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In this Foundations of Photography, Ben Long shows photographers how to develop a black and white vocabulary and explains the considerations to take into account when shooting for this medium. The course follows Ben as he goes on location and explains what makes good black and white subject matter and how to visualize the scene in terms of tonal values and contrast rather than color. Along the way, he demonstrates some exposure strategies for getting the best images. Back at the computer, Ben demonstrates techniques for converting the resulting photos into black and white using Photoshop and other imaging tools, and offers tips on printing and output.
We're going to dive into another image here, this color RAW file, we're going to take it all the way through to a finished black and white. This is in your Exercises folder, and because it's a RAW file, when you double-click on it, it's open up in Camera RAW. And a lot of times when you're first facing an image, you've come back from a shoot and maybe it's been a while since you've shot. I was on the road for a while, so I haven't looked at this in a few weeks. And there's so much you can do in Photoshop. There are so many different ways to take an image, where do you even start? And one of the best things to do is to really try to put yourself back into the moment of shooting and try to remember, why in the world did I take this image? If it's not immediately obvious to me, what was striking to me about this image? And I think in this case, there are three main things.
First of all, I've got this big pile of wood here, which I think is an interesting texture, and which I know from experience that from a black-and-white standpoint, this could be a really fun just big mess of contrast-- and contrast can be a very attractive thing. I also like that there's this kind of big triangle of wood here, and then there's this triangle of other stuff over here, and this is fairly light and this is fairly dark, so that's a nice tonal contrast. But then there's also a story going on here: I have got a big pile of wood and I've got guy back here sawing wood with a handsaw, and he had been sawing like crazy, because this was not the only pile of wood around.
So I want to think about that and how to play that up, and that actually leads to another thing, which is I've got woodcutter all lit up with these beautiful highlights against this nice dark shadow, and so it's hopefully going to be very easy to make him pop out of the background to reinforce the story element of it. So I think those are the things I want to work towards. But first of all, I'm here in RAW, and I need to do as many good RAW edits as I can, because there are some things I can do in RAW that I can't do anywhere else. I'm going to turn on Highlight clipping warning up here, and I see that I've got some overexposed highlights here on these buckets.
There's not a lot, so I'm just going to drag the Recovery slider to the right until those you've gone, so that I'm sure I've got full highlight detail. When I do that, I look at my histogram and I see that I don't really have a full range of contrast. So that's going to affect us later. There's not much else I can do. I don't care about white balance. I would like more contrast in the image, but I want the contrast distributed locally in different ways. If I just start dragging the Contrast slider here, I'm going to lose control over what's falling into shadow and what's not. So I'm going to undo that and just stick with this. Making sure I've got 16-bit selected down here, which I do--if you don't, click on that and make sure the depth is set to 16-bit.
And I hit Open to open it in Photoshop, and I'm ready to get started. First thing I do of course is my black-and-white conversion. So here in the Levels palette I'm going to pick a Black & White Levels adjustment layer. Now what can I do there? I'm going to turn this off for a minute because I want to look at my colors again. I've got a bunch of yellowish-tan tones here in the wood, but I've also got yellowish-tan tones here on the ground. So it's going to be difficult to separate those two by simply dragging the Yellows slider. If I drag the Yellows slider, this is going to get darker, and this, I don't want that. I've got some blues. That's about it.
There's not actually a whole lot that I can do in the black-and-white slider. Let's see what happens if I darken the yellows. Well, I kind of like this, because I'm not crazy about how light these boards are, because they get lost in this lightness back here, so darkening the yellows helps that up some. But it introduces a new problem, which is, I've just got this big ugly mess of gray here that doesn't have a lot of definition. It needs to pop more, so that's something I may need to fix. The Blues, I can try brightening and darkening those, but that's not really doing anything for me.
I think I like the default position, because I'm going to want to play up the highlights off of the shadows there, so I think we're done with black and white. So now, we're ready to move on to tonal adjustments. Very often, what you'll need to do is simply pick one area of your image that you want to work on and just forget about everything else. So I'm going to start with this pile of wood. Let's get it right, because it's one of the big compositional elements in the scene. Like I said before, it's a little drab. It needs more punch. There's possibly some texture, like in here, that could be played up, and this is just really bugging me. It's all one shade of gray.
