Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to process color digital photos to create striking black-and-white images in the seventh article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Fine black-and-white landscape photography is quite possible with digital technology. As with shooting film, however, it takes significant manipulation of the original image to make a good black-and-white print or digital file. The technology is different, but the results can be the same with respect to contrast, shadow detail, and subtle tones in the highlights.
Instead of starting with a black-and-white negative, digital photographers begin the process with a color original (unless you are shooting with a camera that has been modified to capture black-and-white infrared images). The conversion must take place after the fact in Photoshop. The process of converting color to black and white has an inherent problem, namely that contrast is always lost. Black-and-white images look flat, gray, and lifeless when you use the Photoshop command Image > mode > grayscale. The same thing happens if you go this route: Image > adjustments > hue/saturation, and then you move the saturation slider all the way to the left. In both cases, the results are underwhelming.
When Ansel Adams made the beautiful prints for which he became famous, he did extensive darkroom work both in developing negatives and in manipulating prints. This allowed him to hold remarkable detail in shadows and highlights. In addition, he used filters specifically made for black-and-white photography to darken the sky dramatically. They are ironically called color filters, and they are red, orange, and yellow. The way they work is by lightening their own colors and darkening the complementary colors. For example, a red filter lightens the reds in black-and-white photos and darkens blue and green subjects. Photoshop techniques enable us to do the same thing, although we have much greater control over specific areas. We can take the flat, lifeless black-and-white conversions and make them fine-art masterpieces. We can manipulate individual areas of our images and lighten and darken them as we wish.
A case in point is a shot I took at the Wave in southern Utah (figure 7.1). When I converted the original color picture to black and white using Image > mode > grayscale, I got figure 7.2. You can see that contrast has been lost and the image is quite flat. After working a few minutes in Photoshop, I darkened the sky, lightened the foreground rock, and made some other adjustments. The final version of the black-and-white image, figure 7.3, has been significantly improved.
The techniques you can use for manipulating black and white are many. For example, you can use the Photoshop pulldown menu command Image > adjustments > black and white. The dialog box that opens (figure 7.4) allows you to manipulate individual colors in the image and assign them the tones that create the type of contrast you feel best suits the image. This is how I created figures 7.5 and 7.6. Once I had moved the slider bars into the positions that gave me good black-and-white tones, I used other Photoshop tools such as the burn/dodge tool and a layer mask to lighten and darken individual areas. That is exactly what well-known black-and-white photographers have done since the beginning of photography, except that now we can see exactly what we are doing on the monitor. In the past, of course, the results couldn’t be seen until the print was developed.
Another method of manipulating contrast in Photoshop is by selecting Image > adjustments > channel mixer (figure 7.7). In the lower left corner, check the "monochrome" box and the image will become black and white. With the RGB sliders, you can now alter the contrast relationships in the image. The top image was converted from color to black and white this way.
Using the selection tools is another way to work on the contrast in your black-and-white conversions. With the lasso and pen tools, you can make precise selections of a mountain range, a rock, the stark graphic form of a dead tree, or an animal. Then, using Image > adjustments > curves or Image > adjustments > levels, you can alter the contrast of that one specific area. In this way, you have infinitely more control over your images than Ansel Adams ever had. It's a laborious method to achieve exactly what you want, but in the end you may very well produce a masterpiece. If your image is very busy, with a lot of bushes or branches, this method isn’t practical. With landscapes from the American Southwest, though, it is quite doable because many of the landforms are very graphic and they can be selected precisely and easily. I produced figures 7.8 and 7.9 this way.
In Photoshop, there are usually several ways to do something. You should try all of these methods for converting color to black and white, and soon you will find the procedure that feels most comfortable to you and gives you the best results.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow