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Photography Tutorial – Making a black and white landscape print

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Photography Tutorial:
Making a black and white landscape print

From camera image to finished print

Keith has written up the process he went through to make a modest sized (A3+) Black and White print from a colour digital camera image.

The article covers the basic steps using Photoshop, with links to other related materials on our site.

Right – The final print – on my print viewing stand.

The information here should be quite relevant whatever image processing software you use.

The original source image is available for personal use (©2009 Keith Cooper), if you’d like to have a go at making your own version.

final B&W print

Picking an image for the print

Recently, I spent some time in Suffolk, on the UK east coast.

For a slightly different route home, I drove up the coast as far as Great Yarmouth, somewhere I remember visiting as a young child in the 60’s.

This time, with the advantage of my own car, I drove to the far north end of the beach, which as you’d expect in mid May, was still pretty empty. The weather was very changeable, and what looked like a big storm was heading my way from inland.

It was a huge sky…

I grabbed my camera (a 21MP Canon 1Ds Mk3) and put an EF 14mm 2.8L II lens on it – now this is very wide angle and takes a bit of care in use. Just for good measure, I also had an EF 24-70 2.8L in my coat pocket.

I had a few minutes before it was likely to start raining very heavily, and even with a decent coat, I have an aversion to getting wet… (I just don’t do outdoor stuff like camping/trekking either ;-)

My approach to landscape photography is very much like a large scale version of street photography, it is often about capturing a moment, trying to produce a print that conveys some of my feelings for the location at that instant. As such, I rarely have a tripod with me and I trust to my instincts for a good photo (although practice helps ;-)

The beach is mostly sandy, with some 2-300 metres of dunes behind it. The sea was quite calm for the North Sea, so composition wise, you have some quite strong lines to work with.

I’d chosen the 14mm lens to try and convey some of the immensity of the clouds.

Since I’m not hanging round too long, I’ve also set the camera to aperture priority mode, f/8 and focus at infinity. Since I’m planning to include some very brightly lit bits of cloud, I’ve also put in an exposure correction of about half a stop underexposure. I don’t want much of the clouds ‘burnt out’ even if it means that some of the images might be underexposed elsewhere.

Anyway, here are some of the shots I took, viewed in ‘Bridge’ – part of my Photoshop CS3 installation.

images of the Yarmouth coast, opened in CS3 Bridge

These are the camera’s RAW files and have had no corrections applied.

I often wait a few weeks after taking such photos, before working on them. I find this helps me sort out the ones that best convey the ‘feel’ I was after.

Looking through the collection of some 25 images, I thought that several could be worked up into decent black and white prints.

One of the hardest things I’ve found to teach people, is that to edit an image, you need to have an idea of what it is you want to produce in the end. Once you have a destination, you can work out a route to get there.

Photoshop offers a lot of different routes, some more effective or intuitive than others.

Nothing wrong with just trying a few adjustments to see what happens, but in the end, you need some vision of what you want.

I remember, from one of my classes a few years ago, how disappointed someone looked when I told them that there was no ‘standard way’ of fixing images, no standard set of instructions.

It should come as no surprise when I say that for my cooking, I regard recipes as suggested guidelines, rather than rigid sets of instructions (baking excepted).

Back to the point…

I’ve had several people ask me about different aspects of my B/W photography so I thought I’d take one of the photos I took and document the basic processes I’ll typically take to make a print from it.

Hence this article…

Here’s a bigger version of the RAW file I want to use.

It’s important to remember that there are many ways of going from RAW file to print.

The process I’m setting out here is meant as a guide – if I was to remake the print, I’d probably change some aspects. Where I’ve made a single adjustment here, I might have tried several variations before picking one to show – it’s about experimenting and moving towards a print that conveys a particular feeling I’m after.

I’ll point out in the text, some of the alternatives I might have chosen.

