Making a black and white photograph
Making a black and white photograph
The route to making a black and white print, from idea to paper
All about the process of making one of Keith’s favourite black and white prints.
Back in 2004, after a trip to the Pacific Northwest, Keith created a black and white print of a waterside scene in Washington State.
Subsequently printed for an exhibition and shown several times, it’s always been well received and there are numerous copies hanging on people’s walls.
Keith has gone back to the set of images captured that September morning and discusses both the process which led to the original (colour) photograph and the way it was made – comparing the rather simpler techniques available at the time with some of the tools you might consider today.
Note – some of these images may look a bit dark on some browsers and computers.
Out for a drive
The visit to the US in 2004 was my second of the year (first to Colorado/Wyoming) and predates my keeping of a photo diary/blog, here on the site. In the previous 10 days I’d driven down from Seattle (WA) to Florence (OR) along the coast and back up. On the day in question I was going to be stopping in Bremerton overnight, to get the ferry to Seattle the next day to meet a friend of mine, who was just finishing a business trip. We then spent another week driving round…
My camera was a Canon EOS 1Ds – then the only full frame DSLR available, with a then impressive 11 megapixel sensor. Lenses were: EF16-35 2.8L, EF24-70 2.8L and EF70-200 2.8L IS (I travelled light back then).
It was a grey overcast morning, it had recently been raining, and it did again, several times.
I was driving north on Highway 101, just south of Hoodsport when I pulled up beside the road and looked out across the water.
Hills, mist, cloud, water – it had a lot of elements that might make for a decent picture – the greyness and still water had a very quiet feel. I walked down onto the stones of the beach, which I do recall as being quite slippery.
Here’s the first shot I took – probably within five minutes of stopping (35mm @f/8).
The EXIF data tells me that I spent about 10 minutes at this location from this first photo to my last.
I probably spent a few more minutes looking round, but nothing persuaded me to take any more shots.
I’ve often felt that much landscape photography is too laboured and lacks immediacy. I rarely have a tripod with me when not working commercially (architecture/industrial photography) and really do try and capture some of what I felt at that moment, in my photos.
I’d note that you need to be comfortable with how your camera works, and that comfort (for me) comes from experimentation, practice and just going out to take photos. I have never taken a slow measured perfectionist approach to anything – my architectural work comes closest to it (see the ‘making of a 14metre print‘ for more), but a friend who described some of my big landscape prints as ‘wonderful holiday snaps’ was only partly kidding ;-)
Here’s the full set of pictures (shot as raw files), as seen using Adobe Bridge (CS5).
Looking again at these pictures in the archive (I keep all my RAW files), I spotted that I’d deliberately overlapped two, to give a panoramic view.
I’ve done this, since long before stitching software became easy to use, partly in the hope that one day it would be easy to fix, and give a view of the scene. For the last few years, I’ve lots of such sets – now taken with more regard to stitching requirements (see my review of Autopano Giga for more).
It’s not the best of quality, but after stitching in Photoshop and de-warping the horizon, gives a good feel for the scene.
It did feel more grey and damp than this perhaps conveys ;-)
There was no clear shot though, where I felt it really worked, with a wide angle view.
One thing that did catch my attention was the distant boat and spit of land.
This Google map view shows approximately where I stopped – you can see the spit in the distance (it’s actually a state park). If you go to the larger map option you can zoom out or look at the map view.
Note: I briefly stopped here again 6 years later – see my travel blog entry for the day
A detail from the shot above shows that I had initially walked away from it, looking for a better wide angle shot, probably looking for that curve along the shore line that can draw your eye into the image.
Practice is what helps make such compositional ‘tricks’ almost sub-conscious. I very much doubt I thought about it much at the time.
Many photography books like to give the impression that there are rules and procedures that we professional photographer use all the time for our work.
Well, I have to admit that much of the time I work on ‘feel’ – particularly when I’m just stopping off for a shot like this, where I’ve been driving along and thought that it was a nice view that might have a picture in it (yes, there really is that little hidden meaning in a lot of my work ;-)
I’m also very aware of treating the frame borders as ‘provisional’, in that I have no problem in cropping an image slightly if I feel it benefits the picture I’m making (no I’ve never been impressed by seeing the rebate around a photo either ;-)
I do find that there is a distinctly different approach I take for architectural photography or interiors, where I’ll spend quite some time sorting out lighting and composition, and maybe planning for optimal lighting or time of day, but then I’m being paid for it ;-)
I put the 70-200 2.8L IS on the camera and looked around for detail I was missing in the wide shots.
Here are the 8 shots I took.
…and here they are, in the order I took them.
I’ll add some thoughts as to why I might have not been satisfied, but do note that it was quite a few years ago, and I’ve taken a lot of photos since (over 150k).
