Black & White

One page I spent a good amount of time writing up earlier was this one on processing, in which I really just wanted to recommend Lightroom, but wound up rambling at some length about how processing is especially important for the non-photographer because of the latitude it provides to fix basic mistakes that a professional would never make.

I didn’t talk at all about one important thing that processing helps you do, though, which is black & white conversions.  At least one reason for the omission is perhaps that I’m pretty bad at doing such conversions! However, I do think some black & white pictures look better than their color counterparts, so when I saw this blog post from David duChemin for a $4 (regularly $5!) eBook on better B&W conversions using Lightroom, I didn’t waste much time before buying it.  I haven’t gotten through everything yet, but have already learned several things I didn’t previously know – I’d highly recommend it.  I don’t know why it’s called a “Masterclass” but the book itself is written assuming you know nothing about B&W, so don’t let the title fool you.

At first it might be counter-intuitive as to why getting a black & white image isn’t trivial; after all, you can just set your camera to black & white, and even simpler tools like Picasa have one-button B&W conversions. But in reality, there’s a huge amount of choice in how you do the conversion, including on how each color is converted to some shade of grey. I personally find this more difficult than color processing; you have to make many more choices about what you want the end result to look like. Whatever you do, don’t set your camera to B&W mode!

Here’s an example image from Olivia’s 3rd birthday, which we just celebrated a couple of days ago with a gymnastics-themed event.  The original color photo, with fairly limited processing, is as follows:

Olivia on the balance beam, in color

Yes, I wish I could get rid of that hand in the upper right too, but as typical for kids you don’t get to set things up or get a 2nd chance at a shot!  Still, I kind of liked the picture, and as I was reading the book I thought it would be handy to pick a reference image to follow along with and decided to go with this one.

Lightroom’s default B&W conversion of the original photo looked like this:

Olivia on the balance beam, default B&W

It looks OK, but not too encouraging, I personally prefer the original picture over this B&W conversion.  Now, I’m still not going to win any awards or even pass B&W 101 with the 30 minutes of added knowledge I gained today, and you may think that this is even worse than the default conversion – but it’s still a bit closer to what I had in mind:

Olivia on the balance beam, custom B&W

While there are a few non-B&W related adjustments, like a little cropping and a decent amount of post-crop vignetting (which is especially visible when looking at the small version of the image above – click for a larger version where it’s less noticeable), a good amount of the difference comes from how specific colors were blended to create the final result. Most notably, I brought the blues down a lot to try and separate Olivia a bit more from the environment (and note how the default B&W conversion makes the mat on the right look monotone, even though from the color photo you can see it’s high contrast red vs. blue).

In any case, this is just scratching the surface of things (as am I); I just hope it reinforces how much flexibility you can get out of processing your photos in different ways!

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