The RAW file

I’ll use Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to convert the RAW file for this example, however I might well choose DxO Optics Pro for some images, since I know that it can produce images that convert very well to B/W.

This particular image is quite straightforward, so the differences are probably not that great.

Here’s the file opened up in ACR to look at.

file opened in ACR

Note that although I’m using a Mac here, the essential steps are similar if you are using a Windows PC.

One of the first details I look at is the Histogram.

This tells me about the range of brightnesses in the image.

image histogramIn this case it shows that I’ve underexposed the image slightly, but nothing that a few adjustments won’t sort out.

I’d prefer to get the exposure a bit closer when actually taking the photograph, but at least I haven’t burnt out any bright bits of the cloud.

At 1/800 exposure and with a 14mm lens, I know that camera shake is not something I’m at all worried about for this image.

I’d always tell people it’s best to get the exposure right at the time, but not to beat yourself up over it…

As I said, my approach to landscape photography is a dynamic one – if yours is different then that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with the steady measured approach – it’s what I use for my architectural work.

I’ve a few choices to make at this stage of the process.

For my B/W work I’ll often pick a large colour space such as ProPhoto for the initial conversion to colour.

choose a colour space

The wider the range of colours captured, the more potential I have for finding subtle variations in tone, once I convert to black and white. One of the possible problems with using large colour spaces when editing colour images, is that you are editing colours that you can’t actually display on any monitor. This doesn’t really matter if you are converting to black and white, where your monitor should manage a good greyscale.

Note – I’ve an article on choosing colour working spaces that may be of general interest.

I’m also working at 16 bit per channel (16 bit mode). This gives me more freedom to apply some of the adjustment curves you’ll see later, without worrying about effects such as posterisation.

I’ve deliberately decided not to do much more with the image in the way of sharpening, or lens correction, since it looks quite good.

One thing I do often have a quick look at, is turning up the ‘clarity’ setting, to see some of the potential for bringing out sky detail – I don’t often use this RAW processing adjustment for this sort of work, but it can help give me some ideas as to where to take different parts of the picture.

In the view below, I’ve pushed it all the way up to 100%

raising image 'clarity'

That’s a lot of detail in the sky – just what I was after.

Do remember too, that you don’t need a perfect colour corrected image before you move to B/W

I happen to know that the image is about the size I want to print, so there is no need to resize here.

If I was going to make a much larger print I’d probably resample at this point. For smaller prints, I’ll sort it out later before print preparation.

Converting from colour to black and white

There are many ways of converting from colour to black and white. Indeed, I’ve collected a whole set of Photoshop techniques for converting to black and white over the years.

This time I’m going to use the basic Black and White adjustment in Photoshop.

I’ve gone for a ‘yellow filter’ preset to start with, since it will darken the blue bits of sky quite nicely.

You can fine tune the conversion with all the different sliders, but do beware of pushing any channel too far, since this often enhances the appearance of noise.

If you move your mouse over the image below, you can see the effect of changing the value of the ‘blue’ slider.

The effect on the blue sky area is quite pronounced.

I usually try and avoid the temptation to get the image too close to what I want at this stage. I’ve found that noise and image quality problems can appear later if you are too aggressive with those sliders.

My own personal choice for the B/W conversion would be the Nik Silver Efex plugin (full review) but that costs a fair bit, and I’m trying to produce an article that is helpful to a wider audience…

Curves and layers

I’ve now got a black and white image to work on – it’s a bit flat looking at the moment though.

However, I’m going to fix that with one of the most powerful basic features I use in Photoshop – masked adjustment layers.

Note – there is a section in our Photoshop Elements tutorials, written some time ago, that covers just this.

I’ll start off ‘fixing’ the sky.

I create a new curves adjustment layer.

new curves adjustment layer

The new layer dialogue comes up and I’ve named it ‘sky’ – if you are new to this technique, then naming your layers does help avoid altering the wrong one.

