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Monday, April 28, 2008

DPP Solutions: Proper Contrast In Black-And-White

Using your digital tools gives you a level of control that Ansel Adams would have readily embraced

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sometimes I find it useful to do different curves to affect different areas of the photograph. This is often easier and more effective than trying to do all of your contrast adjustments with many points on one curve. I simply use Curves adjustment layers for each curve, then limit where the adjustment occurs on the photo by using the associated layer masks.


6. A layer mask limits the darkening to specific parts of the photo.

7. Here a Curves adjustment layer brightens the photo for a dodging effect.
8. Now the layer mask has limited the brightening to just certain parts of the leaves.

9. The burning-in effect and contrast is intensified by reopening the Brightness/ Contrast adjustment layer (this is one advantage of this technique).

Dodging And Burning For Contrast
Sometimes you need to affect specific areas of a photograph in order to get the best contrast, not the overall image. That's when you need to use the classic darkroom technique of dodging (lightening areas) and burning (darkening areas). Adams has a large section on dodging and burning in his book, The Print, which clearly shows how effective this is for changing contrast.

There are many techniques for dodging and burning, and other than the actual Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, most of them work pretty well (the actual Dodge and Burn tools are fine for small areas, but tend to give blotchy and hard-to-control results elsewhere). My preference for burning or darkening is to use a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer.

Burning-in means darkening all tones in a small area—not some more than others. Changing the Brightness slider of Brightness/Contrast nicely mimics a true burning-in effect. I add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer, darken the whole photo by about -30 points to start, then fill the layer mask with black to block the effect (Ctrl/Cmd-I inverts the white to black). Because this is an adjustment layer, you can change that amount at any time.


10. This shows a Levels adjustment with the threshold screen with a strong black adjustment.

11. Here you see increased contrast from the use of a steep slope in Curves.

I then simply paint white into the mask to allow the darkness to occur. (Don't be confused by thinking that layer masks have a direct effect on the photograph. The layer mask can only turn on or off the effect of the layer; it's that layer effect that changes the photo.) This literally lets me paint in my darkening wherever I need it.

For dodging, or lightening, areas, I use Curves in the same way. I use Curves because the bright areas respond better to changes than using Brightness in Brightness/Contrast.

Making local areas brighter or darker can have a huge effect on overall contrast of a black-and-white photo. The most dramatic effects come from darkening, but sometimes the lifting of values in just one small area can make the difference between a so-so image and one that really comes to life.

All of this takes some experimentation and work to find how to control contrast in a way that best reveals your vision and your subjects. There's no arbitrary right or wrong; only right or wrong for you and your clients.


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