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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

See In Black & White

How to understand the role of color contrast in black-and-white conversions to make your best images starting at the moment of capture

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Figure 9: As you learn to go through this process, you'll find that every single photograph will be different. Some photos will need just a few very small tweaks. Others, like the Baja Grill example, can use some dramatic moves to bring out the best color contrast in the black-and-white conversion.

Notice that for this conversion I pulled the Magentas all the way to -100 to give the lettering in the sign effective contrast. At the same time, I pushed the Blue and Purple controls way up into positive territory to bring out the doors.

Figure 10: You might expect the red flower to make a much less interesting black-and-white, but I always like to give my favorite photos a try in black-and-white because results can be a big surprise. In this case, the Default mix leads to a pretty decent black-and-white, mostly because we have such great contrast in the original, with the water droplets and the backlighting.

The Auto mix doesn't really give us any more contrast, but just lightens things a bit.

Figure 11: As usual, I'm not going to settle for either one of these until I go down through the sliders and find the best color contrast for myself. And, sure enough, pushing things around a little bit reveals a completely unexpected thing when I push the Reds down slightly and then push the Oranges all the way up to +100!

There are colors falling into the Orange zone here, and pushing the Reds and Oranges in opposite directions creates the best color contrast.

The finishing touch for the flower is that little tweak on the Magenta zone up to +50. Take a look at the original color version again, and you'll see why. The stamen of the flower is pure Magenta. This is a great example of how powerful these raw controls are for manipulating the individual color zones. Being able to push the Magenta colors up in almost complete isolation from the rest of the flower allows me to re-create the contrast that color provides in the original.

So, in my mind, that's really the lesson in digital black-and-white. There never will be a fixed relationship between any given color and one lightness value. Every photograph will be different. And having eight distinct zones of influence gives you a tremendous amount of control. The most important thing in learning to create good black-and-white conversions is to be willing to experiment and learning to trust your own two eyes.

Good Contrast: Your Best Starting Point

Now that I have the flexibility to choose black-and-white as a finished product at virtually any point during the digital process, I try it much more often than I did back in the days of shooting film. Some photos that make good black-and-white conversions are a complete surprise, like the red flower example. You'll never know until you try. But no matter what, having an appropriate tonal correction before you try black-and-white as an option is always important. Tonal correction means setting the base exposure or brightness, having good contrast, and having solid white and black points. And, for me, having good tonal correction almost always means a somewhat dramatic move on the Tone Curve.

George Jardine is a photographer, teacher and Lightroom expert. You can read his blog and view a range of excellent tutorials on his website at mulita.com.


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