The curve settings window appears – note the pale grey histogram in the background.

applied curve layer for sky

The line can be bent by clicking on it and dragging.

If you move your mouse over the image below you can see the effect.

Now the important bit to remember.

This adjustment is only for the sky, so ignore what happens to the beach and sea.

I’ll show in a moment how to apply the adjustment only to the sky, but first the light parts of the clouds need lightening.

Move your mouse over the image to see.

See how I’ve nudged the curve up with a second control point.

With a bit more adjustment, the sky is looking much more menacing.

adjusted sky

Unfortunately the adjustment hasn’t done much for the beach and sea.

This is where I make use of the fact that the curve’s effects can be masked.

With a horizon like this I can use a gradient fill to mask off the lower part of the image.

gradient tool

I’ve selected the gradient tool, and selected a basic foreground-background gradient.

If I click and drag on the image, a line will appear – this is where the gradient will be applied.

Move your mouse over the image to see it applied.

If your whole image turns into a white/black display, then you’ve not selected the adjustment layer to work on.

Note how the layer (with its white mask box) is selected in the layers menu in the lower right hand corner.

Don’t worry about getting the edge of the mask spot on, we’ve more adjustments to make.

A note about masking to make adjustments. There are several techniques in Photoshop for producing such effects. I find working on masks to ‘paint in’ or ‘paint out’ effects very intuitive. Not everyone takes to this as easily, so I’d suggest looking at uses of the history brush and other methods. Hopefully this article conveys some of the power and simplicity of masking, that makes it my own first choice.

First off, time to adjust the beach and sea…

I’ve added a second curves layer.

Move your mouse over the image to see the adjustments I’ve picked.

This time, ignore what happens to the sky…

Another gradient applied to the mask and it’s sorted. (move mouse over image to see)

I’ve found that the key to getting this look right, is not to make the two layer gradients too abrupt.

One of my personal dislikes is the gratuitous use of graduated filters. If I can see obvious use of one in an image then it looks wrong.

To use them effectively takes quite some practice and care in setting up the camera. I particularly dislike shots where mountains protrude into the ‘darker bit’ of the frame.

Since I’m working without a tripod and not hanging around to get soaked, one would be a bit of a pain. Not to mention the practical difficulties with the 14mm lens I’m using…

Photoshop Books

A long time favourite of mine – I’ve still got the version for Photshop 6 on my bookshelf.

It won’t cost any more (nor less we’re afraid) but will contribute towards the running costs of our site.


I’ve now got the balance of tonality fairly close to what I’m looking for.

I could fine tune the masks, painting in/out effects and even add additional adjustment layers, but this image works well as it stands.

You have to decide for yourself how much adjustment is needed to match your own vision for the print.

Image ‘feel’

After a cup of tea I came back to the image to consider cropping.

I often tweak the crop of images – sometimes it makes all the difference to how an image looks. Some people have suggested that there is some merit in using the whole frame, I’ve never bought into this.

One of my popular images of the Suffolk coast was taken on film several years ago, it wasn’t until I scanned it and decided to crop off a big part of the foreground that I suddenly decided it was one I really liked – it’s at the top of the front page of this site.

For this image, I decided to lower the horizon slightly, and move the end of the beach slightly to the right, away from the centre of the image.

cropping image

That’s how I think of the alterations. You can see that ‘lowering the horizon’ is actually achieved by clipping off some of the foreground.

Not much, but I felt happier with the ‘look and feel’ of the image.

I also want a bit more local contrast in parts of the image.

One effect that can be very effective is high radius sharpening (aka ‘Hiraloam’ sharpening).

This works well on -some- images.

I’m going to use the Photoshop Unsharp Mask filter on the image.

First I duplicate the base image layer and work on this.

This lets me alter the image content and potentially mask the effect back in to the base layer. I don’t need to do this, but I like the extra flexibility it gives.

The first image shows sharpening set at 75% and ~130 pixels – wide radius, but far too high an amount.

