Photo Daily: Santa Fe Southern Railway – and Bonus: Making Your Color Photos B&W

Santa Fe Southern Railway ©2008

Santa Fe Southern Railway ©2008

The other day, a wonderful photographer friend of mine who makes beautiful color photographs asked me about how I make my black & white conversions from color photos. It sounds like an easy process, but if you’re serious about making rich black and white images, there’s so much more to it than simply turning off the color. Like the film darkroom days, making a picture with your camera is really only the first half of creating a quality image.

Anyone who has opened a color image in Photoshop and simply turned off the color has likely been disappointed with the resulting image. There’s no pop. No richness. The image just looks ordinary. Nothing you would say, wow, over.

I’m going to answer this B&W conversion question in two parts. First some tips on how to make B&W conversions more rich with deeper tones by using software you probably already own.

Then, some info about another software tool that I’ve really grown to love when making B&W conversions from color images. It’s called Silver Efex Pro 2

Part 1

Some background. I had the same issue with my B&W photographs looking dull when I began making b&w prints from negatives way back in the day. They didn’t pop like beautiful B&W photographic images made by other photographers that inspired me. The best word I could use to describe my B&W prints was that they just looked “flat.”

Then I learned about using colored filters on my lenses when shooting B&W negative and contrast filters in my darkroom enlarger. It’s what we used to do when we wanted to add more contrast or definition to B&W photos. Sometimes I’d add a red or yellow filter over my camera lens when shooting B&W film to add more contrast to the negative. Doing that helped to separate colors from each other as they were represented in shades of gray and made the images more compelling.

Our human eyes tend to be most sensitive to yellow light. Our eyes are least sensitive to colors in the blue or violet spectrum. Using colored filters when shooting b&w negative can make the exposed image look more natural or how we perceive what we see in reality with human eyes. If you want a more detailed explanation about all of this, you can find a great article about the science of light and using colored lens filters, here.

B&W camera filters come in many colors. The simple rule of thumb is, whatever color filter you use, will make that color lighter in gray tone. A red filter would make reds brighter gray. Many photographers shooting B&W film prefer to use a yellow filter, because as I mentioned before, yellow is the color light our eyes are more sensitive to. So a yellow filter is actually a very good general use filter to add more contrast to black and white images.

When making prints in the darkroom, I used filters in various colors ranging from light amber to deep magenta. They would go in the filter slot just above the negative holder, and wow. Depending on the type of contrast filter I used, I was getting much richer dark tones and the contrast was definitely punchier. Much more like the photos I was envisioning.

The tricky part was, you were committing to those adjustments in advance on the negative or in the darkroom print. And you really couldn’t see what you had until you had gone through the whole process. At least with digital, we’re starting with a basic color image and we can do all that in post and see how each slider is affecting the B&W image in real-time. So much easier!!

The same filter concepts apply when processing digital photography. And the good news is, you have most of what you need already if you’re using software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Maybe you’ll need nothing else, in fact.

Some photographers like to change their camera settings to B&W when shooting an image they know is going to end up being B&W. For me, occasionally I’ll change the internal camera setting to B&W, just so I can see a B&W representation of my image on my camera display and stay in the B&W headspace in my mind, but most of the time I don’t even do that. If you do change your camera’s settings to B&W, but you’re shooting raw, you should be aware that you’re still not really shooting in B&W. It’s just the raw preview that’s B&W and that’s what you see on your camera display. The raw data is still captured in color, regardless of whether you’ve set your camera to B&W or not. However, if you’re not shooting raw, but instead only shooting JPGs, then, yes, you are baking the B&W into the JPG file. Hopefully this makes some sense. Raw is always captured in color. JPGs are whatever settings you set your camera to capture.

I always shoot raw. And so I always start with a color image file, even when I know it’s going to end up as a B&W image. (Except when I shoot with my iPhone. No raw there… yet. But the same principles apply. You just can’t push and pull the pixels around as much as you can with a raw file.)

So now we have established that starting with a color image is not only fine, but in most cases preferable to work in post than a file that’s already B&W. So let’s finally tackle the question, how to give your images rich and beautiful tones in B&W.

Your camera is capturing the color image in RGB, or in other words, 3 monochrome parts of the image with red, green and blue channels respectively. Think of it like three B&W TVs. One TV is displaying red information and the other two TVs are display green and blue information respectively.

When you bring that information into what you use to process your images, the software actually can isolate or create additional channels from those original three RGB signals. In Lightroom, for example, when I click on the B&W button in the color adjustment menu, I get the following sliders:

Adobe Lightroom Black and White Mix

Adobe Lightroom Black and White Mix

So, from RGB, three color channels, Lightroom can match and combine them to give me eight (!) color tone adjustments when working in B&W. For example, it allows me to bring the brightness down on the reds, like lips, but keep skin tones brighter by increasing oranges and yellows.