So I'm going to add a Levels adjustment layer. Now, I've got these three sliders here. How do I even begin? Which one do I start clicking on first? Before I even do that, I need to really look at my data and understand it. Histogram is a graph of the distribution of tones in my image from block on left to white on the right. I've got a lot of black. I've got a lot of really dark tones. I have a fair amount of midtones, and then suddenly my data falls off really quick. I don't have much data at all past here. In other words, this tiny little bit is the brightest thing in my image.
That's going to be this white wall, this bit on the ground, and maybe this board. That means the bulk of my image is represented on histogram from here to here, from black to only about here. So it's pretty safe to say that the lightest significant shade of gray in this pile of wood is going to be somewhere about in here. I want that lightest shade to be as bright as possible, so I'm going to drag my white point all the way over to here. Now, I've totally clipped this part. This stuff is all overexposed. I don't care. I'll mask that out later. Again, I'm just trying to fix the wood right now.
I want more contrast in the wood. If I had only dragged the white point to here, yes, the wood is a little bit brighter-- here is where it was; here is where it can go-- but there's a lot more brightness to be had in it if I go all the way over to the kind of first significant amount of data. So it's important to understand what data in your histogram is significant and what is kind of isolated to just one part of your image. So that's improved the white point. I'm possibly overexposing some things. I'll worry about those later. But I've got these dull kind of grayish bits into a lighter kind of solid mess of gray, but we're going to add more contrast there in a minute.
Another reason to do this is anytime I print something it's going to come out darker. That's the nature of printing. Prints will go darker than your screen. That has to do with something called dot gain. As the blobs of ink on the paper, they spread and they expand in ways that are unpredictable and your image simply gets darker. So if I had put my white pointer here and printed it, I'm pretty sure that this stuff would have come out too dark, and that's just something I know from experience. I'm just going to play to the significant part of the data. Now, I'm ready to punch up the contrast in this area. I've got the whites in this area set pretty well.
To increase the contrast, I'm going to take my midtones--this represents the middle gray values--and I'm going to darken them, just a tiny bit. Now let's look at the before and after, just paying attention to the pile of wood-- don't worry about all these other stuff. Before, there's like gray hazes over it, and after. It's just got a little more punch, and that's all I want in this area. That said, I need to be careful about what is done to rest of my image. It is time to start masking. So I've got my adjustment layer selected. I've got black paint as the background color, this swatch is the foreground color.
This is the background. I can reset them to white and black by just clicking on that if I need to. I need to fill my mask with black, so I'm going to go to the Select menu. I'm doing this with the menus this time, rather than the keyboard, and choosing Select All. I could also have hit Command+A or Ctrl+A. That selects everything. And now I'm going to say Edit > Fill, and I'm going to tell it to fill. I could either say Background Color, because that's at the black, or I could just say Black, hit OK, and now this is filled with black. I am ready to deselect. Go up to the Select menu and choose Deselect, and that kills my selection.
Now what's happened, my mask is completely full, so that Levels adjustment is having no impact on my image. I can take my Brush tool. I want a really big brush, and now wherever I paint, I'm punching a hole in the mask, and the contrast is going into that area. So I'm just going to paint my contrast in. Once I've got my mask set up then I can start refining my edit. Now you may think, "Well, gosh, don't you need to be very carefully painting around each one of those boards?" And now, you know, with just a few exceptions, if you're masking someone's face and they've got wispy hair, yeah, you've got to be real careful.
But most of the time if you're using a really soft-edged brush, which I am--I have got 300-pixel brush with a really soft edge-- you can really get away with murder on your masks, actually. You can be very rough around the edges. I'm keeping an eye on the icon over here to try and figure out any bits that I've missed. I am going to a smaller brush to paint around these areas, and that's looking pretty good. So, before, somewhat blah stack of wood, after, stack of wood with little more punch. Now you may think, "I don't know, I don't see much difference there." Very often, it's these tiny little contrast adjustments that make the difference.
They just take that haze off the image; they make it leap off the page a little bit more. Now, I'm little concerned about these. It looks like we've lost detail there, so I would like to protect these from the edit. I painted white over this area of the mask, so they're getting the full effect of the edit. I would like to back that off. These don't need to be brightened so much. I can do that by going up to here to my Swatches palette, and I'm going to pick a middle gray, 50% gray right here. I'll get a nice small brush, and I'm just going to paint into my mask right here. The way this works is wherever I paint white, the full effect of my adjustment goes in; where I paint black, no adjustment goes in; where I paint gray, an attenuated amount of the adjustment goes in.
