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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.
So you have seen the basics of getting color into black and white using the Black and White dialog or ideally, the Black and White adjustment layer. And there's a lot of good work you can do with that tool. But as you may have noticed, so far we haven't gone from color into that really powerful black-and-white image, and very often you can't do that simply with the Black and White dialog box. The Black and White dialog box is there to get your image converted to black and white. Now, it's up to you to use normal toning controls to start to really work the image and make it happen.
As I mentioned before, I use a fairly small refined set of editing tools. I think the bigger lesson for black and white is learning more the aesthetics of black and white in the vocabulary of black and white and what it is you need to look for, how you need to apply those tools to make a black-and-white image that really works. So, we are going to do that right now. We are going to go from start to finish through this image, which is located in the exercises folder. This is a raw file, so when I open it up in Photoshop, it opens up in the Camera RAW dialog box, which is great because I need to do a couple of Camera RAW things.
As I do anytime I open an image, the first thing I do is look at the histogram. Yeah, it's tempting to look at the image and all that, but really, the histogram is where it is at. I can see from the histogram that I have got a big spike over here, which means I have got some overexposed highlights. Odds are those are up here in the clouds. I can find out for sure by clicking on this button right here, which will show me where the overexposed bits are. Those red pixels are pixels that are overexposed. Why do I care about overexposure? Because when a part of the image over exposes, it goes out to complete white and therefore loses all detail.
I want detail in those clouds. Because this is a RAW file, there's a good chance that I can get that detail back, and I do that with the recovery sliders. As I slide this to the right, watch what's happening over here. This big spike right there is going away, and now it's gone, and I am going to show you before and after. Watch this area up here. This is the original file, all white, no detail, generally offensive to the eye. Turn back on my edits, and I've gotten some detail back in there. So, that's great! Next thing is this image is a little bit low contrast.
I can tell that by looking at it because I don't see a lot of contrast. The blacks aren't real black. I have got a nice long shadow here, but it was still pretty overhead light, kind of washing out. I am not seeing a bunch of texture. It was just a little bit hazy, and my exposure was maybe a little off. I could have underexposed a little to put some more contrast back in, but that's okay. I can slide the Blacks slider and pull my contrast a little bit back to where it should be. I'm not necessarily going to nail it here because if this was a color image, I would think, all right, I think maybe I want my Blacks slider right in there, and I am determining that by making sure that I have got black detail all the way over here.
This big blue spike, don't worry about that. That means a little bit of the blue channel is clipped. We are not really losing any of the detail anywhere. I am maybe a little bit worried that that's gone a little too dark, so I would back off. But I am going to be altering the contrast further in Photoshop, and I would like to have the control over the shadows there when I do my black-and-white conversion in my additional toning, so I am going to back off on that a little bit and put the Blacks right about there. I could again do my black-and-white conversion here in RAW, but I am not. I am going to do it in Photoshop. I'm almost ready to open the image.
I say 'almost' because if I take a look down here, these controls--these are the workflow controls-- they tell how the image is going to be opened in Photoshop. It's going to be opened in the Adobe RGB Color Space, which I don't really care about because I am going to grayscale. It's going to be opened as an 8-bit image with these dimensions, and these are the original pixel dimensions of the image. This was shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, which natively spits out an image of this size. The 5D Mark II also captures 14 bits of color per pixel.
Your camera probably captures 12 to 14 bits of data per pixel. A JPEG file can only store 8 bits of data per pixel, which means immediately, if I saved a JPEG, I am throwing some data out. And in this case, Camera RAW is telling me that it's going to open it in 8 bits per pixel. So, I am going to lose some information from this image, information that I may want as I'm shoving tones around. So, I am going to click on this. This is actually a link, and I can change my Depth to 16. That doesn't mean that I suddenly have 16 bits of data per pixel. I still only have 14, but they're in a 16-bit container, so I get the full amount of data that my camera captured.