In simplified terms, it allows you to increase or decrease the brightness or intensity of each of the 3 original color channels. You’re in B&W mode, but you can still adjust the color information that is making the B&W image. You can also still play with exposure, white balance, saturation, vibrancy, etc., and then at the end of the processing, you’re taking all that and running it through the B&W adjustment. And all of what you’re doing is live, so even when you’re looking at a B&W image on your screen, all of your color adjustments above the Black & White Mix adjustment box are still active. It’s just that your software is displaying your photo in B&W because you’ve added the B&W conversion at the end of the processing chain.

Want to make a blue sky darker and more intense? Pull down the blue slider and perhaps raise the red, orange and yellow to compensate. 

In a hypothetical image of a woman wearing a red shirt and blue skirt, and you want to make a red shirt stand out more by making it darker than the blue skirt, you decrease the red and increase the blue. What you’re doing is darkening red tones and increasing the brightness of the blue tones. The shirt becomes dark gray and the skirt becomes light gray.

You just have to be careful with overdoing it, because sometimes you can push pixels too far. They have limits and if you go to far, your image might become pixellated. So you have to find a reasonable balance. On the sliders in the Lightroom Black & White Mix adjustment, it’s often good to try to get the numbers to add up somewhere near 0. So if you’ve dropped your aqua, blue and magenta channels down, as in the example above, you could maybe try to use your red, orange and yellow channels to get your total back up near 0.

+57 +35 +9 +0 -36 -53 -22 -14 = -24

You don’t have to hit 0 exactly. Sometimes your image feels more interesting with darker overall tones and your total might be lower than 0. Or higher even. It’s what looks good to your eye.

Another setting that adds some pop is called Clarity in Lightroom. Clarity adds the crispness you sometimes see in my images. However, that’s another adjustment that’s easy to push too far. You have to be careful especially with people’s faces that you don’t overdo it. Male faces can usually take more definition than women’s faces, because you’re enhancing lines and edges and detail. Fine for a scruffy manly man, but women usually need the opposite. Softening of detail, rather than enhancing. Clarity is a use-it-in-moderation adjustment. As most adjustments should be.

Part 2

Nik Collection by Google. $149

I first became aware of Nik Software maybe eight years ago? Could be ten. Maybe I got a demo to try. I really don’t remember. They had a lot of separate apps. And you had to buy each separately. Ka-ching! But the one I started to use on a regular basis for B&W conversion was Silver Efex Pro.

The thing I liked about it was that it reminded me of the techniques I used in my darkroom days. I could emulate specific B&W film stocks in terms of how each type of film responds to different colors and the grain characteristics of each. I was an Ilford film shooter back in the day and I can use Ilford film emulations in my B&W digital conversions. Very cool. 

I always start with preparing my original color image the way I wanted it to look in Lightroom and/or Photoshop, in terms of making sure I have more of a flat pass on the initial processing and any retouching necessary if it was a photo that needs retouching. That becomes my working negative, so to speak. My pre-B&W conversion image. In other words, before going into Silver Efex Pro, I want to make sure I have as much information pulled out of the original color raw file as possible. No shadows too dark that they would end up being a black smudge and making sure my whites aren’t clipped and losing detail.

It’s a little counter intuitive. You want to start with a flat image so that you can add all of the B&W contrasty wonderfulness in terms of deep back tones and crispness in SEP (Silver Efex Pro), because you’ve started with a good clean image with as much information as possible while you’re in raw before you export a TIF or PSD for SEP. 

To put it another way, I make corrections/adjustments to the color image, recovering shadow detail and highlights before I export it to make it B&W. Once I export it, it’s no longer raw and the pixels aren’t quite as flexible once they’re baked into a TIF file than they were when they were a raw file. Make sense? 

Raw is where you make sure everything you want to see is there. Then you make a TIF from that as you export it into SEP and you can crush your shadows and blow out your highlights to your heart’s content, because you still have the original color raw image in your library if you ever change your mind.

The real crispness and punch you see in my images is done with an adjustment that Nik calls “structure.” It’s a little hard to describe, but they way I’ve heard it defined is that it’s a little like Clarity in Lightroom or Definition in Aperture, but it goes a little deeper, because you can bring out structure detail in only the backs, or just the midtones, or the highlights. It’s the secret sauce in my B&W images.

Nik also has this feature called Control Points, which is a fancy way of saying you can make adjustments to specific areas of your photo without it affecting the overall corrections you’ve made. 