Move your mouse pointer over the image to see a more appropriate 12%.

The image below compares the sharpened version with the source image.

Do remember, you’re seeing reduced sharpened image for web display, things look a bit different on the big screen.

If you move your mouse over the image below, you can see the effect I was after.

I always tell people to apply this sparingly, since it can easily look overdone. Indeed I sometimes use it at only 2-3% for a slight boost in ‘oomph’ for an image.

HiRaLoAm ? = High Radius Low Amount

Time too, for a bit of readjustment of the sky adjustment curve.

Move your mouse pointer over the image to see.

This is getting close, so time for a detailed look at the image (at 100%) to see if there is anything I’ve missed.

A couple of small dust spots were fixed with the healing brush, and a crane (?), some distance away was erased, because I didn’t like it there…

I’ve just cloned it out (move mouse over to see).

I know some people object to such manipulation, however I’m not greatly bothered, since I’m making a print to look at, not evidence for a planning application…

After all this, another adjustment to the curves (mouse over to see), and I’m happy to consider printing the image.

In the example above it shows the effect of reducing the opacity or total effectiveness of the adjustment layer. I find it helpful to often slightly exaggerate adjustment such as I’ve done for the sky and then back off a bit to get it just right. Remember, you can turn an adjustment down to 95%, but you can’t push it to 105%.

In this print I settled for 96% for the sky layer. It gave just a bit more definition in the darkest areas of the clouds.

I can tweak the file to this level of precision since I have a well calibrated screen and know that my print setup can handle dark shadow detail.

I’ve been saving versions of the image at key stages, but at this point also flatten the layers and save as a new Photoshop .PSD document.

This is what I’m going to print.

I might look at an aspect of the print afterwards and decide to further tweak a curve or two. I always remember that what I see on the screen is only an intermediate stage in producing the print.

For me, it’s the print that counts.

Far too many people aim to get the image on the screen looking exactly as they want it, and are then disappointed when the print doesn’t match it. I’ve been asked about this that many times, that I wrote an article a while ago on ‘Why don’t my prints match my screen

Sharpening for print

Before printing, I need to sharpen the image. The action of spraying ink drops on paper, even with excellent modern printers, blurs detail slightly. Sharpening the image can counteract this to some extent.

I’ve long believed that getting the sharpening right is one of the key areas in print quality. Sharpening is dependent on print size, paper type, printer resolution, viewing distance and image content, and several other factors too…

My own choice is to use the Nik Sharpener Pro plugin, but I’ll also cover some details about using ordinary unsharp masking, since I appreciate that not everyone can justify the additional expense of specialist software.

First I check the dimensions of the image. It’s got to fit on an A3+ sheet of paper (13″x19″) so this looks fine.

As I mentioned earlier, this is where I’d resize the image for making smaller prints.

I’ve written a lengthy review of Nik Sharpener Pro, which goes into some of its advanced functionality, but for this example I’ll just show the default settings, so that you can get an idea of the amount and type of sharpening I used for the actual print.

As you can see, the waves do look rather heavily sharpened (this is a screen shot though) but it emphasises the point that an image correctly sharpened for print will often look over-sharpened on the screen.

nik sharpener overview

Here’s a 100% view

nik sharpener detail

Using Photoshop on its own

To sharpen without such software, I’d first duplicate the image layer – don’t forget, the image was flattened before printing.

Then apply an unsharp mask filter to this duplicated layer.

The example below shows the radius of sharpening I might pick for a print of this size.

The image shows the amount set far too high.

Move your mouse over the image to see a more reasonable setting.

This is one area where you will need to practice, producing sample prints to compare.

For print sharpening at this size, the sharpening radius is usually best below 3 pixels, although you ideally need to make some test print samples to get a good feel for it.

