Photo Tips: Black and White Conversion
The other evening I was asked to provide the image critique for the Photographic Society of Orange County (PSOC) camera club, and someone that night had asked me about how I do black and white image conversions. If you follow my blog you know that this is a bit out of the ordinary for me, but I thought I’d provide a very basic understanding of how I accomplish converting a color image to monochrome (black and white). I’m not going to bore you with detailed, step-by-step instructions, just an overview.
Above is the original RAW image as captured with my Nikon D300s D-SLR camera and Nikkor 24 – 120 mm lens. You can see that the photo is rather dull and flat, and this has much to do with the fact that RAW files must be post-processed in an image editing program that has a RAW converter, such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, iPhoto, Aperture or Lightroom.
The reason I shoot RAW is that it’s a lossless file format that allows me to work from what is essentially a digital negative, the original which I’ll always have. With a RAW file I can change the White Balance, exposure, and other settings later, which is a really great option. Shooting JPEG cuts down on the size of the file, which might be half or a third the size of the RAW image, but with a JPEG image, the camera does its own processing in-camera and those changes are “baked in” to the file and can never fully be recovered or changed later.
Assuming your camera has this capability, if you’re not already shooting RAW files, I highly recommend that you do so to get the most out of the image files you’re creating. There’s a bit of a learning curve with regards to post-processing, but not much, and it’s well worth the small amount of extra effort to have a much more forgiving file to work with.
I use Aperture, which is an Apple-only image editing program that I’ve come to really like. It’s fairly simple to use, and over time I’ve become fairly adept at working with my images in this powerful program. You can see how the processed image above is really “punched up” with a quick Auto Enhance, and the colors and contrast that were there on location really pop.
By the way, if you’re interested, this image was made in Urique, Chihuahua, Mexico, a small town deep in the Copper Canyon.
In addition to Aperture, I use a set of plug-ins from Nik Software, one of which is ideal for black and white conversions. This module is called Silver Efex Pro 2 and individually it costs $199.95, however, I originally paid $285 for all six modules, including Dfine, Viveza 2, Silver Efex Pro 2, HDR Efex Pro 2, Color Efex Pro 4 and Sharpener Pro 3, and currently I see the Complete Collection for Lightroom or Aperture is just $299.95, but you can even choose to get a free 15-day trial to take each plug-in for a test drive (and they have incredible live webinar training on each plug-in and other training options that are second-to-none). A plug-in is not a stand-alone software program, but works almost seamlessly within a host program such as Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop.
Within Aperture I process the RAW file until I get it to the point that I want it, then I right-click on the image, choose Edit with Plug-In > Silver Efex Pro 2, and suddenly the image appears within the Nik Software interface (above), ready for me to do the conversion.
Along the left hand side of the interface there are over 35 presets for monochrome conversion, these are “recipes” of different changes to the image that give different looks, from high contrast to cepia and antique looks, some with borders and burnt edges. I chose the 5 or 6 presets that I like to work from and added those to my Favorites. Then I simply select a preset to see how it affects my image, which gives me a great starting point.
If I want to make additional changes I can adjust a number of sliders that will affect Brightness, Contrast and Structure, among others, and I can also see how adding a Color Filter changes the look of the photograph. I get the image to where I like it and click Save. I’m then transported back into Aperture and the file is ready to be shared, exported to a folder, added to my blog or sent as an attachment.
Above is the final image after making my adjustments in Aperture and working on it within the Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in. There are many ways to convert an image to black and white, but this is how I do it. The complete process takes me about 2 to 3 minutes per image, if that, so it’s not a long, drawn out work flow by any means, and with a bit of practice anyone can do it.
What do you think? Are you using a different process for converting your images?
If you live in the Orange County, California, area, I highly recommend considering joining PSOC because it’s made up of a great group of photography enthusiasts who do monthly photo outings to some wonderful locations in and around Southern California, and they’re always followed by an image critique from an experienced professional photographer who provides feedback and suggestions for how an image works, or how it might be improved. In my opinion, joining a camera club is such a great way to improve one’s photography, and had a lot to do with how I learned photography. PSOC also does periodic international trips, and this past September I led a group of PSOC members on my The Heart of Spain photo tour, and each and every one told me it was a trip of a lifetime.
I’ll be leading another photo tour to Copper Canyon from August 16 to 25, 2013.
If you’d like to join me, please see the link below.
For more information and to register please see