September 1, 2011

Pancake Session: Black & Whites

Welcome back for another serving of Pancakes!

Today we’re going to be talking all about how we do our black & whites. By far, one of the most common questions we get is about what actions we’re running on all our images, but especially the black & whites. And for the most part, the answer is….we’re not.

We aren’t using any of the preset black & white actions out there (although there are some really cool ones), but instead most of what is happening with our black & whites is actually taking place with what we’re doing in-camera and then some minor adjustments in Camera RAW (part of Adobe Photoshop). We’ve already talked here, here and here about our number one goal being to use directional, dimensional light. And that use of light impacts the look of the final processing of the images as well. Let me explain.

When you have that directional light coming in, and the alternating pattern of highlight and shadow it creates throughout the image, not only does that give you a more dynamic image it also gives you a better range of tonality throughout as well. When you have a good white point (i.e. just up to the highlight without blowing anything out) and a good black point (i.e. just up to the shadow without losing detail) then that also means you have every shade of gray in between. And when you combine that good exposure with the use of directional light, it means you create that range of tonality in every fold of the image. So when you convert that to a black & white, those two factors at play is what will give you that rich, creamy look.

So the short version of how we do our black & white favorites for the blog is this: 1) We’re seeking out directional light when shooting and getting an exposure that has detail in both the highlight and shadow. 2) We’re making minor adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW to make sure our black & white points are where we want them to be, and occasionally adding just a touch of contrast/brightness. 3) Once we open in photoshop, if need be we’ll do some minor skin retouching with Pro Retouch from Totally Rad Actions and a midtones boost for good skin tone at around 30%. We recommend either Claire-ify from Totally Rad Actions or KPD Midbright from Kubota . 4) And then we have built our own actions to resize & sharpen for the web. We are only ever sharpening at about 30% to keep that soft, creamy look and to keep it from getting too “tingy” or over-sharpened. We’re going to show you that in action at the bottom of the post, but first let’s look at three scenarios that take away from the richness of a black & white.

1. Flat lighting

The first scenario that can lead to a pretty lackluster black & white is just using lighting in a lackluster way when you shoot it. In the image below, you can see that the light is falling pretty straight on to the dress. So all of those great highlights and shadows in every fold & detail are missing. Sure we could brighten this image, add some contrast, put a pretty action on it. But if the lighting is not there to begin with, there’s no amount of post processing that’s going to change that. And it results in a very flat, boring black & white.

2. Blowing out the highlights.

For the rest of the post we’re going to use the same image so you can compare what we’re showing you apples to apples. We picked an image that we shot in camera using directional lighting (so the first criteria has already been met) and we got a pretty good exposure straight out of camera (you’ll see that one further down in the post). But for the sake of illustration, we went into Camera RAW and brought the exposure way up as if we had blown out the highlights in camera. When people ask us to take a look at what’s going on in their black & whites, after not using directional lighting this is the second biggest problem we find.

Taking a look at the histogram there on the right, you can see that there is still a good black point and a lot of midtones on the shadow side, but then the image becomes very washed out and the key cause of that is that on the far right side you can see the highlights are off the charts (Greg’s collar picking up the window light and losing highlight detail). In general what happens when you have an overexposed image that you try to turn black & white, is that you not only lose that highlight detail but you also end up with a very flat image because you no longer have that rich range of tonality.

3. Losing detail in the shadows.

This one is probably a less common problem because I think a lot of photographers err toward a brighter image than a darker one. But when shooting in a contrasty, directional light situation this might be something you would do to help compensate for losing the highlight on the collar. And you end up with an image that is very underexposed, with no detail left in the shadows, and a flat gray where your highlight should be.

You can see from the histogram that in this image the shadows are off the charts and getting blocked up on the left side, while there is no good white point and the histogram falls short of the far right (highlight) side.

Below is the image as it was shot in camera. We have a white point and a black point, but you can also see that we’ve lost detail just at the edge of our shadows (take a look at the missing lapel detail on the left side) and our highlights are edging on blowing out around the collar.

And this is the image after we’ve gone in and done Step #2. We’ve brought the black point down a bit so we get detail back in his lapel and hair and we’ve also checked that white point to make sure we aren’t blowing out the collar.

Now that just brings us to steps 3 & 4 where we go in and do some minor skin retouching, a 20% midtones boost in this case (this is also something you can do in Camera RAW with brightness) and a resize/30% sharpen for the web. And this is our final product.

I hope this helps!! If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
Happy Pancake Day!

  1. Arielle Doneson Photography

    I was literally just thinking YESTERDAY about how gorgeous your B&Ws are-thank you for letting us in on your process! GORGEOUS!

  2. Jil

    once again I’m in awe of your generosity! as someone who loves taking pictures and who is slowly (but I think "surely") getting a bit better at it using the trial and error method, it’s so amazing to read a step by step approach to b&ws.

  3. Becky

    Love, Love ,love! Thanks for the amazing tips.

  4. Karin

    I heart Pancake Sessions. Internet hug!

  5. Kirsten

    Am I being thick and missing out where you say how you actually convert the image from colour to B&W? As in, in ACR/Lightroom? Gradient Map?

  6. Mark Higgins

    I think the most important thing any photographer can do is to find their own post processing methods so that they are consistent in what they show and provide to clients. I myself use Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 because i have some specific settings that I sue to as closely match Tri-X as possible as that is the film I shot with for 20 years. I think people really need to understand photography and not hope that there is so super secret magic action for Photoshop

  7. sandra fazzino photography

    In response to Kirsten’s question, I can’t speak for Justin & Mary, but I desaturate the color image file. It can be done in lightroom, camera raw, or in photoshop. And because I’m a numb nut and work too quickly for my own good while on a shoot – especially at a wedding – there’s a great tool on my Nikon D700 that flashes the highlights to allow me an instant visual if I’ve overexposed. I, too, love these pancake sessions. I think every photographer should know, understand and practice the zone system (Ansel Adams) Your pictures will thank you. xx

  8. Christa Hann

    So helpful…feel like it’s so educational that I should be taking notes :)

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