I like the spit, but not the boat in the middle
Much better, the boat is in a more ‘powerful’ position in the frame (good old rule of thirds ;-)
How to deal with that 3rd tree? Only half of it doesn’t work
I’ve moved along the beach to put a bit of space between the tip of the land and the boat – the boat is at a better angle too, but I don’t really want that bit of beach in the shot.
I like the way the tree anchors to the edge of the frame and loses that small gap to the right.
Just a bit of the tree – not enough though.
Lowering the horizon gives more emphasis to the sky (where I can see detail)
Moving along the beach changes the view of the boat a bit, and moving up from the water’s edge allows the line of mist on the water to run right across the picture. It adds to the isolation of the spit of land from the distant shore.
At this point I either got bored, thought I had enough shots, or it started to rain…
I’m processing this image using Adobe Camera Raw, as part of Photoshop (I don’t use Lightroom).
Other images taken with the 1Ds can show a definite advantage when processed using DxO Optics Pro (review of V8 DxO), when I’m converting to B&W, but this is a relatively uncomplicated image to process.
The histogram to the right shows how I’ve deliberately exposed the image somewhat brighter than needed to give a realistic look.
It was a very grey overcast day – the bright image above gives an almost hazy sun feel to the shot.
The important thing to note though is that I decided at the time I was taking the shots that this was going to make a black and white image.
I also knew that I would be working from RAW files, so there was bound to be quite a bit of adjustment when it came to editing.
It turns out that there is far more image data (and less noise) in the highlights of your file, than the shadows. So, as long as I don’t clip important highlights, I will get a much better image to work with if more of the original image is over to the right hand side of the histogram.
Also, since I’m looking for quite subtle gradations in the sky, I want to work at 16 bit, to preserve detail.
I’m also working at the file’s native (11MP) resolution – if images from the 1Ds are handled carefully, I’ve found that getting a 30″ x 20″ print of this shot looks just fine (but do note what I say about sharpening later).
These days I’ll often look at using a plugin such as Nik Silver Efex Pro to convert the image from colour to black and white, but I knew that the original print used no such tricks…
I also know that what looks great at screen and web size may not make for the best print – indeed when using Silver Efex I may well perform multiple conversions to ease back some of the artefacts that can creep in to an image (article about this issue with Silver Efex Pro).
Let’s start off with using Photoshop’s conversion to B&W (similar options are available within ACR, Lightroom and other RAW processing software).
The default output looks OK, but that sky is very featureless.
Looks good, and with a bit of adjustment starts to bring up some real detail in the clouds and mist.
However, I’m looking to make a big print from this image, and I’m going to be adjusting contrast all over the image, to bring out detail that will show up on a print.
Before going too far, I look at an area of sky (shown at 100% magnification)
I’m not sure how much you’ll see it on the web, but there is a distinct ‘blotchy’ feel to the sky that shouldn’t be there. You may need to view the image below from further back to notice it.
This isn’t real detail in the mist/cloud – it’s sensor noise, probably in the red channel, exacerbated by my filtering of blue light in the conversion to black and white process above.
So, back to our colour image…
A bit of noise reduction during RAW conversion may help, but I must be careful not to lose too much detail (we’re making a big print)
I’ve gone back to the ‘default’ conversion in the BW conversion options, although I’d get similar results from a simple mode change to greyscale.
I’d note that you could also adjust the white balance settings to even up the coloured peaks in the ACR histogram before converting to colour and then BW – the colour image does not have to look ‘correct’ before conversion to B&W.
Just as the image on your screen is an intermediate stage to getting your final print, the colour image is just a step along the process too.
A lot of tonal adjustments I use come from Photoshop’s ability to use adjustment curves, and to be able to mask the changes.
Simply moving the end points of the curve expands the dynamic range of the image – this is equivalent to a levels adjustment. I’m careful however not to clip whites/blacks – this is just upping the image contrast a bit.
I’ve actually got almost all the primary adjustment I want for this image in a single adjustment curve.
This time I’ve switched from working in RGB to greyscale, so the histogram is reversed from above (dark is now to the right)
We now have the slightly gloomy, but still and calm, feel to the image that I was after.
I should note that this image works well with just the one curve adjustment – it’s not always possible to do this, so I might look at two curves and mask them together (See my recent Silver Efex Pro article for some more about this).
Remember that I’m printing it, so I will require a small amount of overall midpoint adjustment (levels) for matching to my chosen paper and viewing conditions (prints need lightening for dimmer viewing locations). I’ll also need to resize and to sharpen for my final print size – this sharpening will also bring out additional detail in the image as a print. I usually have another curve layer just for this final overall print lightness balance – particularly for my gloomier looking prints ;-)
For a web version I’ll also lighten it. The important part of of the curve adjustment above, is that I have the relative tonal range where I want it. How this looks to you does depend to some extent on how well your monitor is set up, both calibration and brightness. One of the limitations of the web is that it’s very difficult to show subtle adjustments of the sort I make when editing. If the images look too dark or bright, try and remember that it’s the principles/techniques of what I’m doing that are the message I’m trying to convey.
