David Saffir: Thinking and Seeing In Black and White – Part 2 of 3
Mar 2013 19

This is an image I captured in New York City, late at night – the original as shot in color at ISO 400. I braced the camera against a windowsill. I could see from the start that tonal values were differentiated to the extent that the image would require little post-production work for a nice black and white effect.

In fact, the only significant things I did in post included pulling the end points toward the center in a Levels adjustment layer, and converting to black and white using another adjustment layer.

The deep shadows on the left, the dark parking area at top, the shadow on the right, and the dark street at the bottom provide a frame for the rest of the image. The midtone values of the sidewalk are a wonderful backdrop, with light texture providing a bit more depth to the image. The shadowy, blurred view of the pedestrians adds a bit of mystery – who are they, and where are they going?

This image (shown first at the start of this series) was captured in Death Valley, California in late afternoon, December 2011. I felt, as I was shooting, that this would become a black and white image – in part because of the limited color palette, some weak midtone transitions, weak contrast in the background, and my desire to take advantage of large blocks of darker areas/shadows and the contrast lines in the sand.

I increased contrast by pulling in the endpoints in Levels, and steepening Curves in the midtones. Last, a trip through a Photoshp plugin for conversion to black and white:

Deepening the shadow areas adds structure to the dunes, dramatically increasing contrast between light and dark areas. Dune textures are enhanced, and differentiation between the mountain ridgeline and sky is improved. The image is more “moody”, and almost appears to be a night shot.

Another way to create greater differentiation between key elements in an image is to modify the way underlying colors are handled by your conversion process. For example, in Photoshop one can change the influence of underlying colors using sliders provided in the Black and White adjustment layer tool.

The first image shows the adjustment tool, preview turned off, and the sliders in the “default” position. Note the clean differentiation between the inner layers of the flower, and the green leaves surrounding it. The second image shows the adjustment layer dialogue with preview turned “on” – note that the yellow and green areas tend to blend together, as their tonal values are similar.

The sliders in this dialogue box can be used to control the relative influence, or intensity, of colors in the layer below. In this case, moving the yellow slider to the right (increasing intensity) and the green slider to the left separates two critical areas of the image:

This effect can be achieved in a number of ways; one of my favorites is to create a new layer, and the use the “Replace Color” tool to manipulate hue, saturation, and brightness – singly or together – to create visual layering, separation, and differentiation. Although the colors may look strange before conversion to black and white, the “pop” of the final image can be very satisfying.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.