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A simple black and white print

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The workflow of a simple black and white print

A few simple edits make all the difference


Using a colour photograph taken when testing the EOS RP camera, Keith Cooper looks at the basic process he uses for making a black and white print.

The paper chosen is the Fotospeed Smooth Cotton 300 he recently looked at in a review.

It’s a smooth matte cotton rag paper, printed using the Epson P5000 printer.

two-curves

The article looks at making a simple print – it includes links throughout to other articles by Keith. covering specific areas in more detail.

The photograph

I’m using a source photo that I took on the beach at Felixstowe in Suffolk. It’s taken with the 26MP Canon EOS RP I was testing at the time.

In some ways, the camera’s not so important for this print at A2 size. It’s 26MP giving a ~14″x21″ print at 300ppi, or a roughly 1 inch border when printed on an A2 sheet. If I needed a larger print, I’d have likely used my 50MP Canon 5Ds.

It’s a stormy spring day – I’m looking north along the beach towards Bawdsey [from here].

This is the ‘out of the camer’a JPEG file. It’s taken with an old Olympus Zuiko 24mm f/2.8 lens – fully manual, so I expect the aperture was f/8. Exposed (1/320 ISO 100), so as to not clip the highlights in the cloud.

jpeg-file - Bawdsey

Processing the RAW file

I’ve used the free Adobe DNG converter to convert the Canon .cr3 RAW file to DNG for processing. Partly because I still use Photoshop CS6 and don’t have the latest Photoshop and partly to show that even old software has more than enough features for quite detailed editing. There’s also the fact that at the time of writing, my other favourite RAW processor (DxO PhotoLab) didn’t support the RP.

I want potential detail throughout the image, so in the RAW settings I’ve lowered contrast, boosted shadows and added a bit of ‘clarity’ to get a relatively ‘flat’ looking image that has a good looking wide histogram.

shadow-detail

Note that I’m going to open this image in the large ProPhoto colour space (at 16 bit). This means the image may contain colours that can’t be displayed on my monitor. That doesn’t matter, because I’m looking to make a black and white image from it and want as much original camera data in the image as possible (those invisible colour differences can still show as different tones in monochrome).

I know some may question the use of clarity at this point, but a light application can give just a tad more emphasis to image structure, without losing detail. Remember too that I’m going to be printing on a Matte paper, with a lot less dynamic range than you’re seeing on the screen.

Mouse over the image below to see the slight change.

Original ImageHover Image

The effects should not jump out at you. I know that the beach area is quite dark, so I’m going to have to do some work there in a bit.

Before looking too much at overall tonal balance, I also want to open up the darkest part of the wooden breakwaters a bit more. I know that when printing B&W images, quite a lot of papers show a bit of crunching of the deep shadows, so I don’t want to exacerbate this.

breakwaters

Other adjustments include a little bit of noise reduction and auto correction of the quite low chromatic aberration of the 24/2.8.

On the subject of noise reduction… The noise amount is quite low from this camera to start with and rarely is an issue – I just want a bit more smoothness in areas such as the clouds and sky.

At this point I remember that you shouldn’t necessarily try and get the image ready for print by tweaking RAW adjustments. That’s for later when I’m thinking of how I want the print to look.

Making it black and white

Normally I’ll convert the image to monochrome after RAW conversion, using a variety of methods I’ve tried over the years.

However, it’s always worth looking at what your RAW converter can do for you, even if only to get ideas for later processing.

bw-conversion

In this case I’ve boosted some of the orange from the sand (lightens it) and dropped the blues a bit to darken the sky. I could do this using a simple monochrome conversion when the colour image is open in Photoshop (same sliders).

Be very careful not to over-do the adjustments, since they can easily introduce more obvious noise and artefacts into the image.

One advantage of this channel adjustment is that it involves no hidden sharpening. This appears in many ‘filters’ and can produce distinctly unwanted halos.

I’m looking at the B&W image produced by the settings above, in a localised way. So, ‘am I happy with the range of tonality in the sky’ is independent from ‘am I happy with the range of tonality in the beach’. How they relate to each other is much more dependent on how my paper is going to reproduce my range of black to white.

I’m going to make some significant tonal adjustments to the image, but first I want to crop it a bit to lower the horizon and lose a bit of the near foreground. To me this tightens up the structure of the non-sky part of the image and gives the sea more equal billing with the beach.

cropping the image

The basic masked adjustments

One of the key strengths of Photoshop to me is being able to use masked adjustment layers.

First up, I’ll add a curves adjustment layer and apply quite a strong adjustment to the image.

