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!
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!
I’ve been seeing more and more interest in high dynamic range images online and in the workshops I teach. Judging by some of the books I’ve checked out, you might think it requires a degree in physics or at least rocket science to create this type of image. Like many things digital though, it doesn’t have to be difficult and it can be a great new way to express yourself.
Cameras, both digital and film, can’t record all of the information we can see with our eyes. While you can automatically adjust what you’re viewing to see details in shadows and highlights at the same time, we often have to make exposure decisions based on what areas of the image contain the most important information, and risk losing highlight or shadow detail as a result.
With high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, you can get around this shortcoming in equipment and go beyond what our eyes see to record something special.
Let’s take a look at how easy this can actually be in practice. To start with, you’ll obviously want a scene with a wide dynamic range. A tripod will make the processing effort much easier, and a camera that lets you control exposure is required.
I shot this series of three images at Joshua Tree National Park at dawn. Using exposure bracketing, I recorded one shot at the suggested exposure to record the midrange detail, another at two stops under to get the most detail possible from the sky, and a final image at two stops over to open up the shadow detail. Photoshop CS2 and CS3 includes a “Merge to HDR” function (found under the File > Automate menu). But I prefer to use Photomatix because it does a better job and gives me more creative options in processing the images.
When you work in HDR, you’re working with a 32-bit file. In other words, you have plenty of information to work with. But Photoshop requires images to be in 8- or 16-bit mode to do any processing work, and many printers can only deal with an 8-bit image.
In Photomatix, I open the three images (Figures 1, 2, and 3) and tell the program to merge them together. The result is not what you’d expect as the preview looks like a dark mess. But, now the magic starts. When I go into the Tone mapping dialog I’m can control how this extra detail is going to be displayed.
You can get as accurate or as creative as you like at this point. For this particular image, I liked the surreal look generated by enhancing the lighting, saturation, and contrast (Figure 4).
For final output, I sent this to my Designjet Z3100 using HP Instant Dry Satin photo paper. With the Gloss Enhancer on this paper I get excellent results with great vibrant color – just like my vision for this image when I processed it.