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How-to's

How and When to Convert to Black and White

Ernesto Santos (esantos)


Keywords: bw, converter, nik, silver, efex, tone, toning, how, to, tips, esantos

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NEVER GIVE UP ON A DULL OR FLAT IMAGE

Come on, you have to agree with my total disappointment when I first opened this color image on my computer at home. It is totally lifeless. No color, no contrast, and a terrible sky. In fact, when I took this there was actually a pretty bad sand storm blowing through the park. Since it was my last afternoon there I just kept shooting as long as the blowing sand didn’t start attacking my cameras. 

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Sail Chair – White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Click for an enlargement

 

My persistence eventually paid off, and I always knew that these wonderful and whimsical picnic sail chairs would make a great image if photographed at the right angle. With the right treatment in Silver Efex Pro I was able to pull out some fine blowing sand in the air. And the contrast was there after all, especially on the chair sail, it just needed some coaxing.

Aside from the obvious lesson here to always persist, there is another tip to take away from this example. If you look at the B&W conversion closely you can see that all that makes this an interesting image was really there in the original all along. The changing tonal values of the corrugated steel, the heft of the concrete base, the fine detail of the desert floor, and of course, the interesting wisp of blowing sand.

 

USE DIGITAL COLORED FILTERS TO BUILD THE CONTRAST YOU WANT

One of my favorite features of Silver Efex Pro and B/W Styler is the ability to add the effects of using colored filters just like you do when shooting B&W film. When choosing a B&W conversion program make sure it has this feature, it is invaluable.

In general terms a colored filter will only let through its own color of light while blocking all the others. So, a red filter allows all the red light through, a green the greens, a blue the blues, and so on. This affected transmission of light is represented in darker tones for the light it blocks and lighter tones for the shades it lets through. As you can see this can be a very effective way to create more contrast in certain situations.

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Bison Skull Motif in Color – Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Click for an enlargement

 

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Bison Skull Motif in B&W – Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Click for an enlargement

 

In my image above of the bison skull you’ll notice that the adobe wall is a red tone as is the ladder. Both look featureless in the color version, but look at the transformation when I added a blue filter in the conversion. Suddenly you can see detail in the wood of the ladder and the grass in the adobe is more pronounced, you can even see the strokes as the stucco was laid on. I chose to use the blue filter because it has the widest effect of all the colored filters, and while it turns red to almost black, it also darkens just about every other color as well. I figured it would handle all the warm tones in the image, and indeed it did. All that was left to do was to boost the brightness of the skull and the image took on a very dramatic look.

 

TONE YOUR IMAGES FOR DISTINCTION

Sorry, more skulls. Can you handle one more skull image? Seriously, this final tip is totally optional. To be honest, I don’t often tone my black and white images using different shades, preferring to almost always use a very faint Selenium tone. I’m just partial to cooler tones. The tip here is to simply never overlook toning an image, sometimes it can really take that shot to the next level.

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Cow Skull Sculpture at the Gage Hotel – Marathon, Texas

Click for an enlargement

 

When I first converted this image it looked fine in neutral tones but for some reason I felt it wasn’t really representative of the beautiful Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas where this was taken. It is a little known gem in the middle of the Chihuahua desert that just shouts Texas cowboy chic, all done very tastefully. So, in honor of the old girl, I decided to tone this in a more appropriate manner. This is not Sepia, mind you, but Coffee toning. I think it gives it an early 20th century look as opposed to Sepia’s late 19th century character.

I hope this small collection of tips and pointers will help you with your black and white conversions. And for those of you who have never tried it, I urge you to go out and make full use of the mid-day light. You might miss out on a nice nap after an early rise but you’ll be rewarded with some interesting photographs.

(36 Votes )
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Originally written on February 29, 2016

Last updated on March 19, 2017

17 comments

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on April 20, 2016

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Ernesto, Thanks for sharing!

seymour rosen (sey) on March 23, 2016

A super article, Ernesto! Being a relic from the 'old days', I learned to SEE and THINK in B/W through the viewfinder because the film used gave no other option, thus today when shooting digital, my mind set is B/W. I agree that there exists a great plethora of superb software such as NIK, Topaz, On1, Dxo Film-Pack5 and others. I have all of them. But for those just starting their monochrome adventure, I would suggest that learning the basics of the B/W art form by simply going into Lightroom and not using ANY presets or specialized software, do basic conversions and just play around using the Lr tools to see how things work. Lr is great because there is no need to play complicated layer games and thus one can concentrate on the conversion and not be bogged down by the technology. Once the Art of Black and White is learned and understood, then one knows what he saw in b/w and knows where he wants to go. This is the time to start using presets etc. to shorten/quicken the journey. The truth of the matter is that I find by starting my workflow in Lightroom, I very often get what I want without resorting to auxiliary software. Lightroom is a great tool and in conjunction with studying the Masters of B/W - read books, visit exhibitions to see real prints to wonder at the qualities of great Monochrome. Unfortunately much is lost 'online'.