So, now I am going to say Open Image, and that's going to convert the RAW file and open it up in Photoshop, and here I am. I'm just going to hide the rest of my files there. And here's my image. So, first thing I need to do is my black-and-white conversion. So, I am going to go down here to my Layers palette and pull up the Black and White adjustment layer, and so here's my adjustment layer. Here are my controls up here in the Adjustments panel. So, now I am ready to start thinking about black-and-white conversion and what I want to do. First thing that happens is that the image gets really washed out.
Most of the time after you do a black- and-white conversion, your image is going to need more contrast. You are going to take a contrast hit. It's not so much that you are losing contrast; it's just that there wasn't enough contrast there in the first place. As I see it low contrast, I kind of like it like that. It's a somewhat dreamy image. That was not my original impulse when I was there. What I really liked when I was there was this big shadow coming towards me and some of the highlight stuff that was going on back here. So, I want to try and get back to that. My histogram is showing me, sure enough, a fairly low-contrast image. Yes, I have a lot of data across the histogram, but I don't really have any black.
In fact, I don't really have any significant dark tones till over here. So, I've lost almost an entire stop's worth of shadow detail that I can have. I'm not going to be able to get that contrast back with the black-and-white adjustment, but I can at least start toning things the way that I want. The first I think I want to do is put more contrast into the sky by separating the clouds from the blue sky, and I can do that by darkening the blues. I could go and grab either the Blues or the Cyan; I am not sure which it is. Sometimes the sky is falling to the Cyans range; sometimes they fall in to the Blues range. Personally, I don't care, because I've got those wonderful tools here that I can click on, and then I can come over here and just click and drag.
And as I do, my sky gets darker, and I have got to go pretty far, because the sky wasn't a deep blue to begin with. And as I do that, I'm looking very closely at this area. Is this gradient here? A sky is always a gradient, from dark at the top to light at the horizon. Is it staying smooth? And it is. I am not seeing a breakup. I'm not seeing weird pixilated patterns in here, or bands of color. If I was seeing those, I would need to stop and back off the edits, but I have got a lot of latitude in here because it's a 16-bit image.
If it had been an 8-bit file, that might not have worked. So, that's good. I have got the sky where I want it. I am going to turn off my Black and White layer for a moment just to figure out what other tones I have to work with here. I have got the reds of the road. The problem is the reds in this road are also going to affect the trees. I have got the green grass over here. I like it dark like that. I could lighten it up. But I think if I lighten it up then I am not getting much distinction between it and what's around it. That's what it looks like lighter. I like it back where it was. Again, I could play with the reds on this road, but that's changing all sorts of stuff throughout the image, so I am not going to do that.
So, I think that's about all I can do here in the black-and-white adjustment. And again, my image is far from where I would like it to be. This is not an image that I can work completely just with the Black and White layer. So, now it's time to get my hands dirty tonally and start going in and really making a lot of adjustments to the contrast and tone throughout this image. And I am going to do all of those adjustments the same way, and that is with lots of Levels adjustment layers, some constrained with masks. The first thing I want to do is improve the overall contrast of this image. So, I am going to do that by making a Levels adjustment layer.
Just popped open the Adjustment layer menu here, and I am choosing Levels. If you are not familiar with Levels, there are lots and lots of places you can find out more about it. I have got a histogram here. I can see that my black is also--I am just going to pick my black point and start dragging it to the right, and as soon as I do that, my contrast starts improving. Now, I'm keeping my eye on these dark bits of this tree. I am trying to decide how much detail I want to preserve there, and I am thinking I don't mind if I lose some detail up here. That's the shadow side of the tree. Because we know the shadow is here, our eyes are inherently understanding that the sun is back over here somewhere, shining this way.
So, we kind of expect that to be in shadow. That's okay. But I don't think I want to go too much farther than that, even though I would like more contrast in some other parts of the image. Also a little worried about this. That's going a little extreme. See what to do about that later, but that's the beginning of my contrast adjustment. I think I'm going leave that there. Because this is an adjustment layer, I can always come back and fiddle with it later, so I am going to ballpark it right there. The road and this shadow are really kind of the subject of the image. They are really what you see first and foremost, and I would like to have more texture on the road, I would like it to have more pop, and that means a contrast adjustment.
