Friday, May 25, 2007
B&W Comes Of Age
There has been a paradigm shift in what photographers can do with black-and-white imagery. Digital tools and capabilities have opened the medium to new possibilities.
Capture And Convert
Capture In Color. The single biggest paradigm shift in making black-and-white images is that it's best to begin with color capture. This yields superior flexible control over tonal assignment. Polychromatic compositions offer the widest range of choices. If you choose black-and-white capture, you yield a great deal of control over the tonal structure of an image. Default conversions, whether by film or camera software, never suit specific images ideally and lock in certain decisions that can't be revised later. Exert the control yourself, converting color to black-and-white with software after exposure. And keep your options open by processing and saving the now neutral digital file in color.
Convert Color To Black-And-White. There are many methods for converting color to black-and-white. Three are worth considering: use a RAW converter to desaturate and adjust color-calibration settings to modify the hue and saturation of individual colors before conversion; to do the same in Photoshop, use the Hue slider of a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer below a Channel Mixer adjustment layer set to Monochrome; and in Photoshop, copy individual channels and paste them into the layer stack, then use layer masks to blend specific percentages variably and locally. The first two methods are efficient; the third method offers superior control. (You can download my free PDF on this technique from www.adobe.com.)
Preview While Making Decisions. Before converting from color to black-and-white, duplicate a file twice. Keep one copy in color to guide your hue and saturation adjustments, and turn one copy to black-and-white using the Split Channels feature (Channels palette submenu) on a flattened file to view the tonal structure of individual RGB (and possibly L) channels. Viewing these versions of a file simultaneously at reduced scale will improve your conversion decision-making process by making it more informed.
Working With Media
The Image Separate From The Media. There has been another paradigm shift. In the past, you selected and manipulated materials to produce a specific tonal structure for an image. Today, you set the tonal structure of an image first and select desired media for it later. Uncoupling the tonal structure of an image from media has profound effects. Tonal structure is fluid and flexible. This allows both more dramatic and more subtle tonal adjustment in addition to the ability to change and refine tone indefinitely.
Curves For Power And Precision. Once a digital file has been acquired, the astonishing tonal control of the digital darkroom can be accessed. The single most powerful and precise tool for tonal adjustment in Adobe Photoshop (the current apex of digital-imaging software) is Curves. With Curves, you can place up to 16 points to pinpoint specific ranges of tones and modify them independently of one another. Use Curves as an adjustment layer and you can modify adjustments at any time, now or in the future.
Masking For Selectivity. Add to this the incredible precision of digital masking. You can control the tonal structure of any one area of an image independently of the rest. And you can control the transitions of adjustments made in one area into surrounding areas. (See the (R)evolution columns in the Jan./Feb., Mar./Apr., May/June and July/Aug. 2006 issues of Digital Photo Pro for details.) Complex corrections that were once arduous to make are practically effortless today.
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