-white profile and an additional unique profile if present. I’d equalize the exposures as much as possible in-camera and account for different sensor sizes and depth of field.

The goal was to get a good feel for the different tonal ranges and overall looks of each camera rather than some precise scientific equivalency. This is art, after all.

Dave Paul Portrait
Our portrait subject was Dave Paul from TCSTV and we went with a contrasty lighting setup.

I was also torn about throwing specific monochromatic camera versions into the mix. Cameras such as the Pentax K3 III Monochrome and Leica M11 Monochrom would have been exciting but the list of cameras was already excessive, and I wanted to stick to the profiles that the vast majority of people would be using day to day. I tried to include all the major players and stick to models with the latest profiles. The list was vast: Sony, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, OM System, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and Leica.

We also did a lower contrast scene under controlled, soft lighting.

Contrast Is Key

I’d like to preface my findings by stating that you should check out the video we made to get the most information possible. However, I can state that a few clear patterns arose from our tests. First, I found that their differences are relatively minor when a company offers multiple black-and-white profiles.

Fujifilm is a good example of this. Its standard monochrome and Acros profiles have similar tonality, with Acros offering slightly less contrast and adding an organic-looking film grain to the images. The differences are subtle.

The difference between the standard Panasonic profile and its “Leica” profile was a little more distinct, with the Leica look being very close to what Leica delivers and the standard profile being far less stylized.

Secondly, I found that the manufacturers tend to fall into three main overall looks, largely concerning how they treat the mid-tones. Everyone wants a fairly dramatic-looking contrast with bright whites and dark blacks, but where they choose to place mid-tones greatly impacts the look overall. Brighter mid-tones make the image look vivid and bright but with a flatter overall curve. Most companies, though, went with darker mid-tones, which add a lot of drama and, when coupled with crushed black tones, can look downright aggressive.

There is no right or wrong answer but I admit that my style of editing — and I’m sure the majority of others — tends to go towards the darker mid-tones kind of look. But let’s start with the manufacturers that prefer a brighter overall look first.

The Brighter, the Better

OM System goes towards lots of greys and pushed-up highlights, creating a natural and cheerful tone. The overall look has an unprocessed feel with the OM-1 camera, almost like you simply desaturated a color image. The shadows are still deep and rich, but I feel most users will want to deepen the contrast, which you don’t want to do with JPEG files. Skin tones and middle greys look very flat and lack much separation. I think most people will want to shoot RAW files with the OM cameras and edit them in post.

OM System goes for an overall brighter feel to its black-and-white shots.
Dave Paul OM SYSTEM Portrait
The portrait of Dave is a little more washed out without much separation in the lighter tones.
The lower contrast scene was rendered just fine with OM System and the shadows are still rich.

Pentax also chooses to go with a brighter approach to the mid-tones but the Pentax K3 III does keep highlights bright and shadows dark with better separation between the greys compared to OM System. Skin tones have plenty of tonal range, and I think many users will be very happy with how Pentax cameras create black-and-white images. Dark and moody isn’t always the best approach and Pentax does the brighter look very well.

Pentax Outdoor Scene
Pentax also likes a more bright and airy feel to its black-and-white shots.
Dave Paul Pentax Portrait
Dave’s skin tones are more natural looking than OM System’s rendition but I prefer these tones to be pulled down more.
Pentax Low Contrast scene
No issues with lower contrast scenes. There is some nice tonality from Pentax here.

The Goldilocks Zone

The Canon EOS R5 has a beautifully balanced black-and-white profile with deep, rich dark tones and a middle-of-the-road approach to grey tones. I liked the general purpose nature of Canon’s profile, with good separation of the black tonality, like David’s t-shirt being distinct from the shadows in the background. Brighter skin tones are rendered nicely, and yet the overall drama is still present.

Canon do a lovely job with an overall balanced feel to its images. I like the position of the mid-tones here.
Dave Paul canon portrait
The highlights pop and the shadows have detail and separation. Good job, Canon.
Canon low contrast scene
There is a smooth and balanced feel here with the Canon profile.

The Panasonic G9 II also prefers a balanced approach, with a rendering of the outdoor scene that is very similar to Pentax but with slightly edgier mid-tones. Shadows move towards the darker side, and skin tones are handled authentically. I also tested the “Leica” profile, which closely mimics the Leica cameras. The stark clarity in the highlights is very apparent, and the mid-tones are even darker. I like the “Leica” profile when I want a more serious, punchy look, and it’s nice to have the standard profile when you want something a little more middle-of-the-road.

The Panasonic standard profile is balanced with some nice richness in the mid-tones.
Panasonic mimics the Leica look nicely with its profile where the mid-tones are darker, and highlights have nice separation in the reflected clouds.
The standard Panasonic profile has a good, balanced overall look which suits many shots well.
The Leica profile from Panasonic certainly ups the contrast a bit with more punch when you need it.
No surprises here with the standard Panasonic black-and-white profile.
Again, the Leica profile from Panasonic has a bit more edge and deeper contrast which works well for low-contrast scenes.

