Many of us love black-and-white prints for their simplicity and how they can increase focus on a subject or feeling. Here are a few tips to consider when making black-and-white prints from color digital images.
Capture your image in color, and in RAW format. Resist the temptation to use your camera’s black-and-white shooting mode, as it throws away too much image information to be useful. Make the conversion to black and white later, in Photoshop or another image editor.
Bracket your exposures. It’s always a good idea to shoot the same scene several times with different exposure settings, but perhaps bracketing is even more important when you intend to convert the image to black and white. If you use this technique, you will have more options later in terms of working with tonal range, contrast, highlight/shadow detail, and other image properties.
Pre-visualize your image in black and white when planning your shot. Black-and-white images are often their best when you want to focus on feeling, contrast, texture, or a particular element. This takes some practice, so please keep at it. Many photographers have online galleries of black-and-white images – go take a look!
Make your conversion to black-and-white in Photoshop instead of Adobe Camera RAW. After you transfer your image files from your camera to your computer, you will open it in a RAW processor and make adjustments to tweak exposure, color balance, etc. Although Adobe Camera RAW provides tools for black-and-white conversion, I recommend that you perform this step in Photoshop using an adjustment layer. So after you’ve made your basic adjustments in the RAW processor, load the image into Photoshop.
To demonstrate how I make my conversions, I’ll be using an image taken on a windy spring day, near the California Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. It has been through the basic adjustments in Camera RAW, and normal levels and curves adjustments in Photoshop. I’ve made up a split view of the image, color vs. Black and White, so you can see the impact of the conversion process.
First, use the Layers panel to create a black-and-white adjustment layer. The red arrow in this illustration points to the button that controls access to Photoshop’s adjustment layers. Pick Black and White, of course.
You can adjust your black-and-white conversion using any or all of the six color sliders provided. The best way to start is to take note of the colors present in the image, and adjust the appropriate slider. I’ve made a significant adjustment to the Red Slider, and of course you can see the change in the image.
You also have the option of using third-party software or plug-ins. Two of my favorites are Nik Silver Effex Pro, and Alien Skin Exposure.
Once your adjustments are completed, save your file in Photoshop (PSD) or TIFF format with the layers intact. You may want to adjust the image later.
Black-and-white printing can be greatly influenced by the type of paper you decide to use. Photo papers, such as HP Professional Satin, give a sharp, contrasty look to many images. Other papers, such as HP Hahnemuhle Smooth Fine Art paper, yield a slightly less punchy print, and give wonderful mid-tone transitions.
The printer you select will also have great impact on image appearance. I recommend using a printer that has at least three black inks. I personally prefer the HP Designjet Z3200, which uses three black inks on photo paper, and four black inks on fine art/watercolor style media.
I also recommend that the printer be capable of printing with black ink only; printers that use colored inks to create a grayscale image sometimes create a color cast in the print (try to avoid these). If the printer driver permits it, use the option to “Print in Grayscale” or similar function.
The illustration here is the second print dialogue box, from a Mac desktop running Leopard. If you are running Snow Leopard, you can specify Grayscale under the dropdown menu choice “Color Options”.
Once your print is completed, you’ll want to check it for quality. Some of the things to inspect include shadow/highlight detail, smooth transitions between tonal ranges, and smooth edges in areas of high contrast.
A Black and White print should be completely neutral (composed of whites, blacks, and grays) with no discernible color cast or tone. Of course, you can choose to add colorant in selected areas, or create duo-, tri-, or quadtone prints (see Jon Canfield’s post on this). But in this case, you are no longer printing with black ink only.
We have so many new paper types to try, and new tools to make our black-and- white images sparkle. It really makes sense to work with your images and see what you can do with black and white!
Now that black-and-white photos are more popular than ever, there seems to be quite a bit of interest in toned images that mimic platinum or selenium looks as well. Thanks to the toning features built into Photoshop, it’s relatively easy to make these types of images.
To get started, you first need to do a basic black-and-white conversion. If you’re using Photoshop CS3 or CS4, this is best done with either the Channel Mixer or the Black-and-White command. Figure 1 shows the image I’m starting with, a photo of Yosemite Falls captured from Sentinel Dome.
Once you’ve converted your image to black and white, throw out the color information by selecting Image > Mode > Grayscale. Now you can select the toning options from Image > Mode > Duotone (Figure 2)
You’ll use the same dialog to do duotone, tritone, or quadtone images. The only difference is the number of tones you have to work with.
Let’s start with a duotone to see how the process works. When you first open the Duotone dialog, only one color box will be active. So select Duotone from the popup menu. All of the different color libraries in Photoshop are available for you to work with. I prefer working with the Pantone libraries because the organization is so logical. Click on the black square to start, opening the Color Picker. Now, select Pantone from the Color Libraries (Figure 3).