So, another Levels adjustment layer. Now, I'm going to adjust the midpoint. I want to keep black where it is. I don't want the darkest parts of the road to get any darker--I think. I may be wrong about this assessment. This is the beauty of adjustment layers is I can fiddle with it later. I don't want that shadow to go complete black. I just want it darker. So, if I drag my midpoint to the right, look what's happening. The midtone values in the road are getting darker. So, the shadow has gotten darker, a lot of these grooves in the road--this is a dirt road--they're getting darker.
And so I am just generally picking up more contrast. I can easily get more contrast by dragging in the blacks, but then it, immediately goes too dark. So, what I am doing is I am darkening the midtones. I can get more contrast by lightening the white point, which is going to make the whiter areas pop out more and create more of a distinction between the bright areas and those darker midtones that I just did. So, that's pretty good. I am liking how the road and how this big centerpiece shadow are working. Unfortunately, I have screwed up the rest of the image. That's okay. Because this is an adjustment layer, I can create a mask.
This box right here is the mask for this layer. Wherever I put black into this mask, that part of the image will be protected from the effects of this adjustment layer. So, I'm going to fill this whole mask with black. I can do that by hitting Command+A or Ctrl+A to select the entire image. I've got black as my background color. If you don't have that, you can just hit this button right here and that sets your foreground color to white, your background color to black. Now, all I have to do is hit the Delete key on my keyboard, and then I am going to hit Command+D to deselect.
Now my mask is filled with black. What that means is that this adjustment layer, which is being effectively sent through this mask, well, the mask is stopping it. No part of the image is getting affected by this adjustment layer. Now, what's going to happen is I am going to grab my paintbrush here. I have got white paint, and I have got a pretty good-sized brush, but I want it bigger. I can make the brush bigger by using the Right Bracket key--left and right brackets change the brush size. So, now I am just painting. And what's happening is, first of all, you can see in the image that where I'm painting, the image is getting more contrasty.
And when I let go of the mouse button, if you look over here on the mask, you see that there's a bunch of white here. Wherever I paint white, I am punching a hole in the mask, and that contrast- increasing Levels adjustment layer is making it through to my image, and so I'm basically just painting and increasing contrast. So, let's take a before-and-after look here. This is before that Levels adjustment-- my image isn't too bad. But with it, I get a lot more punch on the road, and I like that. Now, that my mask is in place, I can start maybe thinking about, did I set my Levels adjustment properly? And it's a little extreme for my tastes right now. I am going to back off of it just a tiny bit.
Of course, I don't know how your monitor is configured. You might be seeing darker darks, lighter lights, but just trust that this is a normal part of the process. I take a ballpark stab at an adjustment layer, then mask it, then go back and refine it. So, that's looking pretty good! I like what's happening there in the foreground. I am not liking this back here. There is just this kind of fuzzy mess back here. And what I remember seeing when I was standing there were really the highlights glinting off of these tree branches. I am going to zoom in here, and now you can see a little more what I am talking about. This is a tree farm I think, because the trees are planted in rows.
So, there is this deep dark bit back there. Boy, it would be really nice to play these brightly highlighted branches off of that dark bit. So, I would like to do a Levels adjustment to just these parts of the trees. Another thing that's happening with the trees--you can see it in this one here in the foreground-- they are kind of like Aspen trees-- I don't know what they actually were though--where one side gets lit up really brightly and the other side stays in dark shadow, which is really nice. So there should be a lot of highlights I can play with there. So, I am going to add another adjustment layer. And again, I'm only looking at this area that I'm ultimately going to mask.
I don't care what's happening to the rest of the image as I make this initial adjustment. I am going to darken the midtones, and right away you can see this has fallen into deep darkness, but I want to pull those highlights of those branches back out, so I'm going to take my white point and pull it up and slide this in a little more. I am doing just a very localized contrast adjustment. I don't mean localized area-wise, but localized tonally. I am trying to really pull those bright highlights out of the dark shadow, and I am liking that more.
