More on Black and White in the Digital Darkroom
This week, a follow-up to what I wrote about last week. Digital opens up a great many options for producing black and white images that film shooters could only dream of so it's taking me two weeks to cover the subject.
First off, several Photoshop Elements users have written to remind me that I forgot to mention my own Channel Mixer action for Elements. While my focus last week was on Photoshop which includes the Channel Mixer, Adobe left it out of Elements. This don't yet work with the new Elements 4.0, but if you are using Elements 1, 2 or 3 on either Windows or MacOS, you can easily add the Channel Mixer by downloading the Earthbound Light effects from here. Enjoy.
While the Channel Mixer does an excellent job, it can take a bit of practice to use it to its full potential. Increasing the red, green or blue sliders also brightens the image while decreasing them darkens it. Once you understand what's going on, it's easy to compensate for, but if you're looking for an alternative, you may prefer looking into third party tools.
One of the better ones out there is Nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 that has several B&W conversion filters among its vast array of choices. Each offers a slightly different means of rendering color into grayscale, but they share a common design in that they let you select the portion of the color spectrum to favor as well as the overall brightness and contrast of the resulting image. Isolating all aspects of the color portion of the conversion from the brightness and contrast can be easier to get used to. It can't do anything that the Channel Mixer doesn't, but understanding how to use it may be simpler. Nik works with both Photoshop and Elements.
Other options worth looking into include Fred Miranda's BW Workflow Pro and Power Retouche's Black and White Studio. Each offers an innovative array of specialized options to control the conversion process. I'm less impressed with the free OptikVerve Labs VirtualPhotographer plug-in. While it does do black and white conversions, it offers only rudimentary control over the results.
You can also roll your own conversion in Photoshop without using the Channel Mixer and without adding any third-party tools. First, click on the top layer of your existing color image to select it. Then use the new Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette to add a Hue/Saturation adjustment on top of your image. Go ahead and click on "OK" in the resulting dialog without making any changes to the settings. This may sound odd but we'll revisit these settings in a minute. Before we do though, use the new Adjustment Layer control to add a second Hue/Saturation layer on top of the first. In this one, slide the Saturation slider all the way to the left to remove all color from the image. Finally, to get to the good part, go back to your first Hue/Saturation layer by double-clicking on it in the Layers palette. When the dialog re-opens, be sure the Preview checkbox is selected and slide the Hue control left or right as desired to control the color of the filter used in the conversion process.
Regardless of which conversion method you choose, you don't have to stop once you get to grayscale. Here are a few ideas to consider in quest for black and white greatness:
Add a Levels or Curves adjustment layer on top of your image to fine tune brightness and contrast. Since slope equals contrast in Curves, you can modify the response curve of your image to pull out shadow detail, tone down highlights, or whatever you may need.
Use Burning and Dodging to accentuate certain parts of the image. It's surprising how malleable the contrast is in black and white. While there are limits, you can get away with much more extreme edits in grayscale than you can in color.
Add a Hue/Saturation layer on top of your image but underneath the actual conversion layer (Channel Mixer or dual Hue/Saturation layers). In the dialog, use the Edit drop-down list to select each channel in turn and adjust the Lightness slider to optimize the look of areas of the image each acts on. For instance, you can lighten the blues and darken the yellows by selecting each of these from the drop-down and tweaking the Lightness of each. Keep an eye on the preview to see what you are doing, but remember you can re-visit this later on if need be since it is on an adjustment layer.
Duplicate your image and convert it to grayscale two different ways, one to get the best results in the foreground, one for the background, and then merge the two resulting versions into a single image.
To make your image look like a selenium or other toned black and white, add a Hue/Saturation layer on the very top and click "Colorize", then move the Saturation down to no more than around five percent and adjust the Hue slider to taste.
Tweaking each color channel with Hue/Saturation
Toning a B &l W image with Hue/Saturation colorized
After you've played with black and white conversion for a bit you should start to get a sense for what you need to do to bring out natural looking contrast but these ideas should give you at least a few places to start. Choose whichever one seems to work best for you, but be sure to revisit the other ideas down the road as you may well find a use for them as you develop your own workflow. Feel free to experiment too. That's part of the fun of the digital darkroom after all. Remember, you are creating a representation of reality here, not trying to accurately portray it. Reality is in color, so the moment we turn it into black and white we are able to take a great many liberties with tonality that we never could when working in color.
Back in the good old days of film, Ansel Adams was famous for employing a variety of means in the darkroom to optimize the contrast in his traditional black and white images. Photoshop provides the natural follow on to his legacy. I rather think Ansel would be quite impressed with what can be done today in the digital darkroom.