My Ideal Black & White Photography Workflow

  • Black & White: The Medium of Masterpieces

Many of us have a sense of awe when we see a great monotone image, as it accentuates elements of the scene not as readily visible when colors are present, and the stripped down image can convey an even stronger message than its color counterpart.

For me, black & white images are what drew me into photography, specifically the majestic landscape work of Ansel Adams.  I have found his interpretations of nature’s beauty so powerful through the black & white medium.  Each time I see one of his iconic images, I am amazed at how he visualized the final monotone print in the midst of all the colors hitting him from every angle in the wild.

While many individuals feel drawn to black & white imagery, many also find the processing required to create the final print quite challenging if not intimidating.  I know that I have struggled with this since I began shooting a few years ago.  My images just never seemed to express what I envisioned through my camera and my mind’s eye.

Now, with practice, experience, and some advanced photo editing software, that struggle has become easier for me as I move through the photography learning curve and as I have employed new editing software to facilitate my editing.

I have prefaced my entire blog by stating that I am still on the upward swing of my learning curve, falling somewhere between beginner and seasoned veteran, and photo editing is certainly no exception.  As I have had a special interest in black & white imagery from the outset, I have sought out many resources on how to achieve my best final B&W images.  I can tell that I am not alone in this quest, since so many monthly photo mags have the cover “covered” with “how to” articles to make your B&W images explode off the page, and there are numerous books devoted to this subject.  However, while I have found many books and articles useful, I also have found most lacking in a focused, directed approach to photo editing to get where you want to go, especially for my “in-between” level of expertise.

So, what follows is the current strategy I have found most effective when working through an image from its color beginnings out of the camera to the final B&W image.  I imagine (and hope!) that as my skills improve my techniques will also evolve, but for now this strategy appears to get the image I saw in my mind onto the screen fairly consistently.

This brief “how to” cannot substitute for investing some time (and money) with your camera, digital imaging software, and the available books, magazines, and instructors available to help you learn what you are doing, but it can provide a starting point from which to grow.  I have found the following resources particularly helpful for me:

Lightroom for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby (http://www.scottkelby.com)

Black & White: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Batdorff (http://johnbatdorff.com/blog)

I also have found shooting in Raw mode essential to give me the flexibility I need to edit my shots.  And, while I would love to tell you that there is an inexpensive and totally effective, all-encompassing image editing option out there, I have found that my best images come when I use a variety of programs, including Adobe Lightroom (currently version 3, now testing Beta version 4!), Nik Silver Efex Pro (now version 2), And Adobe Photoshop CS5 for those necessary final edits such as spot removal and unwanted element removal (posts, unattractive elements, the wandering bird that looks more like a spot, etc.).

I will admit up-front that I am not well versed in Photoshop and use it only when necessary.  I use Lightroom as my beginning and final editing program, and I rely on Silver Efex Pro for the hard work in the middle.  For simplicity, as I reference them throughout this blog, I’ll be calling Lightroom “LR” and Silver Efex Pro 2 “SEP” – hope that does not confuse anyone!

 

So, with that background, let’s launch into a photo workflow and change this image:

Monument Valley, North Window

Into this:

Utah, Arizona, Black & White

Monument Valley, North Window in Monochrome

 

In about 5-10 minutes!

 

Step one: Import photos into Lightroom

There are so many ways to set up your LR catalog, and I won’t go through them here – that is the topic for another day.  But, once you have imported and identified your images of choice in LR, you are ready to begin!

 

Step two: Crop photo

While cropping can technically be done at any time, it seems reasonable to get your final image parameters in front of you before you begin.  This includes overall crop and alignment.

From this point, I used to do quite a bit more in LR before leaving it, but I have found through my own trial and error process that these edits frequently did not have their intended effect in the long run.  My own observations were supported by my recent reading of Black & White: From Snapshots to Great Shots, where John Batdorff also recommends stopping at this point and jumping over to SEP.

Before we move further, you may be asking if you really need an additional software program only able to work on black & white images.  You must ultimately answer that question for yourself, and there are many “how to” discussions about doing the whole process in Lightroom (which I did prior to purchasing SEP) or Photoshop CS5 (or even Elements for that matter).  Scott Kelby does a nice job explaining in his books how to complete the entire process in either LR or Photoshop, and then in his seminars strongly recommends that you also get SEP for black & white!  I have found that my images are so much better using multiple editing programs that I could not envision using only one, but I am an admitted B&W enthusiast trying to perfect my work.  So, following that digression, it is time to move your image to Silver Efex Pro 2.

