I get asked a lot how I do my black and whites. And honestly I have a few presets I made that I use so I rarely have to do it manually very often. I’d love to share my methods with you all. I have a huge soft spot for black and white photographs. They are so timeless. A colorless image, if done right forces the observer to really see WHAT is going on in the image. Often the emotional impact is so much more intense than a color photograph. I would say at least 50% of everything I do ends up in black and white. For me- a good black and white image usually has some bright midtones and some dark darks. I usually like a rich, strong black and white. My backdrops (for me this is on-location as I do not use studio equipment) are usually darker and often have texture- like walls, trees, bushes, grass, etc. For a more portrait type of image- I like to make sure there is really decent light in the face and eyes. For a moment type of capture- this is not as important for me. Anything goes for a moment capture. You are capturing something real and you can’t always control everything- the direction of light including. These are often my most favorite though.
But back to the portrait type. This type of image you generally focus on eyes, you want catch-lights in the eyes if you can and nice bright mid-tones with even lighting on the face (as light allows). This is preference and will vary on lighting, subject, time of day to name just a few things. I generally shoot with apertures f/1.4-f/2.8 for single subjects. These apertures generally allow me nice smooth skin, with little skin detail and I shoot to overexpose a little bit on the skin and pull it back in Lightroom. If I want a grainy image- then I shoot to underexpose a little and bring it back up (yes I do this on purpose sometimes)- love me some gritty grain (or you can fake it and add grain in LR or PS later).
It’s REALLY important to note the condition of my sooc image below. I see so many people get frustrated that their black and whites are not turning out with such clarity, brightness, depth and pop. When I peek at their sooc images- I see poor lighting on the face and eyes and underexposure. Some of this can be remedied with better in-camera settings and/or moving the subject so their faces are catching more of the soft non-directional lighting. So please note the condition of my sooc before getting down and thinking you aren’t getting this. A few minor tweaks and you’ll nail it!
Anyway this image. Pretty teen with gorgeous blue green eyes and freckles. How I love freckles!
I use Lightroom exclusively for black and whites in my own workflow and shoot RAW. I took this gorgeous image- note good lighting on face and eyes? Background dark colors? Textures? All the makings of a great b&w portrait! First step is to get rid of any blinkies on the skin and clothes first by tweaking the Exposure slider. Don’t make the skin too dark. If you overexposed too much then use the Adjustment Brush and bring back the clothes with it rather than using sliders. Then select Black and White – right above the Exposure slider. Gray scale- blah…but let’s fix that! Now I go right to the Tone Curve. I select Linear from the dropdown to smooth out my contrast and ‘almost’ Curve-like pop that LR makes it’s default. Click on the Point Curve tool.
JUST like a Curves layer in Photoshop I pull this up in the dead middle to pull up the midtones (think skin). Now I move halfway down between the spot I just pulled up and the bottom left corner and I pull down slightly. See how you just popped the image? You will need to practice with this. Curves users are going to feel RIGHT at home with this part of Lightroom. You can have multiple points too- but until you feel confident to branch out- the 2 points are fine. Now click back on the Point Curve tool and you change the Tone Curve toolbox back to the “Region” Tone Curve.
I fine tune some more. In this image I pushed the shadows slider to -28. You may not even NEED to tweak with the sliders but I like to- I feel like I have more exacting control as I move along to do the rest of what I need to do. Sometimes I have to go back and re-tweak this part.
Contrast & Blacks
Two sliders I push hard. On this particular image I have Blacks at +20 and Contrast at +45. To put a tad more brightness into her skin without affecting my highlights I added +15 Fill Light on this image. Of course your images are going to vary what you need to do. Then I go to the Hue/Saturation Panel. It lets me tweak the sliders. To the left: I move the Red slider (it deepened her freckles and brick), Magenta slider (it made her lips darker), Cyan and Green sliders (it darkened the wall behind her). To the right: I move the Orange slider (lightened her skin a tad) and Yellow (varied her hair color a tad since she was brunette with some natural sun streaks). The important thing to note here- is that this box should NOT
be ignored when doing black and whites! Know what the colors are in the image so you know what you want to do with them in the bw version. For black and whites I also like to finish off by burning the edges- how much depends on the image.
In Lightroom 3 you get a little more vignetting control over Lightroom 2. For this image I have Highlight Priority selected (I always do actually) and set it to Amount -6 and Midtones -22. That’s
it! Slight burning on the edges to push the eyes into the image.
Let’s see that before and after. Nice rich, poppy, snappy black and white!
So what’s a moment capture? Not a portrait. :P For me these mean little moments…like hands playing with a toy. Child running through a field. A dance pose in a studio. Dramatic. Many are contrived and some are real and spontaneous. However you get them- the intent is to make the observer FEEL something. The image should try to nail technical aspects but doesn’t fail if you didn’t because it can stand on the moment captured. So the processing is especially crucial,in my opinion, for this type of image. Sometimes if left in color the moment is lost in translation and disappears. This is not to say that color never works but we’re covering black and whites right now.
This type of image is going to vary from artist to artist. From capture to angle to lighting to subject matter to processing. I can only share what moves me as it is what I know and what I do. Always be true to you and make sure that you take new things you learn and meld them into something that is yours.
This first image is a sooc image:
It’s one of my most favorite images…ever. It’s my baby girl and the image is technically imperfect. As a mom and my personal artistic flavor? It caught a perfect moment for me. This image was never meant to be in color. Going into this little mini session of my daughter- I KNEW it was going to be in black and white. In color the image is pretty. But in black and white…ahhh. Well it made my heart sing. Without color I am forced to look at the moment- not what color her blankie is, or her skin tones, or the background color. Just the moment and her.
And another favorite from this set. Technically imperfect. But this session wasn’t about getting a portrait. It was about capturing a toddler- in all her realness and rawness. No clone tools to clean up her chocolate chin. Moments.
I feel like I yammered on a lot. I just love this topic! For me a black and white is NOT just a processing technique. It’s a type of photograph that stands on it’s own. It’s not something I offer in addition to a color version. It IS the version. I seldom offer both a color and black & white version. Usually it’s either/or but not both. For portraits you can easily offer both versions, but with lifestyle or moment type shots- it’s usually pretty clear to me which one the photograph was born to be and I stay true to the image.
Thank you so much for sharing your tips and tricks with us, Amy! Have a question for Amy? Head on over to the CMforum and ask her in her “Ask the Pros” thread! You can see more of Amy’s gorgeous work on her website and her blog.
Amy Beth is an eclectic homeschooling mom to four active kids in Northern
California. She enjoys being a nutrition nerd, eating tasty food, photography, living in the country, wearing Burks, raising her bearded dragon and caring for the rest of her four- legged critter crew. She loves God, her children, her awesome husband, colorful socks and being right. She collects funky socks and old cookbooks. Her bffs are coffee and chocolate. She is also newly addicted to Instagram…so feel free to add her.