Now, I've got just these interesting little highlights fading into shadow. The problem is that same edit has been applied to the entire image. So, obviously I need to go in and mask this off. So, I click here to select my mask for this adjustment layer. Command+A again, or Ctrl+A if you are using Windows, to select the entire mask, but making sure that black is my background color. Hit the Delete key and my mask is filled with black. Now, I am taking the Brush tool, making sure that I have still got white here, and I am just going to paint into this area.
And wherever I paint, the shadows are going to get darker and the midtone highlights are going to get brighter. So, that's just a slight little tweak to this area of the trees. I will make my brush smaller, paint around this bit, because I really like the highlight on this tree here in the front. Now, that I have got that set, again, I am ready to think about refining my adjustment. And in the refining, I need to be careful that I don't push it so far that it becomes obvious where the edges of the mask are. Brighten that up a little more.
There is just a lot of kind of gray branchy noise back there. I am trying to lose that. I am trying to get it down to more of just black and white, and I'm liking that better. Again, this is a normal part of working with adjustment layers: you take an initial stab, you mask, and then you refine. Now, what that's done--I am going to zoom back out--is it has given me another kind of single compositional element here, or tonal element. Let me show you before and after. That's before, where this is just kind of a gray thing, and this is after, where it is now a darker gray thing.
What you can't quite see in this magnification is that I've also got all these pretty, speckly highlights in here coming off the branches. That's really going to pop when I print. And so now what I am getting is this light area here kind of balancing against this darker area over here. So, it's not just about bringing out those highlights; it's about creating a counterpoint between this area of tone and this area of tone. As I look at the image, what I'm looking for now are are there other highlights that I can exaggerate or shadows that I can exaggerate, just to create more interesting tonality, or more depth in the scene, or more depth on a surface? And I only see one other thing that I want to do here.
I like the highlights on these trees and the shadows on the backside. I would maybe like to play that up a little more. So, I am going to make one more Levels adjustment layer, and I am going to brighten it, and I am going to brighten just the midtones, slide it to the left to brighten. And I'm watching this tree right here, and I like how this side is now noticeably lighter than the other side. This is a very slight adjustment, but I think it's going to make a big impact. Again, Select All to select my mask. My mask is chosen down here. Delete to fill it with black. Deselect with Command+D or Ctrl+D. Pick my paintbrush, got white paint, and now what I can do is with a small brush, I go in here, and I just paint this highlight in here.
I am not adding the highlight; I am just exaggerating the highlight a little bit. And it's going to make the trees look a little more round. It makes them stand out a little more. Of course, I really want it on this tree because it's the one right up in front. It's the once we are really going to see when it's printed. I am going to refine my mask a little more just to bring that out. So, the bigger lesson here is the types of things I am looking for. I am looking for tonal relationships, I am looking for black against white that I can play up, or grays that I can play up, and I am looking for contrast that can be improved.
Let's get the histogram out of the way. There is our close-up view of this middle part, and you can see something else that's happened is, as I've brightened up these midtones here and brightened up these midtones here, I am starting to get that nice silvery look that you want in a black-and-white print. I am getting this beautiful gradient from a nice white into a darker black here. A lot of times a black-and-white print is not even about the subject matter. It's just about beautiful areas of gray, and I really like this transition in here and in here. I like the crunchiness here. I like this playing of light against dark here.
Those are the types of things I am trying to look for and exaggerate. So, let's take a quick look here at a before and after. What did all these adjustments do on top of my initial black-and-white conversion? So, here is my original color image. Here's what happened when I did my black-and-white conversion--it's a little ho-hum. Here is what happens after all of my edits go on, color image to black and white. We are going to take a look at working through some additional images, then we are going to reinforce some of these things, and look at some additional ways that you can use layer masks to improve the tonality of your images.
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