 

Step 3: Import image into Silver Efex Pro 2

OK, that is not exactly true – first you need to set up your LR output settings, listed under “Preferences.”  Again, referencing John Batdorff’s work, set file format to TIFF, ProPhoto RGB Color space, 16 bit/component, resolution 300, and no compression.

For your specific file, choose “Import with Lightroom adjustments” and then the SEP workspace will open up, with the image in “Neutral.”

There are a variety of presets that I find invaluable in SEP, and I would recommend spending some time opening a variety of images in SEP and looking at which presets get you closest to your vision for a variety of different shots.  These presets are then easy to accumulate in your “favorites” category by simply clicking on the star under the preset (you would not believe how long it took me to figure that out!!!)

I have found the following presets best match my view, depending on the image:

  • Neutral (usually not used, but a great baseline from which to work)
  • High Contrast (harsh) – probably tied for my most used
  • High Structure (harsh) – probably tied for my most used
  • Full Dynamic (harsh)
  • Full Dynamic (smooth)
  • Fine Art process – a bit subtle for my taste, but occasionally correct for me
  • Wet Rocks – infrequently used, but when it works it really works!
  • Full Contrast & Structure – this is frequently “the one” on first glance, but in final edit it is usually too harsh.

Everyone has a bias when they edit – mine is to over-darken, over-sharpen, and over-contrast every image!  I have to combat that by consciously working in a more subtle fashion.  You may be the same, or you may err on the subtle side and find your final images lacking “punch.”  Everyone will have a natural bias, and each can be overcome – you simply have to be honest with yourself and identify it first, then compensate for it in your process.

 

Step 4: Adjust your SEP Preset Image

In this stage of my development, I find that I am frequently happy with what the preset has given me overall.  However, this is the time to tweak brightness, contrast, and structure as needed.  Again, less is frequently more in these edits – don’t push any particular slider too far!

 

Step 5: Secondary Adjustments in SEP

Selective Adjustments

SEP has a wonderful selective (local) adjustment capability, and when needed it is quite effective.  I probably underutilize this feature currently – perhaps in a follow-up I’ll report back on how I use this to better advantage. For now, I look for glaring areas that need work, but otherwise leave this alone.

Vignette

There is no “correct” order for the next adjustments, but I prefer to check Vignette first before checking filters.  I have found that “Lens Falloff 1” is almost always the right choice for my image, adding a bit of darkening and texture to the image.

Color Filters

I infrequently adjust the color filters but have gotten into the habit of checking them routinely just to see what might “pop” out at me with different filters in place.  The default is grey, but I have on occasion used each filter with added effect.

Burn Edges

I began by applying Burn “All Edges 1” to most images, but have found that many times that effect is too strong.  I would prefer a less intense choice available here, and if the effect seems too strong for you, you can defer this step until you return to LR with “Post-Crop Vignetting,” which is what I do for most of my images now.

With those edits in effect, you are ready to return to Lightroom.  If you want a better look around your image before leaving SEP, there is a great zoom function at the top of the image – simply click on the magnifying glass and move around the image.  When you are done, simply click “save” at the bottom of the page.

 

Step 6: Save to Lightroom

That’s it – not much excitement in this step.

However, this is the time to digress into LR presets.  There are a variety of pre-programmed presets, but as you edit you will find effects you prefer to add over and over, and using the buttons on the left (under Presets) is SO much easier than constantly moving the sliders, you will want to invest some time in setting these up.  To make a preset, simply create the effect you want in any photo you have open and then click the “+” sign next to preset.  A menu will then open up asking you what all you want to include in that preset.  While the temptation exists to include numerous things at once, in reality you will maintain better flexibility and ultimately improve your workflow by setting each element separately.  So, uncheck all other boxes other than the one you want to create (for instance “Clarity 50”) and then title the preset so that you can easily find it and use it.  I would do this for each aspect of the controls – a little time spent up front will save you hours as you go!

 

Step 7: Check Brightness

In LR3, this is the time to edit overall brightness, followed by recovery, fill light, and darks as needed.  In the beta version of LR4, these sliders have changed slightly, and now brightness and the other elements are exchanged for Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks, theoretically giving you more refined control of the overall “brightness” of each of these areas of the image.  I must admit that I am still a bit baffled by this extra level of control, but it seems to be a good change overall.

