A few months ago I wrote a brief primer discussing black & white imagery themes. Here, I want to supplement that with a brief discussion of post-processing considerations, focusing in particular on the use of Silver Efex Pro, a Photoshop plug-in designed specifically for monochrome image processing and part of the Nik Collection.
In the Beginning…
For a very long time, I did all of my b/w editing using a black & white adjustment layer in Photoshop, with an emphasis on optimizing the different color channels. Sometimes I was satisfied with the output and sometimes I wasn’t. I had always heard good things about Silver Efex Pro, and even dabbled with the trial version at one point. The hang up, for me, was the price. This single Photoshop plug-in cost roughly $150 (US), which struck me then—and now—as completely out of line. So I went without.
Until, that is, the spring of 2013. Google purchased Nik and almost immediately announced that the entire Nik collection of plug-ins would be sold for less than $150. At one point, with discount codes ubiquitous, the price dropped to roughly $110 for the entire suite. At that point, I decided to take the plunge. I haven’t looked back.
To say that I’ve been impressed with the results of Silver Efex Pro would be a gross understatement. It has completely changed my thinking about black and white imagery and, as a consequence, has made me think differently about photography. But more about that later.
From Start to Finish
When I begin working with an image that I plan to convert to black and white, I start as though I’m working with a conventional color image processing workflow. The image is converted from RAW using my editor of choice (in my case, Capture NX2, but any RAW converter is fine). White balance and exposure are adjusted—if necessary. Depending on your workflow and preferences, you may do far more than this in RAW conversion.
Regardless, to this point, the aim is to edit the image as though you are retaining color, at least to an extent. Removing a color cast, for instance, is a good idea because it can have an impact down the road on tonal separation. An action such as deepening saturation, however, is generally unnecessary.
In any event, after RAW conversion, I bring the image into Photoshop where I invariably tweak contrast with a curves adjustment layer. Consider that you can take this process further—much further, in fact—than you would with a color image. In fact, enhanced contrast is frequently necessary to make a black and white image work in its final form. (This isn’t always the case, of course.) You can, if you prefer, withhold contrast adjustments until after the black & white conversion is made.
Silver Efex Pro
At this point, I call up Silver Efex Pro and start the actual b/w conversion process. Silver Efex has several dozen presets and, from time to time, I preview every last one of them, but I have my preferred set of starting points. The Wet Rocks preset is the one that I use the most often; I really like the way it provides a working contrast point and gives me a pleasing tonal separation. I have used other presets, but this is my most often used jumping off point.
Occasionally I simply take the default preset, as is, and I’m done. For a notorious tweaker like myself, it was quite a revelation to find out how often I could do this. Still, most of the time I make some local adjustments using the Nik suite’s control points. (Control point technology is the basis for the Capture NX2 RAW converter, so I’ve long been familiar with the approach.) The use of control point technology makes the process of implementing local adjustments far easier than it would be if you had to make selections and adjust masks manually. Local contrast enhancement and occasional dodging and burning—by far the local adjustments I’m most likely to implement with a black and white image—are easily accomplished, and far more advanced adjustments (which I undertake, on occasion, but far less frequently) can also be easily implemented using a series of sliders.
The results are simply stunning. Silver Efex is such a powerful tool that I’ve been slowly going through all of my old b/w images and reworking them, almost invariably with dramatically improved results.
When I’ve made my Silver Efex adjustments, the image goes back to Photoshop. If necessary, I’ll now perform any clean up that might be needed and, on rare occasion, I’ll make some modest contrast or luminosity masking tweaks, but this is relatively unusual. Most of the time, when I finish with Silver Efex, I’m finished with the image (other than saving and archiving it).
The end results are so good, that I’ve found myself far more likely to “think” in black and white terms than ever before. We’ve entered a time in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, after the color of autumn is gone but before any meaningful snow has fallen, when landscape photography opportunities have ordinarily been exceedingly thin for me. But with a renewed focus on monochromatic imagery, I’m seeing possibilities that, in the past, I would have passed by. And that’s worth its weight in gold.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.