I’ll do a platinum-toned image to start with. The first color to select (Ink 1) is your darkest tone. In this example I’m going with Pantone 432 C from the Pantone Solid Matte library.
For Ink 2, I select Pantone 421 C (Figure 4). This is my lightest color. Every tone in the image will be within the Ink 1 and Ink 2 range. Where the real power comes in is with the ability to control the curve for each ink color by clicking on the box next to the color sample (Figure 5). While this looks very much like the curves dialog you’re used to, the curve works differently with duotones.
While the standard curves control determines highlight and shadow strength and ramp, the curves control in the Duotones dialog determines the ink volume for that color. In this case, I’ve lowered the levels quite a bit to open up this image detail. You can view the color ramp at the bottom of the curve to get an idea of how the adjustments are affecting your image. Like a standard curves adjustment, click to place a point, and drag up or down to adjust that point.
Here’s the result of my adjustments with a final duotone (Figure 6):
By using more color options you can have even greater control over the finished image while still maintaining much more control over how the colors are applied. Figure 7 shows the settings I’ve used for a tritone version of the Yosemite Falls shot (Figure 8).
As you can see, there is much more image depth and finer variation in the tritone version than in the duotone.
One of the nice things about the duotone dialog is the ability to save your adjustments as presets for future use. If you’re doing a series of images for a show or portfolio, this ensures you have a consistent look from one image to another, something that isn’t easily done with a standard conversion.
Figure 9 shows a sample of a quadtone image where I’ve selected colors from both the Pantone Solid Matte and Pantone Pastel color libraries. Being able to mix color libraries for your tones gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility in creating just the look you’re going for. I’ve found these softer colors are popular with the high school senior crowd (at least the female students) who are looking for something different but aren’t quite ready for the grunge look that is all the rage now.
Finally, if you’re not the type who likes to experiment, Adobe includes a number of excellent presets that you can load and use as is, or modify as needed. To access these presets, click on the menu icon next to the Preset popup menu, and choose Load Preset. Navigate to the Photoshop/Presets folder, and open the Duotones, Tritones, or Quadtones folder. Figure 10 shows a sample from this library, a tritone made from the BMY Sepia 4 preset.
Making black-and-white prints seems to be more popular than ever before.The only difference is that instead of using a darkroom full of enlargers, negatives and chemistry, we work in digital "darkrooms" that consist of a computer, monitor, software and a digital printer.
Just how popular has black-and-white photography become? Flickr alone has over 46,000 individual groups about black-and-white images, with well into millions of images. And visit hotels and restuarants in major cities and you'll see many black-and-white photos decorating the walls.
Thanks to ongoing advances in editing software and printers, it has become increasingly easy to convert any color image into a black-and-white print and achieve stunning results. You can also scan black-and-white negatives and transparencies and manipulate curves to essentially do what film photographers once did in the darkroom with filters.
There are a variety of ways to create black-and-white images in Photoshop. You can also use some print drivers, RIP software, or third-party tools as well. Personally, I have become very fond of Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro, which operates as a Plug-In for Photoshop. The user interface is straightforward and Silver Efex will convert any digital image either into a black-and-white image or color-toned images that mimics traditional processes such as Ambrotypes or "Pinhole" effects.
Fig-1 below shows a digital image that I shot as a JPG with my Nikon D200. From there I started Silver Efex Pro as a "Filter" which brought up the user interface in Fig 2, 3, and 4.
Figs 1 and 2
Figs 3 and 4
Printing neutral black-and-white images used to be a big challenge, requiring photographers to spend countless hours trying to eliminate unwanted color casts that resulted simply from using cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create shades of gray and black. Today, printers such as my Designjet Z3200 can easily produce perfectly neutral even-toned black and white prints.The HP Designjet uses a quad-black ink system with Photo Black, Matte Black, Medium Gray, and Light Gray inks and a driver that separates RGB files into the appropriate channels for neutral black-and-white printing. The only real manipulation you have to do involves tone shape and shadow-midtone-highlight detail, Achieving neutrality is left up to the firmware built into the Z3200.
In my Google search of black-and-white digital printing, I didn't get nearly as many results as I thought I would. It seems most posts where written in the past when the technology was more challenging and the results were unsatisfactory. This is a sign of great progress! It probably indicates that more photographers are using newer-model printers such as the Designjet Z3200 which have removed a lot of the frustration associated with trying to make neutral blacks with the six-color CMYKLcLm inksets used on older models such as the HP Designjet 5500 or Designjet 130.
Now that black-and-white imaging has become easier, do you think it will become even more popular than it is today? I have my own thoughts on why black-and-white images can be so powerful. But I want to hear what you think. Why do you like producing black-and-white images? What methods do you use most often to convert your color shots into black-and-white prints?