Fujifilm has long been famous for its film simulation modes and is arguably the most used camera system for shooting JPEGs in these modes without resorting to Raw files. I went with the XT-5 as the body for our tests. The standard monochrome profile is one of my favorites because it strikes a great balance between punchiness and tonality. The overall tonality is pleasing, with just enough of a pull-down in the mid-tones to provide some edge, but with silky grey tones and lovely skin tones, too. Shadows are rich with plenty of detail retained.

The Acros profile is designed to mimic a famous 100 ISO film stock from Fujifilm and offers less contrast than the standard profile. This is a lovely choice for many scenes and works great for most portraits. Acros also digitally adds a subtle but very natural-looking grain structure to the images, which further endears the profile to many photographers. I prefer the standard profile in most situations, but I can also see why Fujifilm gets so much credit for its film simulation modes.

Fujifilm are famous for its film simulation modes and the standard black-and-white profile is a personal favorite.
I wanted to try the Acros profile more from Fujifilm and here you can see the slightly softer contrast, pushed up highlights, and organic looking film grain that’s added.
The standard Fujifilm look is deep and rich, and I think I still prefer it. I like the dramatic look of Dave’s skin tones here.
Here, the Acros profile gives the brighter skin tones and grain structure that we would expect and actually looks more contrasty due to the raised highlights.
The standard black-and-white mode does a good job of adding punch to a flat scene.
This is a good example of where the Fujifilm Acros profile puts a subtle grain pattern in the pages of the book.

Deep and Dramatic

The Nikon Z8 has a dramatic black-and-white tonality with subdued highlights, pulled-down mid-tones, and inky black shadows. This gives immediate strength to the Nikon images and has a very eye-catching look. Even lower contrast situations have punch and depth, and the final look is very close to how I usually finish black-and-white images in post.

Immediately, you can see the darker mid-tones and more dramatic look of the Nikon profile. The shadows are deep but still have detail.
I love the result that Nikon gives to the portrait of Dave. I would probably edit my RAW files to look close to this.
Even flatter scenes still have contrast and drama with the Nikon black-and-white look.

The Leica M11 also uses deep black tones and lots of contrast. However, the way the tones are handled is subtle and nuanced. Blacks are deep without being lost, and there is a glorious handling of brighter tones with lots of contrast applied between bright areas. This gives a rich and dramatic look but with vibrant highlights and eye-catching clarity to the images.

Skin tones are gorgeous, and how Leica handles the grey tones is masterful, although the final look can border on the muddy side. The effect can be a little stylized for some people’s liking, but it is no wonder Leica’s black-and-white images are a fan favorite. I also tried out the Leica Hi-Contrast profile, and the difference is minor. Slightly more contrast is applied, but I would stick to the standard profile as it already has plenty of oomph.

Leica have always had a unique and powerful look to its black-and-white images. This scene has depth but with lots of pop in the brighter tones.
I did try the Leica Hi-Contrast mode to and the results are pretty close. You can see even more contrast, but I like the standard look.
The standard Leica profile is dark and moody. I like the subtlety of the grey tones but it’s a little too dark and muddy looking overall.
The Hi-Contrast version is very similar but the shadows are compressed too much. With an overall brighter exposure it would work much better.
The Leica standard profile shows off the myriad of tones in this image with the overall darker feel that Leica prefers.
I like the extra punch that the Hi-Contrast profile delivers in this relatively flat scene.

The Sony a7R V is a personal favorite camera of mine, but the black-and-white mode might be too dramatic, even for me. The overall look is similar to what Nikon and Leica do, but the shadows are almost black. This extra drama might be a stylistic choice that you prefer, but the blacks are intense, whether you like them or not. In Dave’s portrait, you can see his shirt is hopelessly lost against the background. It’s not an issue for a RAW file, but it’s too dark if you are shooting JPEGs. Still, the skin tones look great, and I like how Sony treats the highlights and midtones in general.

Sony has a really beautiful look to its images, but the shadows get lost a bit.
I like what Sony does with all the tones except the shadows. You can see here how the skin looks great but the shirt and background become almost solid black.
In a flatter scene, the Sony profile works well, but I still want those shadows boosted a touch brighter.

An Enlightening Experiment

I was surprised to see how much variation was present from profile to profile. I assumed most companies would take a very balanced, similar approach, yet every manufacturer seems to have a clear and unique approach to the final look of their images.

Certainly, if you are going to do your own conversions from color images, the results of this experiment are largely moot. However, if you want to get quick black-and-white images straight out of the camera, I hope this experiment provides some clarity about the final monochromatic look of your favorite camera.