The beach now looks much better, but look how the sky has lost all that nice cloud detail.

curves-layer-for-beach

Not to worry, a gradient fill applied to the adjustment layer’s mask will restrict the effect to the sea. I’ve made it visible here as red to show it.

layer-mask-visible

Here’s the effect I’m after, where the land/sea has a similar tonal range to what i’ve got with the clouds/sky.

masked-layer

A similar curve (although less drastic) is used to darken parts of the sky (ignore the beach/sea, this will be masked off).

sky-adjustment

This land/sky dichotomy is a common feature in landscape photos. The sharp horizon makes the masking quite simple, but a bit of adjustment mask painting-in or painting-out with a light brush can help with an uneven border – watch for halos though and adjustments causing the top of a tree to appear differently lit than lower parts…

There are further examples of the techniques used here in some other articles, if it’s not clear

Here’s the difference between no curves and two curves – mouse over the image to see.

Original ImageHover Image

The image may look a little too contrasty, but remember that I’m intending to print on a matte paper, where the tonal range is distinctly lower than you can see on  your screen (however you’re viewing this).

Time for printing

The image needs a bit of sharpening for print. Now, with small images it’s often OK to apply some form of general print sharpening, but for larger prints it’s worth remembering that not all your image needs the same (if any) sharpening.

For simplicity I’m using Nik Sharpener Pro for my print sharpening. Not only will it enhance that bit of fine detail that’s lost in printing, but it also lets you apply a bit of local contrast enhancement that can help give a bit more ‘punch’ to some parts of the image. Above all it has the U-Point masking in it that lets you be quite specific in controlling the degree of sharpening to different parts of the image.

Nik Sharpener at work – this is a 100% view, so click to enlarge.

Now we’re at the point of printing I need to start considering the characteristics of the printer/paper/inks I’m using in rather more detail.

I’m printing this image using the ABW print mode of the Epson P5000 printer.

During my testing of the paper, I checked the print output for linearity.

i1iO-and-target

It’s a special B&W test image I’m using.

Linearity is important to me since it tells me whether a clear tonal difference in the shadows, visible on my (calibrated) screen will be there on a print. My testing of this paper suggests that on the P5000 I won’t suffer from crushed shadows or any other unexpected differences between screen and print.

Note how I say -unexpected- since there are a number of ways that screen and print can differ. I won’t go into details here, other than to note one simple issue for B&W prints that you may not have thought of … borders.

When evaluating your B&W images on a screen, pay attention to the screen around the image you’re working on. A black surround enhances perceived contrast in your image and a white one lowers it. This goes too for putting borders round your prints.

Look at these two screen shots.

black-surround

The white surround is a better match for what you can expect in a print – personally I use a light grey background when doing most editing, although when printing with matt papers I’ll sometimes try with white to get a different viewpoint.  How you adjust your editing as a result depends on printer/paper and experience. This is another reason I always suggest perfecting printing with a new paper or printer using good test images.

The prints

I’ll not go into the details of printing on the P5000, since your printer is almost certainly different. However, I do have a specific B&W printing section in all my many printer reviews.

I’m using the printer’s ABW B&W print mode.

printing

Since I was also testing the paper, I had the luxury of making full size test prints – normally I’d make smaller ones to see if the whole print ‘worked’ as a print.

Here are two versions (along with my B&W test print) viewed in daylight from a north facing window.

two-test-prints

It’s very difficult showing print differences in images like this, but the one on the right has has a very slight curve adjustment applied to increase contrast (an ‘S’ curve).

Differences are minimal but after getting several people to look at them (always a risk if you visit our home) the slightly more contrasty one got the nod.

Wondering about this contrast (on a relatively flat paper) I also used Nik sharpener Pro to just add a bit more structure (local contrast), in the end producing 5 slightly different prints. Here are more of the prints I was testing the paper with.

cotton-300-test-prints

Results

This is an image I decided quite deliberately to make a B&W print from.

Whilst the results were fairly well received, it’s probably not a picture I would have looked at and said: ‘Yes, this will make a great print’. Sure it gives a good feel for some aspects of the Suffolk coast in March, but perhaps only because I grew up nearby.

I’d have preferred to use my 5Ds and TS-E24mm lens and spent longer at the scene to see how the weather changed, especially since the sun came out a few minutes later.

I’m also in two minds as to whether it would look better on a lustre finish paper where there is a wider tonal range available, but that might be too much and overdo some of the tension between the relative calmness of the sea and the very active clouds.

As I hope you can see, most of my uncertainty comes from consideration of the initial photography and final output. The basic processes involved in going from camera file to print are in some ways the easy ones – then again, I feel that the photography is where the challenges should be in photography.

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