I love black and white photography. Perhaps its the newspaper journalist in me… but I just adore a beautiful grayscale image that pops off the page. Black and white photography is frequently a misunderstood technique in the digital age. Many photographers incorrectly shoot and post-process their photos. I’d like to share one workflow (but its my favorite).
Getting a great black and white photo requires capturing a color image first. Ideally an image with a wide dynamic range. While all cameras are different, here are a few pointers to get the best image.
- Shoot raw. The flexibility of the raw file is an absolute must. This gives you the most information to work with.
- Check your color mode. Stop shooting SRGB. Look for Adobe RGB or ProPhoto if its an option. These color gamuts have a wider range of color information available which will lead to more dynamic range.
- Up Your Depth. If your camera shoots 10-bit, 12-bit, or higher… go for it. For example the jump from 8-bit to 10-bit means switching from 16.7 million levels of detail to a whopping 1.1 billion. That’s a LOT more information to work with.
- Shoot with Brackets. This is where HDR comes into play. By shooting with exposure bracketing, you can cover a wider range of the scene. I find that 3–5 brackets is usually enough to capture the details when I shoot.
Merge the Brackets
My preferred method for merging is with HDRsoft’s Photomatix. You can pre-process the raw files if you like with Lightroom or Photoshop, or take them in directly. In this case, I’ll work with the processed TIFF images from Lightroom.
- Launch Photomatix Pro. You can get a free trial here (http://www.hdrsoft.com/download.html)
- Click the Load Bracketed Photos button then drag the images in or use the Browse command to select them.
- Click OK to open the Merge to HDR Options dialog.
- If you shot handheld, check the option to Align source images. If from a tripod, this isn’t likely needed.
- Choose the reduce noise on your images (unless you already did this in Photoshop or Lightroom). This option is most useful if you bring in Raw photos.
- Specify a white balance, I usually use As Shot.
- Click Align & Merge to HDR
Tone map for Black and White Photos
The images are opened, processed, and merged. Depending upon the resolution and format (as well as the speed of your computer) this can take a little bit of time. Once done, you’ll see a new window for tone mapping. This is the process of deciding which parts of the dynamic range to show.
- In the upper-right corner, choose the Black & White category.
- Click on each preset to get an idea of its look. Each preset uses different methods or mapping and settings.
- You should experiment with the different sliders on each preset. There are some very different approaches to black and white at play here.
- When satisfied click Apply
Add Finishing Touches
After you click Apply, the image is handed off for finishing touches. Here you can take things a bit further to stylize the image. I suggest adding a bit of a curve and some sharpening. If you’re an Adobe user, you can also choose to open the file in Photoshop or import back into Lightroom for some extra touches or cleanup. Sometimes HDR workflow will bring out any dust or lens spots. I’m always a suck for using the gradient maps in Photoshop.
- Open the HDR image in Photoshop.
- Click the Adjustment layer menu and choose Gradient Map.
- Click the drop down menu on the gradient and then click the Gear icon to load a set.
- Choose the Photographic Toning gradient maps.
- Experiment with the many choices. You can also adjust the Opacity of the adjustment layer if needed.
The Bottom Line
Great back and white photography is about the relationship of tones. Shooting with a broader dynamic range and developing with an expanded dynamic range workflow will give you the results you crave. Give it a try.