In an era when almost every image begins its life as a color file, and a photographer can convert to black and white in a dozen different ways, it’s easier than ever to make black-and-white photographs. But it’s still as difficult as ever to make black-and-white images that really sing. To that end, here are three tips to help make black-and-white images to a higher standard.
Establish A Pure Black Baseline And Dial In The Brightest Highlights
Many years ago, a helpful art director shared a tip for rendering photographs on the printed page at maximum quality. His secret, he told me, was to ensure that every image had some pure black pixels. In this way, he was sure to avoid a muddy image. To measure this, open an image in Photoshop and open the Info panel. Then, move the cursor—for any tool—across the image area. You’ll see the values for each pixel change in the info panel as the cursor moves, showing values for R (red), G (green) and B (blue). An equal value for each number means a neutral gray (of varying brightness based on the numbers). All zeroes means a pure black image and values of 255 mean pure white. A pixel value of 8 would be close to black, but not pure black.
This RGB approach to pixel peeping allows you to not only determine color shifts in what should be neutral image areas, but it also allows you to see if your black pixels are truly pure black (0, 0, 0). If they’re not, it’s best to use a curves or levels adjustment to the image in order to ensure at least some part of the image is truly black. Likewise, using a similar approach to ensure the brightest elements are pure white (255, 255, 255 on that RGB scale) will help to establish an appropriate contrast range—at least at the upper and lower bounds of the image. I’ve found that while there are lots of forgivable sins when it comes to black-and-white photography, one that I can’t accept is an image that’s flat and muddy. Simply ensuring you’ve established a pure black baseline with white highlights is a great way to ensure a pleasing overall contrast.
Channel Your Inner Darkroom Printer With Local Adjustments
Something that tends to get lost in this modern era is the simple impact of local adjustments to brightness. The dodging and burning of the good old days is often overlooked in favor of more advanced adjustments involving selections, layers, masking and more. But sometimes—and in particular when an image has been converted to black and white—simply burning in an overly light background element, for instance, or lightening a too-dark shadow can make a huge impact on how the viewer’s eye moves through the frame. The dodging and burning tools are perfect for this, of course, as they involve simply clicking and “painting” to lighten or darken the areas based on the size of the brush—no selecting or masking required. I tend to doge and burn with a large brush with soft edges and a fairly low opacity and flow.
You can and should, however, use the digital tools to your fullest advantage by setting them to target specific tones—be it shadows, midtones or highlights. This way, for instance, if you’re trying to bring down a highlight, you can do it without impacting shadows nearby. And if you’re trying to deepen a shadow to increase contrast, you can dial in the burn tool to affect only shadows and leave brighter highlights and midtones in the area unaffected. Dodging and burning are still as impactful as ever, but they can be dialed in for an unparalleled level of control.
Try Toning To Add Depth
In the traditional darkroom, black-and-white printers have long added additional tones to black-and-white prints for enhanced archival qualities as well as the subtle color added to the image. If you’ve ever seen a sepia print with warm brown tones, or a selenium toned print with cool blues, you’ve seen toned prints. Advanced printers combine these or other metals in a process known as split toning, which adds one color to the shadows and another to the highlights. This approach produces very rich and beautiful black-and-white images—and it can be done in the digital darkroom too. It doesn’t add to the longevity of the image, but it can certainly make it more attractive.
Lightroom users can tone and split-tone image files with the Color Grading controls in Lightroom’s Develop module. The default view shows three color wheels—one each for shadows, midtones and highlights. Click on the black, gray and white small circles atop the window to bring up a bigger individual color wheel for a given tonal value. Then it’s just a matter of clicking to choose a color to apply to the selected tone. Closer to the center of the wheel is lower saturation, while values increase in saturation nearing the outer edge. Sliders below the wheel offer control for adjusting the balance of the tones and their overall impact. It couldn’t be easier to add a hint of color to a black-and-white image file.