Note the amount of noise in the sky. This can sometimes be lowered by upping the threshold setting to a low number (<10). When experimenting, it’s good to set the amount to a high level, to get an idea of the effect you are getting. You then turn it down, in a similar way to reducing the effect of the sky adjustment layer earlier.

Skies rarely need sharpening very much and the easiest way to do it here is use a layer mask, similar to that I used for the curves adjustment layers.

The black area of the mask is where the sharpened layer is ignored, so you see the unsharpened version showing through from below.

The skyline is not a straight line, so I’ve made the mask layer visible (red/clear) so you can easily see where I’ve ‘painted in’ sharpening. The red shows where the mask is letting the unsharpened version come through.

You don’t need to be too precise here, but you do need to be careful along the horizon.

sharpening noiseThe shot below (200%), shows where the sharpening has extended into the sky (where I don’t want it).

I’d select a harder edged brush (at ~5% flow) and paint out a bit more sharpening.

You can use sharpening to selectively add/remove interest to an image.

Softer areas can make adjacent sharper areas show up more.

You also need to be careful with visible artefacts (halos) that can show along some edges.

This is a common problem with distant snow patches on the sides of mountains (not an issue in Norfolk).

The Unsharp Mask filter is a pretty basic way of doing your sharpening, but with care can greatly improve your prints.

If I was sharpening without a specialist plugin (there are several for this) I’d more likely look at Photoshop’s ‘Smart Sharpen’ filter. I’ll not go into the details here, but for a good overview, see the article in Layers Magazine.

The complexities of sharpening and how it affects the whole look of a print, is one reason I use specialist software.

Even if you don’t, it’s worth experimenting with small sections at full print resolution, of your prints, printed at a number of different sharpening settings. Look at these swatches from your normal print viewing distance and notice what you like and what you don’t.

Have a look at some of the examples I’ve shown in my Nik Sharpener Pro review.

The monochrome print

For this example I’m going to print the image on some HP Satin paper I have left over from our Z3200 printer review.

I’m more inclined to use soft proofing for my colour work, but with black and white I trust much more to my knowledge of how papers look and having a well set up monitor, printer and adjustable print viewer.

I’m printing using the black and white (ABW) print mode on our Epson 7880.

Although the paper prints quite well using the Epson Premium Luster settings, I’ve made a QTR profile to linearise the greyscale.

We’ve quite a lot of information about black and white printing on this site, including articles and reviews that explain a lot more about using QTR in this way. In particular, I’d suggest testing your black and white print setup with our free Black and White test print. I created this as a test for any B/W print system I was looking at. I don’t regard a B/W printer as acceptable unless it can print this test image very well. Note that I don’t say perfectly, since I’m a strong believer in that old engineering adage that ‘perfection is often the enemy of excellence’.

The image below shows the Photoshop CS3 print dialogue.

cs3 Mac print dialogue

I’ve scaled the image down slightly to fit nicely on the paper. The print resolution has gone up to 333PPI, but that’s fine by me.

I know some people say that you should only print at certain ‘magic numbers of resolution’, but I’ve never been overly bothered by this. I’m sure that if the image was printed at 330 or 340 PPI the only difference most people would notice is that the picture on the paper was slightly larger or smaller. If it bothers you, then try different print numbers and see if anyone notices. If you notice and no-one else does, then get out more :-)

The slight blueish tinge in the image below comes from the presence of brightening agents (OBAs) in the paper. These brighteners are often found in very white papers – not a problem, but it does affect the feel of the image.

This colour is not what the paper looks like to anyone viewing it. It’s what was measured by the spectrophotometer I used to make the QTR profile.

The blacks on this particular paper are very deep, so without knowing my print set up was working fine, I might easily end up with a print with no detail in those dark areas.

I set the QTR profile in the print dialogue.

Indeed, the final print does need to be viewed under a reasonable level of lighting to look the way I wanted.

If I knew the print was to be viewed in dim lighting I’d boost the overall brightness of the print with a gentle adjustment curve.