I'm going to go to a darker gray. There we go. Let's pull some more of it out. I'm going to do the same thing on this board here-- I don't like it being so bright--or these areas. And if we look at the mask, you can see I've got these little bits of gray going in, and they're serving to just tone things down a bit. Now I've got my mask in place. I can do what I always do, and think about refining the actual Levels adjustment. Can I get even more punch out of this? You want to be careful about how far these black shadows go.
I like them, but I don't want them spread too far. So I'm liking that. I think that's pretty good. Now. I can think about other parts of the image. Let's go back to this guy. I really liked the idea of him lit up against a black background. Well, I can still see a lot of detail in the background. I need to be careful that I don't lose the saw. I need to see that he's sawing. So I'm going to go in here and add another Levels adjustment, and let's see what we can do to him. I'm going to grab my midpoint and darken, and that's looking pretty good. I don't need to lose all the detail in the background, but I want him to pop out some more.
Now again, if I look at my data, I can see the significant data doesn't really start till in here, but I can also just eyeball this one. I'm just going to drag this to the left while watching these areas. I don't want his hat to overexpose. I'll leave that about there and go in and darken more. That's looking pretty good. I've lost the background here. I like the way this--whatever this is, some piece of folded cloth or plastic or something-- I like the way it's lighting up. This stuff is all overexposed again. His face is going to need some work, but again, I'm not worried about this stuff.
I have lost bits on the wood, but that's because I don't have my mask in place yet. So, go in here to my layer mask. This time I'm going to do with the keyboard, Command+A or Ctrl+A to select everything. My foreground is set to gray. That doesn't matter. My background is still black. That's what I want. Delete key will fill the mask, and so now I see that my adjustment layer is completely black. That adjustment that I just dialed in is not going through. So I'm going to take my brush now-- which I can get with the B key, or I can just click over here--and I want this white.
It's only gray right now, so I'm going to click on my default swatches. I could also hit D, as in default, to put those back to black and white. Nice big brush, which I can get with the Left or Right Bracket keys. I can also get those up here in the Brush palette by simply changing size. And now I'm just going to paint in here to paint in this contrast increase that I defined. I'm just going to keep it to that one point. I like that. I want more out of him. I can't use my midpoint, because if I do that, I screw up my blacks, so I'll push that in there.
That's looking pretty good. His hat is getting a little too hot, though. So again, I'm going to go to a middle gray and make sure that my adjustment layer is selected. I'll just paint a little bit of gray onto the top of his hat there, and again, I'm painting the mask, I'm not painting the image, and that's going to calm that down a little bit. Before, after. He is just punching out a little bit more, which I like. Still not quite right, and I think it's that I want these highlights even brighter.
I want more contrast on him. So now it's time to make yet another adjustment layer, and there's no reason not to just keep adding them as you need them, and really localizing your edits like this. There's not really a penalty to pay for this. These days our computers are fast enough and have enough RAM in them that you can really stack layers up like crazy and not suffer performance hit for it. Here's my adjustment, Command+A to select all, Delete to fill my mask, Command+D to deselect, and now I'm ready to start painting in this new highlight detail that I just defined.
I'm going to cover his entire tunic there. Now, this is one where I've really got to go in and define adjustment later, because I'm not seeing that much yet. So let's push this even farther. Now, you can see those highlights lighting up. That's what I wanted. Now he's really looking like he is in sun. So let's do a before and after. Here is my image simply as a black-and-white. It doesn't look bad. There's some nice tonal stuff going on, but it's overall just generally gray.
I first added an adjustment layer to deal with the wood. Then I added and adjustment layer to deal with this background bit. Then I added an adjustment layer to punch up just the highlights and shadows on him. Let's do one more before and after. Here is before, just simple grayscale. Here is after with my adjustments. So this is looking pretty good, except that, this big white thing right here. It's just an eye magnet. It completely captures my attention. It keeps me from noticing him, which is really what I want, and it breaks up the whole interplay between all of this stuff and all of that stuff.
So I've got to do something about that, and we are going to learn how to calm down bright areas in the next lesson.
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