Pro Tips: Black-And-White
The classic look of monochrome is as popular as ever. Here’s how to get the best results.
Getting good black-and-white prints used to mean mixing batches of chemicals, being secluded in a darkened room, calculating exposure times, dodging and burning, then finally watching an image magically appear out of the developer soup onto a sheet of paper. While digital photography made it easier to get images without the effort or cost of processing film, it wasn't until the last few years that software applications and, more importantly, inkjet printers were equipped to handle the ever-growing desire of photographers to create and print black-and-white images that rival—or sometimes exceed—what once was the domain of the traditional darkroom.
To get a great black-and-white print, you need to start off with a good digital file since it's as important in black-and-white as in color to avoid the GIGO syndrome (garbage in, garbage out). Forget about using the black-and-white setting in your camera. Instead, shoot in color and then convert the image in software. Color files contain more image data than black-and-white shot in-camera, and it's important to maintain that data because the black-and-white conversions discussed below are based on the color information. And, with a color file, you always have the option of printing a color photo in addition to the monochrome image.
Using software to convert a color image to black-and-white has its pitfalls as well as its benefits. The simplest methods won't necessarily give you the best results, so stay away from features like "Remove Color," "Desaturate" or "Convert to Grayscale" for your JPEG images in Adobe Photoshop and Elements, for example, since these conversions depend totally on the software's default settings. Instead, explore conversion processes that allow you to control the tonality of the image.
Conversion options in Adobe Photoshop CS3 alone are enough to boggle the mind, and some require a comfort level working with layers and channels. But Adobe has made it easier with its Black and White conversion function. In Elements, you'll find this under Enhance > Convert to Black and White; in Photoshop CS3, go to Image > Adjustments > Black and White. From there, you can either choose a black-and-white preset or, for more control, adjust the slider bars to increase or decrease the amount of color information (lightness or darkness) in the image for each color (RGB in Elements; Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, Magentas in Photoshop).
When it comes to black-and-white printing, all printers are not created equal, so be sure your inkjet printer is up to the task...
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (now in version 2.0 Beta) and Apple Aperture 2.1 also have grayscale mixers, so you can quickly convert your color image to black-and-white and then adjust the lightness or darkness according to the colors in the image. Both are easy to use. Lightroom offers control over more colors than Aperture, but Aperture has more black-and-white preset options.
There are more than a few third-party Photoshop plug-ins available for black-and-white conversions, and one of my favorites is Alien Skin's Exposure 2. This plug-in offers a ton of presets that simulate black-and-white (or color) film and film effects that can be tweaked by color, tone, focus and grain. There's even an infrared option that's pretty cool, too. Similarly, Imagenomic's RealGrain Photoshop plug-in has an excellent selection of black-and-white conversion and adjustment tools. Nik Software's Color Efex Pro 3.0 plug-in, despite its name, also has a small but effective set of black-and-white conversion options among its amazing array of color and special effects.
One of the main goals in creating black-and-white digital images is to create a broad dynamic range, with rich shadows, clean highlights and a representation of grays throughout the image. Aesthetics aside, if you create an image with good tonal range, you'll be ready for the next step—putting your image on paper.