User on March 12, 2016

Ernesto, thank you for a great article. This really made me think about some of the shooting situations that I've let go of in the past because of the stigma of shooting mid-day. BTW, this is the article that recently brought me back to Nikonians :)

Robert Demers (shipsdrummer) on March 6, 2016

Very informative article that introduced me to new concepts. Thanks very much for this. I'll look into getting the software you recommended.

Marie Gill (rosalinda) on March 6, 2016

What a great article, Ernesto!! I have Silver Efex Pro and like to play around with it. You've shown me that there is so much that can be done with this software. Can't wait to try it! Thank you!

Paul Blais (PBlais) on March 4, 2016

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Great pitch for B&W conversion! Tonality often beats color. I recently took a nice color image and decided it might be nice B&W. After the conversion the B&W version was WAY more popular by a factor of 2 to 1. I've used NIK a long time and recently added Topaz. Both are really nice and I use both. Topaz adds a nice features like the ZONE System from some guy named Ansel? Digital B&W has never been easier. It is a media for Exceptional Creativity! Throw in curves adjustments and you have it nailed - easily! "God created light - then divided it into 10 zones." Ansel Adams.

User on March 2, 2016

As a photographer that spends most of my time imagining every shot as a black and white conversion and still taking B&W film, I really appreciated your very comprehensive article. I know there are more B&W photographers than many think there are and I appreciate all the style and effort put in. Of course Street photography, which I do a lot of, lends itself more to B&W than many other genres, but landscape images can be all the better for the monochrome touch! Richard

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on March 2, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his generous and continuous sharing of his high level skills with the Nikonians community Writer Ribbon awarded for his contributions to the Nikonians Articles. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2107 Annual Photo Contest Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Thanks for an inspiring article Ernesto. I've not done much B&W conversion partly, I think, because I've never been especially pleased with the results. Maybe it's time I explored what Silver Efex Pro offers and then go back and re-visit some of my previous B&W attempts. Geoff

User on March 2, 2016

Great article. The "shoot during mid-day" tip - I've never heard (nor thought) of that. Great tip!

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on March 1, 2016

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Wow, I'm delighted that there is still so much enthusiasm in B&W photography as demonstrated in the replies here. Thanks to all who have made an effort to provide your thoughts and feedback. It is great to see that this article has spurred the interest of both the beginner and the experienced in shooting for B&W. One of my goals is to one day travel to a particular area that I have in mind during a particular part of the year and shoot only for B&W. That location would be Big Bend NP during the late summer when the monsoon clouds appear. It will be scorching hot, but the location combined with the enormous clouds will be well worth it.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on March 1, 2016

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his most generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest

It is good (indeed great) to see an article on B&W. Well done, Ernesto!. It is a good introduction to the subject of B&W which can be an extensive study. Your introduction could be the lead to a wonderful series on the subject that might foster even more interest. It is a genre I photograph in quite a bit or do process conversions in frequently. I delight in getting a B & W out of the camera often. Indeed, I am always trying to see in B & W as an alternative if not the purpose. I would like to suggest that people who want to really learn from some masters in tonal variation with B & W should read the three volume Photography Series by Ansel Adams especially the second in the series called the "The Negative" and the final book called the "the Print". Additionally, I am of the opinion that everyone interested in B & W photography should, also, read Andreas Feininger's Book "The Creative Photographer." It is out of print, but can be found with some internet searching for old books. He was a Life Magazine photographer from the 40s who understood masterfully the notion of tonal range, use of light and show, and other contrasting elements including composition to great fine photographs. I would like to offer from my own experience and insights into this art form that it is a extremely important, let me repeat, a very, very good practice to photograph in B&W straight out of the camera (set the camera to jpeg mode for one or more of the B&W options plus set to RAW) and learn to see the contrasts, textures and tonal ranges. That practice will greatly enhance exponentially, the ability to SEE in B&W and THINK about light and tonal variation at the time of image capture. One can always process the RAW to achieve the desired results, but also be surprised at how well one can learn to capture those tonal variations with the jpeg straight out of the camera. Then if for no other reason use the B & W jpeg as a benchmark for post processing options. Additionally, there are myriad presets for Lightroom as well as Actions for Photoshop or plug ins or alternative software such as Nik Silver Efex, Topaz, onOne, MacPhun that can provide ways of seeing during the post processing. Often I will create the B & W jpeg, process the RAW and create several variations of the same image with different B & W possibilities. Finally, the whole notion of being able to photograph at times of day when the light is not the optimal for color is quite a good one and it may even promote an interest in Monochrome IR where tonal variations can be sublime. But, I can not emphasis, enough...go photography in Black and White straight out of the camera! Learn to "See" in B & W. In fact shoot for days that way and see how it changes how you see and what you look for as you capture the light. That is what I tell my students. John D. Roach (jdroach)

Craig Menzies (foamfollower) on March 1, 2016

Thanks for the article, it's great to see support for B&W in the photography community still. I love Black & White for it's ability to transform an image into it's structural and graphic components rather than being "distracted" by colour when the really interesting aspects of the image are shapes, relationships of light, texture and all those other aspect that are thrown into the background by the "overpowering" effect of colour in an image. What was once the "limitation" of the technology of photography until colour photography came along is now an opportunity to renew the focus on the Graphic and Relational aspects of the shot without the "confusion" and "dilution" often caused by assuming colour as the only "legitimate" choice in modern times. Good work and thanks for the tips about the use of the time that's often considered "down time" out in the field. It makes perfect sense when you actually SAY it. :) Craig.

User on March 1, 2016

Thanks for the tips and tricks, really interesting reading, I don't have silver efex pro but it's not the first time I see people talking about it on Nikonians, seem to do a really good work.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on March 1, 2016

Very nice article Ernesto! I shoot a lot of film these days, of all kinds, and all of this information is still quite relevant to any monochrome shooting. I haven't used Efex Pro, but after reading this, I will try it out and see what it can do for my digital conversions. I just scanned a roll of Tri-X and I am SO in love with the way it renders, I am hoping that I can one day find a similar look from digital.

Russell Whittemore (rosewood_ltd) on February 29, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas. Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Well done, Ernesto. This is an excellent, concise review that will hopefully get more folks interested in doing B/W. There are a lot of people who think that B/W is "old/low tech." If you aren't willing to consider B/W conversions, you're missing a great creative and expressive opportunity. I have naturally gravitated to B/W because it's what I first learned to use back in the early 70's. I think for that reason, I "see" more often in B/W than I do in color. The currently available conversion software (BIG Nik fan here too) allows me to do things with a fantastic level of control and possibilities. Thanks again - Russ

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on February 29, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for her support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Fellow Ribbon awarded for her continuous encouragement and meaningful comments in the spirit of Nikonians. Donor Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for her in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.  Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest

Ernesto -I sure appreciate this instruction. Your examples really illustrate your points well! It is surprising about mid-day shots. Thanks

Dale Armstrong (Dgastrong) on February 29, 2016

Ernesto, what a great article! I totally agree with the approach and the use of Silver Efex Pro. With practice, visualizing in B&W becomes second nature. Over the last couple of years I have been shooting and processing most everything I shoot with the thought of B&W as the final product. Some photos which document things such as the photos in the Vegetation Book I just finished needed to be in color since the book was designed to help with identification of native plants in SE Arizona. However I have converted several of these beautiful flowers and grasses to B&W for an artistic approach and my own use, and find the results pleasing but certainly suitable not for the book. One thing I have noticed is that I process the color version in LR differently if I plan on converting to B&W. For example if a flower is the subject and it is variegated then I might over saturate a bit (with a single color bias) in order to take full advantage of the color filters in SEP that you mentioned. There are times when highly detailed features are pronounced in B&W but not in color due to the use of these spectral filters. I am presently finishing a series of River Ice photos and several images become more transparent and have increased depth in B&W. Something that was not possible in color. Thanks Ernesto for letting me comment and for posting this terrific article. Dale.

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