A few pointers and my approach to B&W conversions

Started Mar 19, 2013 | Discussions thread
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jkjond Veteran Member • Posts: 8,361
A few pointers and my approach to B&W conversions

I had a pm yesterday asking how I approach black and white conversions. A few more of you may be interested in what I do, so thought I'd repeat the answer here. Its not the whole answer, but gives a few pointers. My landscapes tend to be quite aggressively processed, but I take the exact same approach with more sensitive portraits.

Note that its not a one click approach to conversions, nor reliant on third party Efex type plugins...

I've done all sorts of bits of tutorials over the years, some will be on these forums, though I've not catalogue of them. I'm part of an active flickr group which does catalogue people's tutorials, you may find this reference of value:


It includes Ian's approach to black and white which will have similarities to mine - though its an old article and I'm sure we've both moved on since then. There's also a tutorial I wrote on the basics of photoshop. I haven't read it for a while, but a quick look over the sample shots suggests it contains a lot of information I think you will find helpful (including info on the use of layers and masks). The information you seek is likely hidden in my replies to people's questions after the opening post (which concentrates on ACR - in reality, the only essential part of ACR for my black and whites is CA correction, though tweaking basic exposure values can be important).


The thing about black and white is that it is really quite simple. You can only do three things:
1. Make a pixel brighter
2. Make a pixel darker
3. Leave a pixel exactly how it is

And that's it! But the trick is finding effective ways of doing those three things, and how to make it work in an image. The complication comes in how many millions of pixels there are in a single photo - but I break an image down, consciously working on sections - subject, background, sky, foreground, etc.

Photoshop makes the first stage of black and white very easy. The black and white converter which has been part of the programme for several years gives control over 6 colours, way more control than the old Channel Mixer approach. In theory, this emulates the use of traditional coloured filters in film photography. In practice, it opens far more doors and refinement of control. But be wary of taking any slider beyond its comfort zone, especially the blues, yellows and reds. You need to play with them and find what your comfort zone is. Blues can rapidly lead to blotchy skies, yellows to odd white triangles, and reds blow very easily.

I used to do several conversions of a single image then mask the results together on different layers. But these days I find I usually do one conversion, then work on duplicate layers, darkening, lightening, boosting or reducing contrast in local areas - then mask those back together usually with soft gradient masks or soft brushes. I use curves to control contrast. The key here is to play a lot - its great fun finding limits and overstepping them - then plugging back to acceptable levels.

I'll also do a lot of work in colour, then covert to black and white - before working on the files further. When I have something I'm happy with I'll save a full jpg version, then work more on the original file, often saving another version or two. Sometimes I'll end up with 10 or more versions, all separate jpg files - more usually, just two or three. I'll assess these using Bridge, toggling between them, booting out the rubbish, closing in on the best. I may then open two or more versions, bring them all into one photoshop file as layers, and further mask between the different ones. However, there is a danger of straying into an awful hdr look if taking this to extreme.

A lot of people are using silver efex for b&w, though I'm reluctant to try it. I'd rather play and experiment. I can see a lot of appeal in utilities, especially if working on a collection of images. But I enjoy the way I work, its very much a part of what I do. I'm not interested in automation or one click solutions. If an image is worth taking, it is worth processing.

I can't overstress the play aspect, and the 'what if...' approach. Although I have something in mind for every photo I take, I do enjoy turning my back on my original intentions and seeing what lurks within.

UK wedding photographer in the Lake District
For my landscapes and fine art photography:

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