For instance, say I want to add a lot of structure to really make a background crisp and poppy, but I don’t want to have that same level of detail brought out in a model’s skin tone. I can add an overall structure setting to the photo, and then add a Control Point circle to around her face, and pull back on the structure, or brighten just her face or whatever I want. I can then add two smaller Control Points to just her eyes and give them back more structure or contrast to make them stand out.

It’s really like dodging and burning in the old darkroom days. And since your underlying image that you brought into SEP is in color, you can use that same Control Point concept to grab onto different colors in your image (being displayed to you in B&W) and lighten or darken them. You’d never be able to separate those elements if the image you were working on was already in B&W. Make sense? Just like working in B&W in Photoshop or Lightroom, you are still using the color information in the original picture to make your adjustments in SEP. 

Now with any software, you can go too far. Some of my early SEP images that I thought looked great at the time, I go back and look at now and I’m all, Easy Billy… maybe a little too heavy handed there! Everything in moderation.

My general rule that I ask myself when I’m just about to finish my SEP adjustments and export them as a new B&W TIF is, does this look like it could have been made with my Hasselblad medium format camera. In other words, the tones, detail and crispness I’ve added, does it look like it came from a big medium format negative or does it look like I went crazy with Instagram filters? 

Any settings that I use on an image in SEP that I really love and may want to use again, I save as my own presets. SEP comes with presets, but I prefer tweaking those a bit on my own. I used their presets as a starting point while I learned the software, but began modifying them and saving them as my own. I currently have over 250 custom presets I’ve made over the years. Like many of you, I don’t want to spend hours in post on a single photo. My presets are a good starting place to cycle through. Maybe I find one that works good on the current image as is. Maybe I find one that’s close, but I still tweak it a bit. But either way, it’s pretty fast.

Silver Efex Pro has actually gotten a good reputation with many fine art photographers. One of my favorite labs in Boston called Digital Silver Imaging, makes old school B&W silver gelatin prints in darkroom chemistry from your files (they’re so beautiful!), and they recommend SEP for images you send them.

Part 3… or Oh man, is this long!

Anyway, you can do a lot with the software you own. Using the B&W color mixing sliders and adding some definition and contrast can really help to get your B&W conversions away from that flat, disappointing look we all first get when we simply turn the color off on color images. You can even save those adjustments in Lightroom and build up your own library of custom B&W starting points, so you’re not starting from zero with every image.

But if you have a little software money in your budget, I would highly recommend you taking a look at Silver Efex Pro. Or at least trying out the demo.

A couple of years ago, Nik got bought out by Google, and many of us freaked out about that. But it so far has turned out to be a good thing. Google took all of the separate Nik apps and put them together into what they now call Nik Collection by Google. So for less than the price of what I originally paid for Silver Efex Pro back in the day, now you get, I think, 7 different apps for $149 . So even if you only use one or two of them, it’s still a better deal than what I paid originally.

I still mostly only use Silver Efex Pro 2 and occasionally Color Efex Pro 4. But I use SEP a lot! I would estimate that 80% of the B&W images you see on my blog and website have touched SEP, at least a little.

Here’s the Nik Collection website:

and specifically the Silver Efex Pro 2 page:

I would suggest watching a few of the intro tutorials which can better illustrate what I’ve been trying to explain in writing to see if that’s a tool you might want to add to your B&W workflow.

If you want to try out the demo, there is a Try Now button which downloads a demo version. If you decide to buy after trying, it’s sadly a little trickier than simply typing in a serial number. And more annoying than it should be. Google ties the license to your Gmail email account, which is fine, but it means there is no serial number. You get an email with a link to a new non-demo download that is customized to your email. In other words, you don’t just upgrade the demo version with a license key, you install a new version over the top of the demo.

Here’s an article from a guy who like me, wishes Google would make it a little easier to install the non-demo version. He explains it very well.

You can use SEP as a standalone application or as a plugin for Photoshop, Lightroom and yes, even Aperture if you’re still using that, even though Apple has sadly discontinued it. SEP automatically installs the plugin files when you do the initial installation.

All of this may seem like a lot of work to go through to convert your color images to B&W, but like anything artistic, the more you put into it, the better the results. And after practicing with the various processing functions in your image software, you’ll find it’s not as daunting as it may first seem when you decide to really work your images to make them their best. Anything worth doing takes a little time and effort.

I hope this was useful for any of you looking to take the next step in your B&W photo creating! Thanks for reading.


Any photographs from my blog and many others on my main website, can be purchased as prints by clicking on the Buy Print button below each photo. Thanks to many of you who have already done just that. I greatly appreciate your kind support!


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2 thoughts

  1. I used a Zone VI enlarger with variable contrast way back in the day…after I started using this beauty of a machine my work (as you put it) began to pop!

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