Processing Photos for Black and White

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The original unprocessed jpg

Two weekends in a row I was on field trips with other photographers and both times the light was such that I knew I was going to end up doing a lot of processing in black and white. It happens sometimes, especially on a very bright, contrasty day or on a day with dull, boring light (as distinct from the kind of overcast that, say, makes colors on flowers and trees pop).

The second of the weekends began at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest in the country, and there I was, looking at it in the most boring light conditions imaginable. But this wasn’t going to stop me–I like to photograph lighthouses and I was determined to make something of it. Fortunately there was a pretty decent hint of clouds, not one of those pale, totally blank skies. OK. Let’s go for a composition that’s a bit different and that has the clouds surrounding the tower. After all, I had been to Sandy Hook twice before on bright, sunny, blue-sky days and taken the typical “postcard” compositions.

Another problem was that the lighthouse appeared to have acquired considerably more rust stains than I remembered from my last visit in January 2010. Those would have to go.

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who was also a master orchestrator, said that you can’t orchestrate well what hasn’t been well composed. This observation has more than one application in photo processing. For one thing, you can’t take a poorly lit photo, add a B&W layer (or slide the saturation lever all the way down), and think, presto, problem solved. You need to do some optimizing of your original first, preferably starting in Raw. Increase the contrast, increase clarity, work with Levels. Only then can you begin to work with theB&W.

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The processed image

Sometimes when you decide to process a photo in B&W you may be open to anything, have no particular notion of what you want your end result to be, and so you try the presets in the B&W layer in Photoshop or (for the adventurous) the whole gamut of presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 until you find one that’s a good starting point, then you start tweaking various settings until you get a result you can live with. (I’m currently in a high-structure craze and sometimes deliberately force myself to try something “soft” just to remind myself that there are other ways of making my photo look.) Better yet, though, is when you start with an idea of how you want it to look, then try the presets until you find the one that corresponds to what you envision, then do the necessary tweaking.  That’s what happened with this lighthouse photo. I wanted that dark tone and contrast in the sky–then, as an experiment, decided to see how bright I could make the lighthouse (including giving it a digital “paint job”). The Red Filter did the trick. This was done with a B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop; I wasn’t envisioning anything as adventurous as what you can get with Silver Efex Pro–not just now, anyway.
If you want a great wealth of B&W tips from the really top pros, let me recommend two things. First, Harold Davis’s book Creative Black & White. Harold is a superb teacher. Check out his website too. Also, Rob Sheppard has been getting into a lot of B&W work of late, and he teaches an online course at BetterPhoto. Rob, too, is an excellent teacher, and this course has videos as well. Check it out, and check out Rob’s fine nature and photography blog.
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