Home How-To Tip Of The Week Local Control in Black And White
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Monday, January 28, 2013

Local Control in Black & White

Selective adjustments for better black-and-white conversions

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Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Okay, let me warn you right off the bat: this is going to be another tip about converting color photos to black-and-white. I can't imagine that any topic is more endlessly covered online, but I can promise two things: I'm going to keep it really simple, and it's going to be different than most. Still with me? Good. Let's get great black-and-white pictures. Keep reading.

There are a lot of methods for black-and-white conversions, from using a RAW conversion program like Lightroom or Aperture, or using Photoshop's Channel Mixer or Black & White adjustments. For the purposes of this tip, you can use any of these methods you like. With one caveat: It's not going to be a one-click solution. You're going to work with layers to make even better black-and-white photos.

Okay, so you're armed with whatever approach you're most comfortable with. (If you're a newbie, I should point out that there are plenty of articles right here on this very website about converting photos to black-and-white, so if you need to start there, go for it—then come back and pick up right here.) Convert your photo to black-and-white however you like. Then do me a favor and copy that new black-and-white image into a new document, revert the original back to its color state, and start your black-and-white conversion over again.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
This is the key to my tip: because most good black-and-white conversion methods involve mixing various colors (whether it's red, green and blue channels or several individual colors including orange, yellow and purple) with sliders that enhance or minimize the impact of those colors on the finished black-and-white image, you can make hugely different results in your black-and-white conversion. (This is, coincidentally, why there are so many articles about how exactly to make those conversions.)

What this means in simple terms is that including more of the red channel in one conversion and less of it in another can have a huge impact on the look of the black-and-white photo. And more often than not, you like the look of each of those settings for different parts of the image. So, if you could only selectively control those channels you'd be all set. Well, you can; that's why I'm here.

Let's say you're converting a portrait to black-and-white. You like how almost everything looks when you have, say, the red channel fairly middle of the road, so you settle on that and make your conversion. If you copy that to a new layer and reconvert the original color image to black-and-white again, but this time you only concentrate on making the areas that looked better with a different red channel setting—say the shirt, or the background, or the subject's face—now look their best, you can ultimately combine those two different looks into a single image. You do this by using layers, then masking away all but the perfect skin tone, the perfect background, the perfect clothing, and make one composite black-and-white conversion that showcases the best of all worlds.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week

For as wordy as I've made this tip, it really is sort of simple: don't settle for a single black-and-white conversion if a combination of different looks would make you happier with the finished image. You can make multiple black-and-white conversions of the same image, using whichever controls make you happiest, and then layer them together and with layer masks to cherry-pick only the best elements from each.

This approach provides the ultimate in localized control—something Ansel himself would have surely appreciated. So, make good use of this powerful yet simple technique and stop settling for black-and-white conversions that look almost perfect. Instead, make them exactly how you want them, in every single way.

BLACK & WHITE CONTEST—Win a DSLR and get published! Submit your best black-and-white images to our inaugural Black & White photo contest at dpmag.com/blackandwhite.


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