15 November 2007

Beautifully Toned Digital Black and White

Remember the days of film photography when you had to shoot something twice to get a great color version and a great black and white version? It always seemed that you were focusing on trying to get two 'really similar shots' instead of the best shot. Now with digital photography, any good color exposure can net you a great black and white. This allows you to simply focus on what's going on in front of your camera, instead of worrying if you got the shot.

To get a black and white, some people just desaturate the image, re-adjust levels and walk away. I have a simple Photoshop maneuver that allows you to get a beautifully toned black and white without all of the time and smelly chemicals of a darkroom. (I can slam the darkroom only because it's really my first true love.) This Photoshop technique also allows you to get an artistic 'split tone' in your black and white images. I personally use this technique to recreate my beloved selenium toning in my digital images, as shown above. In fact, almost every time I process an image this way, I end up liking the image better in the Black and White version.
So what's the secret? Here's my destructions...er directions.

Pull up your color image in Photoshop.

Go to the adjustment layers in the layer menu.

Select channel mixer.

When the menu comes up, select the monochrome button at the bottom of the menu. This will remove all the color from the photo. There are three channels available in the menu, red, green, and blue. As you move the sliders, the channels will affect the image. Think back to the colored black and white filters you used on your camera lens with black and white film to get an idea of how to use these sliders.

Once you have the black and white tones that you want, go back to adjustment layers in the layers menu.
This time, select color balance, and maneuver the sliders. This will allow you to 'tone' your image with much more control than you would have if you were in the dark room. To get a 'split tone' simply use the shadow control to adjust to a color you like, and use the highlight control to set your highlights to a cooler tone. This is also the best way to get a beautiful sepia tone.

There are other, less flexible ways to get a beautiful black and white in the computer, but this technique allows for a great amount of control and variety, keeping the photographer in the decision making process all the way to the final image, much like the darkroom used to be.

If you are a photographer who shoots in a controlled environment, like a studio, this technique is very easy to turn into a custom action for your studio. Simply record yourself picking the black and white tones that you like, on an image taken under your standard lights, and also choosing the color balance you like. And then never share your own numbers! If someone asks how you get the results you have, just show the technique and let others play with it until they have a look that they like. Everyone wins.

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