USER REPORT : The best tool ever for black and white photography
by Elie Bescont
Hi Steve, hi Brandon,
Happy new year to you and your loved ones, and to all of you reading this article. Thank you again for having me writing on your website.
Today, we are going to talk about black and white photography, but I would recommend you to read this even if you are not into b&w photography because what I am going to discuss here is an important step for color photography too. I will be dealing with black and white photography here because it is the most simple way to explain what I am going to teach some of you.
I have been thinking about writing an article dealing with post-processing for a while now because while it is a key step in creating your own images and developing your own vision, most articles dealing with post-processing on the internet are totally incomprehensible and useless. Most articles I found deal with a particular Photoshop or Lightroom tool, like “today, we are going to show you how to use the liquify tool in Photoshop”. That’s cool, but not really helping actually. You want to develop your own vision to give your images their own character that will allow anyone to identify any of your pictures as one of your pictures just by looking at it, and knowing how to use the “liquify” tool in Photoshop won’t really help you in that matter if you see what I mean. You need a tool to help you develop your style (which is you vision – your own way of seeing things) by using any Photoshop (or whatever) tool at your disposal. You need to develop your own graphic signature and you are tired of browsing the internet for the solution? Keep reading, your might find something interesting.
At this point, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Elie, and that’s how I see the world that surrounds me today: https://www.flickr.com/photos/92813485@N05/sets/72157636422545586/
We all have our own way of seeing the world. We don’t take the same pictures, you have your very own eye and you sould exploit this gift during the shooting process and during the post-processing process too. Today, I will introduce you to the best tool ever for post-processing, and I will apply it to black and white photography. I’m pretty sure you all read books and watched interviews of great photographers explaining how to think your pictures during the shooting process, they mainly deal with composition, timing and that sort of things. There is also a method for post-processing, no matter the software you are using, and no matter if you shoot digital or film. If you don’t use a method, prepare to improve the quality of your photographs.
So the other day, I was walking in Paris with my friend Stan. I brought with me the best camera there is for black and white photography: the Leica M Monochrom, and I decided to take a picture of him with a 35mm lens. Here is the RAW file straight from the camera
Well, it looks nice. Focus is a bit off because the rangefinder wasn’t calibrated with the lens but it’s no big deal. What bothers me here is the ultimate flatness of this image. It’s all grey with nothing really standing out and that’s great because it means that I have a great latitude now in creating my own vision of this portrait. Well, what should I do now? Should I start to twist random buttons on Lightroom until I get a satisfying result? Should I just add more contrast and export the image as it is? No. The first thing to do is to take a look at it and think. What is important here? Please, take a look at this picture. Do it and ask yourself the question. What is important? What is key? What is not? Do it. Look at his face, look at his clothes, look at the different parts of the background. We have to select important things that we want to enhance, and unnecessary things that we want to turn the viewer’s attention from.
Here are my thoughts.
+ Stan (my subject here).
+ His face.
+ His eyes, nasal base and mouth.
+ His clothes.
+ The ramp of the bridge.
– The empty part on the right.
– The empty part on the top (the sky).
Take another look at the image to make sure you agree with me. What I want here is my subject to stand out from the composition. I also want his face to stand out even more, and particularly key details like his eyes, his nasal base and his mouth. I also think that his clothes are an important part of the subject. I think that all the part on the right of the image is not important except the ramp of the bridge that adds perspective to the composition.
There are basically three ways of enhancing something in black and white photography. You can lighten it, you can add more contrast to it, or you can add more microcontrast (i.e. structure, or clarity) to it. There are three ways of driving one’s attention away from something in black and white photography. You can darken it, you can lessen contrast locally, or you can lessen microcontrast locally. It’s amazing how easy that sounds.
In visual terms, here is my plan
Green circled parts are zones that I want to lighten. I want to lighten my subject, and I want to lighten his face even more so it stands out and gets the viewer’s attention. I also want to add more contrast to these zones for the same reason.
Blue circled parts are zones where I want more microcontrast to make little details pop. So I want details of his face to get the viewer’s attention, and I want more crisp on his clothes, I want it to look more real. I also want this ramp on the right to stand out.
I want to darken the entire zone further the red line on the right to center the viewer’s attention on my subject. I might lighten the ramp a little bit to balance this effect on the ramp only. I also want to darken the zone above the red line near the top of the image so the sky won’t burst.
What I just did is the logical continuation to the composition of my image, i.e. when I decided what should be in the frame and what shouldn’t. We just went a little further and decided from what’s in the frame, what is important and what is not. Now that we have a raw image and a plan to get the best from it, we can get to work on Lightroom a little bit.
