5 Tips for Post-Processing Black and White Photographs
by Kent Dufault, a GuruShots Master
Black and white photography is appreciated by most of the people who encounter it.
However, it’s a tricky medium, and it requires a different skillset than color photography to be successful.
From birth, our brains are trained to comprehend and engage our environment by seeing, recognizing, and evaluating pretty much everything by color.
We see a blue blanket, we think of a baby boy.
We see a green egg, it’s probably spoiled, and we should throw it out.
So for a black and white photographer, when you strip color out of the equation, how do you communicate your message?
The typical way is to use the vital elements of b&w photography, which are: contrast, tone, shadow, shape, and texture.
To understand how these elements impacts your shooting (because there’s so much you can do in post-processing), check the new guide from GuruShots: “Black and White Photography Tips: The 5 Cornerstones of All Great Monochrome Photos”.
It’s important for you to realize that these five elements are very reliant on how you are going to post-process your color digital file into a black and white photograph.
Let’s examine them one at a time.
Photograph by GuruShots member Alberto Cortes – Fascinating Lighting Challenge
1. Contrast is the speed and distance, as measured on a histogram, at which a black and white image traverses from the deepest black to the lightest white.
Let’s assess this two ways. A high contrast black and white photo will have ‘black’ and ‘white’ and not a lot of tonal range in-between. A high contrast histogram will have a peak in the shadow end, and a peak in the highlight end, with very few pixels showing up in the middle.
A low contrast black and white photograph, reminiscent of vintage images, will generally have all of the tones displayed on the histogram clustered together. On a foggy day, the cluster will be all gray tones and appear in the middle of the histogram. In a high key portrait of a wedding bride, the cluster will appear on the highlight end. In a low-key shot of a black cat on a black background, the cluster will appear in the shadow end. Take note, that a well done, low contrast, b&w photograph will often have some tiny spot that displays absolute black and absolute white no matter where the cluster appears.
You get the picture. Low contrast equals pixels clustered together on the histogram. High contrast equals peaks at each end without many tones in-between. Knowing this will help you post-processing your black and white shots accordingly.
Photograph by GuruShots Member Arvind Akki – Flowers in B&W Challenge
2. Black and white tone value is a concern in two different ways when post-processing your black & white images. The first way is- “how is a color going to convert to a gray tone?” The second way is- “how many tones do you want in your photo?”
Let’s address the second question, first, as it is tied to contrast. Do you see your image having a stark graphic look, with deep blacks and bright whites, or a full range of tone from black to white? Then, you must take into consideration “the contrast” as you think about converting to tone.
The first question is answered with a technical response. When converting from a color image file to a black & white photograph, you need to take control over how each range of colors is going to convert. What this means is do not rely on in-camera conversions, presets, or action sets. Manually convert your files using your software of choice.
Photograph by GuruShots member Alexander Sviridov – Shadow Streaks Challenge
3. Shadows are fundamental to great black and white photography. Nothing is more exciting in a black and white image than to see interesting shadows dancing across the print.
How do you improve your shadows?
Think about shadows in general. Rarely are shadows so dense and dark, that we can’t see into them.
Super dark shadows can be great if you are going for that high contrast, graphic image look. But, for most B&W photography, you will want one, or two, tiny super dense shadows, and the rest of them should be dark- but with visible detail.
If the image was properly exposed, good shadows happen in the post-processing phase.
When you look at the shadow end of the histogram, a tiny spike should occur right at the base of the shadow end. The majority of the shadow pixels should fall in the lower 25% of the histogram scale. If you see all of your shadows clustered at the end of the scale, you’re post-processing your shadows to deep.
Photograph by GuruShots member Dean Narandzic – Repetitions & Patterns Challenge
4. Uh, shape, the black and white photographer’s best friend. Why? It replaces color as the next primal instinct in a viewer’s mind.
Shadows often display shapes in black and white photography. However, shapes aren’t always shadows. They can fall anywhere in the tone scale.
Here is what you need to know about shape and post-processing. Don’t let your shape disappear by becoming the same shade of gray as its neighbors. Use your post-processing techniques to make the shape “stand out” through tone, brightness value, and contrast.
Photograph by GuruShots member Aleksandr Myachin – B&W Macro Challenge
5. Texture is the final cornerstone of awesome black and white photography. Using texture relies on much of what’s happening when you take the photograph. However, you can “bump up” texture, without affecting contrast, by a wondrous little Adobe tool called, Clarity.
The clarity adjustment increases contrast in the mid-tones while leaving the shadows and highlights alone. The net result is increased texture without getting an over-processed high-contrast look to your image.
You can even take it a step further by “locally” applying the clarity setting with the “adjustment brush”- rather than a “global” adjustment.
You’re not working in Adobe? Sorry. Check out your own software to see if they have a similar function.