Neutral Density Filter

If you find one of your image areas, especially the foreground or sky, out of balance with the rest of the image, you can effectively use the graduated neutral density filter, applied from the top or bottom to increase or decrease exposure among other tweaks, to balance the image.  Also remember that this filter can be applied ‘sideways” if one side if the image is out of balance with the other.  This is rarely needed but can be extremely effective when it is.

Clarity

Again, my natural bias is always to over-sharpen images, so I have to hold back the reigns when using the Clarity slider.  I’ve found that 25-50 usually gives me the texture I desire.  I can occasionally punch this to 75, but it frequently begins to take on an otherworldly effect at that point.  I do find that most all images benefit from increasing Clarity.

Tone Curve

Most photos benefit from a tone curve adjustment.  A good place to start is with 10 for lights and 10 for darks (which you could make as a preset and call it “10/10”).  I have now created presets for a variety of different values, from 0 to 15 for both light and darks in different combinations.  As with all these adjustments, be careful as too much really is too much!

Sharpening

Sharpening is another element that most all photos need but where a little can go a long way.  I started out using 75 for most images and then reluctantly acknowledged that most images looked unreal at that level for most subjects.  I now usually use 25-50 depending on the subject (people excluded from this –people generally need less rather than more sharpening).  At this point, special attention should be paid not only to the elements you are trying to sharpen, but also to the background elements that may begin to get quite grainy if/as you push Clarity and Sharpness.  Also beware that lots of sharpness frequently looks pretty good on a smaller computer screen but does not look good in print.

Noise Reduction

Noise reduction is controlled by adjusting the “Luminance” slider.  I was reluctant to use this for quite some time for concern about softening my images, but I have found with time that this tool is extremely valuable, especially as you transition your images from the screen to print.  When I adjust Luminance, I try to get an area that I want sharp adjacent to a background area I want smooth in the viewer at 1:1 magnification, and I push the Luminance slider until I strike a good balance between a smooth background and sharp structures.  I have found that 20-50 is the appropriate amount for most images.  Above or below this the effects are too little or too dramatic.  However, this slider, perhaps more than any other, is highly image dependent, and I find that I routinely use multiple final numbers between 20 and 50, rather than simply going to one end or the other.

Vignette

If you did not use “Burn Edges” in SEP then you may want to create a vignette by sliding the amount slider towards the negative when in “Highlight Priority” mode.  I find that -5 to -10 is enough for most images.

 

At this juncture you may be finished.  But, before you make that decision, make sure to critically evaluate your image under high magnification, as dust spots and other unwanted elements that were barely visible in the color image will be accentuated in the sharp, high contrast B&W image you just created.  While LR has a spot removal setting, I find this almost useless, and so when I have any final edits in this realm I switch to Photoshop for my final work.

 

Step 8: Export to Photoshop

Again, you will want to export with Lightroom adjustments, and make sure you are exporting the correct file type by setting this up in Lightroom Preferences ahead of time.

I am admittedly deficient in Photoshop skills – I find the program quite difficult to understand and work through, and so for the most part I avoid it.  I hope to be able to contribute a blog on how to use Photoshop in the future, but I’ve got to learn it first!

(Incidentally, in my “day job” I edit clinical images for my Ophthalmology presentations and find Photoshop invaluable, using it all the time to crop and resize images, convert to CMYK color space, remove identifying information from scans, etc., and I hardly ever work in LR for clinical images.)

For now, most of my Photoshop photography work consists of using the “Clone Stamp Tool” to remove dust spots and anything else that otherwise detracts from the image.  For instance, in some shots there are wisps of clouds or small birds in the far distance that are not artifacts but still detract from the final image.  These can be cloned out as well.  Go under high magnification for this work by using “Command +” buttons on a Mac to get the image larger, then go to work combing through the final image.  After this, save your work back to Lightroom and you are finished!

 

Final Thoughts

While there appears to be a great amount of information contained herein, once you spend some time up-front setting up presets in LR and SEP and acquainting yourself with the software, you will be able to move through an individual image in about 5-10 minutes!

Below are a few more examples from last year’s trip on a rainy, somewhat hazy day in Monument Valley, where I intended to shoot and process in color but found the landscape so conducive to B&W that I chose this for all my final edits.  I think you will find the “before” and “after” quite striking!

I hope this clarifies the B&W process for you, that it motivates you to try your hand in B&W, and that you find it useful as you work your images from camera to canvas!

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