First, we decided to add more light and more contrast to the whole subject so I selected the zone using the brush tool on Lightroom and increased exposure to +0.21 and contrast to +16 (which is a lot, but the files that the Monochrom gives are really flat). I felt that a touch of microcontrast here won’t hurt so I increased clarity to +2.
Then, I decided to lighten his face so here we go. Exposure +0.14, contrast +16.
I wanted his eyes, base of nose and mouth to stand out (it’s all on the plan above). Clarity +9.
I also wanted to add more crisp to his clothes. Clarity +10.
You can already see a difference between the raw file and what we have now:
Well, let’s darken the whole part on the right using the graduated filter tool. Exposure -0.21.
I will use the same tool to darken the top of the image. Exposure -0.14.
Oh, and I wanted that ramp to stand out a bit. Back with the brush tool. Exposure +0.07, clarity +10. Don’t hesitate to use a big brush with a high gradient so you won’t see a clear separation of the effect.
That’s where we are now, before and after:
That was the really important part because you actually have to make a choice between what’s important and what’s not. What comes next is regular processing, like getting the tone curve to your taste (here, to mine). Highlights -1, lights +17, darks -7, shadows -10
And now a final calibration of the image on Lightroom. Exposure +0.26, contrast +22, whites +13, clarity +3.
This is where we came from in the begining, and where we are now:
This is the image we have now
You might wonder what is the real impact of the choices we’ve made during the first step. Here is on the left the RAW file with the same tonal curve and final calibration than the final image on Lightroom. On the right, where we are now. The only difference between these two images is the plan we elaborated for the image on the right:
If you can’t see the difference, you will notice it here for sure:
Let’s finish that image with Silver Efex Pro 2:
I like to add a bit of grain, it adds some texture to the image.
On the left, the raw file out of camera. On the right, the final image after a bit of thinking and some work on Lightroom and Silver Efex:
Who is flat now?
You might like what I did with that raw image that came out of the camera, you might not, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I made my own decisions. I didn’t just twist buttons until the magic happens, I looked at the picture and thought how it should be. And then I applied my decisions to the picture using Lightroom. It doesn’t matter if you are a master of the paint brush tool or not. You don’t wake up in the morning grabbing a hammer and then wondering what you could do with it that day. You first come up with a project, and if it involves sticking nails in walls then you should start to learn a little bit more about that hammer you stored in the backyard cabin. That’s why all these articles about “that particular tool in Photoshop” are absurd. And that’s why the best tool ever for black and white photography is having a plan for your image before you start twisting buttons and playing with tools.
By the way, my friend Stan is a journalist and photographer. Check his images here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stanaron/
Well, a few days before that day, I was still walking in Paris with the Leica Monochrom and I took this picture:
Here we go again. What is important? The two characters are important, especially her face. The fountain is important too.
I want more light to her face (the zone in green). I also want more microcontrast on both subjects and on the fountain (the zones in blue). I want more light to the entire scene, and I want the sky to be a little darker above the red line to keep some details there. To begin with, I will apply a correction to the angle of the image here. Angle -0.75.
Now let’s add more light to the whole scene. Exposure +0.91, Contrast +5, Whites +20.
I want to darken the sky a little bit to keep a few details there. Exposure -0.28 using the graduated filter tool:
I will now reduce the highlights around these lamp posts.
I wanted more microcontrast on this zone here. Clarity +9.
I needed more light on her face. Exposure +0.28, contrast +3, Clarity +9.
I wanted more microcontrast to her eye, nasal base, mouth and ear. Clarity +9.
I also wanted the details of the splashes to crisp a little bit more. Clarity +5.
Now let’s get the tonal curve to my taste:
And we are done. Here is the raw image straight out of camera on the left compared to the final image on the right
To show you the importance of the selective choices I made during the thinking process, here is the final image on the left with all the tonal curve adjustments and everything, but without local adjustments. On the right, the same image but with local adjustments too. See how her face stands out of the composition to the right.
You don’t see the difference? Try this way:
And that’s the final image we just created:
Again, you may like what I did with the raw file, you may not. That’s not important. What really matters is that I made this image like I wanted it to be in the first place, and you should get your images like you want them to be too. This selective method is used in photography since around 1910 and was used to define most of the iconic images you know today. I hope this was a helpful read for the ones who struggle with post-processing. If you shoot color, it’s the exact same method except you enter a fantastic world called chroma which is a bit more complicated than black and white since you can now totally change the color locally. This is a good way to develop your own graphic style because you are the only person in the world who knows exactly what is important in your composition and what is not. I wish you all a happy new year and happy shooting to all of you.