There are still a few minor content edits to make to the image.
Sensor dust spots show up a lot more after applying the curve – I’ll remove them with a combination of the healing brush and clone tool. This editing is carried out on the base black and white image – the adjustment curve, just makes them easier to see in this instance (I’ll sometimes create a temporary curve layer just to enhance visibility of dust, and delete it after the editing)
Secondly comes a bit of cleaning up…
This is one of those things that some photographers find great trouble in doing.
It’s about the limit of what I’m happy to alter in an image – although had there been a person in the shot, they’d have gone too.
I’m making a print to be enjoyed, not for evidence in a court case – YMMV ;-)
The image is now at a stage that I’d use as source material for print or web use. I’ll keep a master copy with any adjustment layers in place.
For resizing, I’ll normally use a simple bicubic method – I’ve found that for the majority of images, fancy resizing software makes relatively little difference, and that what differences there are, are easily swamped by the poor attention to print sharpening that is all too common.
Remember that this is an image from an 11MP camera, so whilst it’s of good quality, some care is needed in upscaling.
If I’m remaking a print from a 1Ds image for a brand new large print, then I’ve noticed that final quality comes from attention to issues of sharpness right from RAW processing onwards.
If you’re interested in exploring this further, then try different amounts of sharpening on a raw image, expanding part of the image to a large size (by whatever means you like), sharpening for print and then printing the samples. Differences can be subtle, but the experience may be of great help when it comes to making big prints. Just allow for the fact that some images will work for big print, whilst others won’t.
For print sharpening, I’m using Nik Sharpener Pro 3 – originally I did all this stuff by hand with masked sharpening layers, but Sharpener Pro has been my tool of choice for some time now.
Note that I’ve included a small amount of ‘structure’ sharpening, which helps correct for some of the limited tonal range of prints, particularly since I’d decided to print this image on a neutral white cotton rag paper.
Like all such adjustments, use with care – it’s easy to cross into ‘oversharpening’, which to me just means I can see it easily.
The visibility of such effects varies with output media and size.
For print sharpening, one size most definitely does not fit all. I avoid ‘sharpen for print’ buttons…
This is the 100% view of the sharpened image for a 30″x20″ print.
I like to make use of masking for my print sharpening, so in the printable version, I’d lightly brush out some of the sharpening along the top edge of the boat. Attention to this sort of detail makes it far less likely that the sharpening will be visible in a print should someone stray too close to it.
Anyway, here’s a version of the final image sharpened for web use.
The original print was produced on our old Epson 9600 44″ printer. For the last few years I’ve used a Canon iPF8300 44″ wide printer (see the info and reviews for the iPF6300 and iPF8300 for more info).
Recreating this image was an interesting exercise, and reminded me just how much you could achieve with simple adjustments.
I also opened the image in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and explored a number of versions. As I expected, the dark trees against the sky were prone to producing halo effects (as would be expected from -any- tool using local contrast enhancement).
That said I still like using SFX for much of my B&W work, just not every bit of it.
Of course, this might not be an issue, and you’d prefer a wholly different treatment of the image – my way isn’t any better, just it produces a print that still reminds me of that morning by the water.
I’ve simplified a few of the image processing steps, but hopefully this article has given a feel for some of the processes I go through, right from deciding to take a picture, through to the print coming out of the printer.
There have been quite a few changes in my workflow since 2004, including:
- Since 2008, I’ve used a Canon 1Ds Mk3 (see why I decided to skip the new 1D X) – 21MP and better noise/dynamic range over the 1Ds
- My range of lenses has expanded, with such lenses as the 8-15 fisheyeand TS-E 17mm
- RAW conversion: RAW converters have improved considerably in the last ten years. Not so much for well exposed images with limited dynamic range, but for handling highlights, shadows, noise and even lens aberration correction.
- Faster computers – more processing power for plugins and image processing. This comes with some risk of being tempted to turn up controls a bit too far.
I note the fashion for HDR and instagram as evidence of the ever tempting allure of the gaudy side of the force… ;-)
- Printing: Black and white printing has advanced appreciably, both in the range of papers available, ink combinations, and the quality of the end result. Modern ‘baryta’ type papers can give darker blacks (Dmax) Monochrome images can look very different on these papers and need to be edited accordingly.
- Practice: I’ve taken a lot of photos, both for myself and for my work as a commercial photographer. It makes a difference.
- Making a black and white print – A similar image creation tutorial, with much more about using curves and masking them.
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