If you've been shooting digital for awhile (or if that is all you've ever known), try shooting some film while it's still available. There is something different about shooting film that you miss if you're totally absorbed in digital.
Although film may no longer be the predominant method of image capture, the glory days of shooting and scanning film aren't that far behind us. Those of us who started out shooting film still have lots and lots of negatives and transparencies that we regard as integral parts of our archives.
I have many images on film that I would never be able to recreate digitally. One of the best characteristics of film is the texture and grain of the emulsion - how an image records on a particular brand of film. I was always partial to Ilford Pan F and Kodak Tri-X Black and White Negative Film (which happily I can still buy).
I learned about all of the subtle characteristics of different films when I worked in a pro camera shop in my younger days. We sold everything photographic, for both amateurs and professionals. Our store even sold used camera and darkroom equipment. So, I had access to many types of film and some great gear, including large-format cameras and lenses I could never afford at the time. I even shot the BW slide film from Agfa called Scala. I loved that film.
When digital imaging entered the scene, I got involved in the new process of scanning film. I worked with expensive drum scanners such as the Scanview Scanmate and the Crossfield Magnascan. Over time the prices of high-powered scanners have fallen so much that I now have my own 4800-ppi scanner that scans everything from 35 mm negs and transparencies to 8 x 10 negs and transparencies as well as flat artwork. You would think that my scanner would sit idle but actually it gets lots of use. Now that I co-own a design agency there is always a need to scan something.
When shooting film you have no instant verification of either the exposure or the composition. (I suppose you could use a Polaroid back, but it's never the same thing.) When I shot Ilford Pan F I had no idea what the neg would look like or if the capture was even in focus. Plus my beloved camera was mostly manual (I shot the rugged Nikon FM2 – a lifelong favorite) with a built in light meter that told me if the exposure was right on or over/under exposed by giving me a red led +,O, or -sign.
There was always a bit of mystery until I developed the film and printed a proof sheet. Watching the images appear in the darkroom was a magical process that I really enjoyed. Now, I am so grateful to have had "my time in the darkroom." Looking through my proof sheets today I feel a real sense of nostalgia that I miss with digital images. There is something about the material aspect of a proof sheet that I like.
All of the images shown below were shot on black-and-white negative film then scanned on my desktop scanner. Of course, I have used Nik Software to do some tonal editing, but we'll leave that for another post.
For now, if it's been awhile since you've shot film, I urge you to go ahead, buy some film, unpack that old film SLR (or borrow one!) and start shooting! You will be glad you did. (Let me know how it goes. I would be interested to hear more about your experiences!)
Deep down, I’m in love with the look and feel of black-and-white prints. When I was 11 years old or so, I dove into photography in a big way. And because it was less expensive, black-and-white was my medium of choice.
The wonder of watching prints magically appear in the darkroom has never left me. I still experience many of the same feelings when watching a print I’ve worked on come off the inkjet printer. Perhaps it’s a bit less mysterious, but it’s always a thrill.
So now the puzzle: What’s the best way to make high-quality black-and-white images using digital technology? I’ve tried using the presets offered in some cameras, but the trade-offs in image quality are even worse than the ones involved in shooting JPEG instead of the RAW format. It just dumps too much image information to be really useful.
That means the best choice is to shoot in color, and convert the image to black and white later.
What’s the best way to do this?
One way is to use image-editing software such as Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®. Lightroom comes with a number of presets that let you replicate traditional darkroom processes for toning, contrast, and special effects. These presets are remarkably easy, quick, and fun to use. And the previews are a snap! Simply roll your mouse pointer over the preset, and voila! The thumbnail shows you a preview (Fig. 1).
If the range of presets that Adobe provides isn’t sufficient, you can download other presets that have been created by individual photographers.
Or, you can try some of the conversion presets included with the black-and-white adjustment layer in Adobe Photoshop CS3. These presets are very useful, and many correspond to film-based techniques (i.e., they simulate the use of a colored filter to increase contrast, etc.)
One thing that has always troubled me when testing options for black-and-white conversions is the “before and after” issue. What’s the best way to visually compare the converted image to your original?
I’ve tried using duplicate windows, layer comps, and other techniques, but the pace was too slow. Recently I came up with another idea (which may not be new to many of you). The method is illustrated in Fig. 2, and involves six steps in Photoshop CS3.
Make a selection in the image.
- Create an adjustment layer from the selection.
- Experiment with different conversion settings.
Working this way lets you see the changes side-by-side with the original, in real time. I have found that I prefer this method over other viewing options in Photoshop. And the new dialog box in CS3 includes six channels, up from three available in the Channel Mixer dialog.
- Save the combined settings you’ve developed as a preset by clicking on the tool in the Photoshop dialog box in Fig. 3.
- Delete the partial adjustment layer.
- Create a new adjustment layer, and load your saved preset.
Your image is now a custom-tuned black-and-white masterpiece!