One other thing – if your monitor is too bright, then you may easily end up with overly dark looking prints.

I have mine set quite low (100cd/m2) and work in a fairly dimly lit office. There is lots of additional information on our site about such matters, such as my review of our Print Viewing Lighting and introduction to Monitor setup profiling and calibration.

Just for completeness, here are the actual printer settings used for the print.

7880 printer settings

So, I have a print on a sheet of A3+ HP Satin paper…

Here’s a reminder of the colour image from the camera.

beach at north yarmouth

The final version of the print

Great Yarmouth beach, north denes, looking north

The finished 13″x19″ print on our PDV print viewing stand

black and white print viewing

Other options

I quite like this image and may well have another run through creating it, but this time for printing on a warmer cotton rag paper at 25″x17″

Why work on the image again?

Well, I can try out the conversion from RAW with DxO Optics Pro. This can, with the lens sharpening turned down a bit, give images that scale very well, although the 1Ds Mk3 produces images of a size that don’t need much enlarging to print at ~25″x17″

Secondly I’d probably use Nik Silver Efex for the B/W conversion. I’ve found it gives B/W files that are easier to work on if I’m doing much work on them.

I’ve also found that going through the print production process for an image a second time can sometimes help you make bolder and simpler adjustments to get what you want. Perhaps not with a fairly straightforward example such as I’ve shown here, but where I’ve found myself with too many layers and adjustments, it can help to start again.

When I’m working on an image, there has to be a point where I say ‘Enough – it’s ready to print’. There has to be a point where the image has the feel I’m after. Sometimes I leave an image overnight, or even try that old trick of temporarily flipping it left to right and seeing if I notice anything amiss.

It helps that I’m a professional photographer who runs a business. I get examples in my commercial photography work where I know that an image is good enough for the client, even if I could spend more time on ‘improving’ it. In my strictly commercial work, time is money, and someone pays for me to do extra work. The landscape photography side of the Northlight business is not run on quite such rigid lines, but it still has to benefit the business bottom line (which it does, both directly in print sales and indirectly from publicity and articles like this).

Another view – using the same basic techniques and the 14mm lens.

Highway 131 CO

This time in Colorado: Hwy 131 near Toponas, looking southwest. Produced as a 17″x26″ print on cotton rag paper.

Paper choice?

I’ve recently been doing quite a few prints on Innova Smooth Cotton Natural White paper which has a rich feel, and works very well in our Epson 9600 printer, which we use for matte art papers.

The warmer matte paper with it’s less intense blacks, changes the feel of the whole print. I don’t personally like toned and tinted B/W a great deal, and the choice of paper type is about as far as I really want to go in altering the coolness/warmth of the print.

If you really must add colour, then remember that it should best be applied very sparingly. I see so many ‘toned’ digital prints that lack the grace and subtlety of a good toned darkroom print. I’ve always been of the opinion that a good B/W print stands on its own. I’ve seen toned prints where a great image has been slightly improved, however I’ve also seen far too many where the toning seems to have been added to try and distract from what’s an average looking image.

Of course, that’s just what I think. I have my own preferences and styles – hopefully some of what I’ve written here will be of help…

Try it for yourself?

If you’d like to experiment, I’ve a JPEG version of the image (in the Adobe 98 colour space), big enough for an A4 sized print, available on our download page.  (The full RAW file is also available for non-commercial use)

I’d suggest converting any JPEG to 16 bit mode before doing your conversion to black and white – I’ve an article about 8/16 bit choices showing why this potentially makes a difference.

This is a ~3000×2000 image, and is made available for non commercial teaching purposes only (if you ever see it anywhere else, do let me know ;-)

More print related information

For information about other printers, paper reviews and profiling (colour management) see the Printing section of the main Articles and Reviews page, or use the search box at the top of any page. There are also specific index pages for any articles connected with the following topics:


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