Black & White Conversions for Digital Photos

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Autumn Stroll Color film has been with us for many decades, yet we are still drawn to black & white photography. As viewers, there’s just something crisp and clean about a black & white photograph. I like to think that perhaps it just makes us focus more on the subject or message at hand. As photographers, it adds an extra layer of challenge: Composition, texture, tones and dynamic range are significantly more important (and more sensitive). Even in the digital age, black & white has never lost its appeal. As a primer of sorts, I’d like to share my process with you so that you can learn, explore and expand on my knowledge. Hopefully, this will get you started down a path of creating some exceptional black & white photographs.

First Thoughts: Some Initial Tips

Shooting in black & white for is very different from shooting in color.  This is especially true with film as you literally had no option to go back. The digital age is a bit different in that you will still shoot in color at first, but you have to do so knowing and understanding the full process. The process isn’t really that complicated. You will be taking a photograph, then you will convert it to black & white in post-processing. It’s that conversion part that really trips people up, however. A black & white photo is not simply a color photo lacking in saturation, nor is it a strict removal of the color data. As strange as it might sound, we want to preserve that color data as much as possible for our conversion. I will be spending a great deal of time on the conversion: It’s not difficult, but it is a lot more in depth than one might initially think.

As for shooting, you basically capture the same way you would if you were shooting for color. But I do have a few pointers:

  • Shoot in RAW – We’ll be pushing the limits of those colors, so if you shoot in RAW, we won’t be missing any data. JPG does convert, but you’ll find it to be unforgiving and even sometimes grainy (the bad kind of grainy) in the end.
  • Near Perfect Exposure – Try to get as close to perfect exposure as possible. Chimp your shots, if you must, but make sure that the exposure is spot on. Any tweaking you do on exposure in the end will add limiting factors to the dynamic range. We don’t want that.
  • Light Is More Important – Light and, more importantly, shadows are going to really help you to define the subjects in black & white space. Don’t be afraid to use dramatic lighting.
  • Know Your Tones – In black & white, some colors don’t look all that different from other colors. A certain shade of green, for example, doesn’t look that different from fire engine red. This is important because you won’t want things like similar tones getting in the way of your image. This isn’t a serious concern in digital because you can push the luminance of certain color ranges in post. But you should still be aware. Do a lot of trial shots for practice. Quick Tip: If you have a yellow or red lens filter, I like to peer through those to get a better idea of how something would look in monochrome. It will show you which colors will blend and contrast as seen by the camera.

My Conversion Process

My conversion process involves several steps, but this process is really just a framework. Depending on the photo, I may supplement with additional steps, or I may skip over certain steps. It’s not an exact science. You will really need to play around with your photos to get the look you want. I expect that your own process will evolve into something slightly different and uniquely your own. I’m using Lightroom (version 3, in my case), but the principals will apply if you’re using Aperture or whatever. As a sidebar, I will say that using a “studio” type application like Aperture or Lightroom does make things a lot easier than, say, strict Photoshop. Photoshop isn’t truly non-destructive with tweaks such as exposure, contrast and the like. You are essentially changing the photo each time you make such an edit. Whereas Lightroom is truly non-destructive, simply updating a database backend, leaving the original unchanged. In other words, it’s easier to go back and layer tweaks in Lightroom. Furthermore, exposure changes are always relative to the original file (Photoshop is always relative to the current status).

For ease and understanding, I have separated my process into three major chunks: Preparations, Conversions and Finishing.

Preparations

This aspect of my process isn’t very different from my typical color photography (save for any effects and special edits). And so I’ll be a little more broad in my overview of this step as you probably already approach your photographs similarly. In this stage, I make sure that the exposure is perfect. Hopefully, you followed my tip and it’s pretty close to perfect already. But if it isn’t, now is the time to fix it. I’ll also want to make sure things like Brightness, Contrast and Clarity is in order. For black & white conversions, I will bump up the contrast a little bit more than I would with color. I may do the same for Clarity. Initially, a higher contrast and clarity does make the color-range Luminance tweaks easier. And I can always go and back it out later if I want less contrast or clarity (I love Lightroom). Also of note, I like to take care of my sharpness and noise reduction at this time as well. Not that these can’t be done later, but I find it easier to fix noise in full-color. You won’t want to bother with things like Saturation or Vibrance. The way I convert, these eventually get balanced and disabled automatically. Don’t bother with special effects like vignette or grain at this point as they may distract you during your conversion.

This is what we're starting with.  I've got the white balance where I want it, a little on the cool side.  This will give me a good basis for the conversion.

This is what we’re starting with. I’ve got the white balance where I want it, a little on the cool side. This will give me a good basis for the conversion.

There are two settings that are really worth tinkering with:  Color Temperature (“Temp” in Lightroom) and Tint.  Both are settings you’re likely accustomed to when trying to white-balance your images.  Normally, you would be looking to get the most accurate color out of these settings (or, I suppose you’d be trying to really make things look out of whack for artistic reasons).  But you can take advantage of these settings to make some colors appear richer and more vibrant so that you can really get a boost from your conversion.  For example, if I really want the greens to pop, I might first tweak the tint so that the image is more green to begin with, then they’ll pop after the conversion.

The ultimate goal at the end of this stage is to have an image that serves as a great basis for your conversion.  Just remember the entire process; the photo may not look presentable at this stage (too much saturation, etc).

Conversion

Here’s where the process is going to get very specific to Lightroom.  The panel layout may be different and some of the terminology, perhaps, but the principals are the same.

mid-conversionLet’s start by flipping directly into Black & White.  In Lightroom, you’ll want to go to the HSL / Color / B&W panel.  In the panels heading, click on “B&W” and you will instantly see all color drop out of the shot.  You’ll probably see right away certain areas – or more specifically, certain colors – that you would like to enhance.  There will come time for that.    Leave that panel alone for now.

Next:  Tone Curve.  Right away, I like to tweak the tone curve.  In my opinion, the two most important ranges on the scale are absolute white and absolute black.  The tone curve is the best way to ensure that.  I’ll liberally boost the Highlights (+52 for this photo), and drop the shadows (-35 for this photo).  Now I need to compensate in the mid-range.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but I actually decreased the lights (-16) and increased the darks (+20).  This gives me nice separation throughout the photo.  The darkest of spots are therefore adjacent to areas that are much lighter, and vice versa for the brighter tones.  We’re really playing tricks on the eyes.  Or are we just taking advantage of perception?

Now lets return to fine tune the color.  Let’s go back to that HSL / Color / B&W panel.  Basically what you’re looking at is a mixing pot, a bunch of sliders for different color ranges.  For a given color range, you can move the slider to the left to make that range darker.  Or you can move it to the right to make it brighter.  This works not unlike the physical filters you can stick on your lens, but with more control.  The sliders will each be at a different point depending on the image or depending on your white balancing options.  If you know the specific ranges you’d like to lighten or darken, you can simply move the sliders accordingly.  Alternatively, you can click that little circle at the top left corner of the panel, select a specific area then click and drag up or down to lighten or darken respectively.  Just be aware that if you click on a tonal range that is somewhere between two ranges, the program may pick one range or the other.  Like that pink vest: it’ll select either the red range or the magenta range.  Along the same lines, you may want to tinker a bit with colors that aren’t seemingly in your image, they may have just enough influence to provide some separation that you’d like.

It may take some trial and error to get things exactly the way you want.  You may tweak one color range only to find that you lose the separation or the dynamics of a different color range.  So keep playing with the sliders until you get the balance you want.

Finishing

Once you get all of the tones where you want, you can pretty much call the image complete.  But there is some nice refinement that you may choose to do to really refine the image.  I like to add just a touch of vignetting.  I don’t want to over-do it.  I just want to soften the bright spots near the edges of the photo.  I also like add a little bit of grain to bring a little of that film quality into the photograph.  Sometimes I’ll drop my clarity and contrast a little (if you remember, I tend to increase both at the beginning to make conversion easier).  Dropping clarity gets rid of hard edges and gives the photo a much older look. Lowering contrast will soften the lightest and darkest parts of the photo.  Finally, I often introduce just a small amount of sepia toning.

So here’s the finished product:

Autumn Stroll

Final Thoughts

So much of black & white conversions are about preferences.  But a well processed black & white photograph will easily stand out above the rest.  It’s important to realize that a black & white photograph is possibly more dynamic than it’s color counterpart.  There is far more you can tweak that will affect the outcome of the photo.  And there is far less room for error.  Push those sliders too far and it will be obvious; to you and the viewer.  In the end, I feel that an ideal black & white photo has an absolute black point, and absolute white and everything in between, all in fine balance.  So tinker around.  I’m sure you’ll fall in love with black & white.

 

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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