Mike Potter asks: "Would you mind sharing how you do your conversions to black and white?"
Mike replies: I don't mind, but I don't know how much help it could be. I start by doing basic corrections, for instance highlight recovery and Lens Corrections > Transform, as needed in ACR, the switch to Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, where basically I fiddle until it looks right. That might involve a little yellow or orange or green filtering, or maybe none; sometimes some curve correction and sometimes none; and so forth.
A few observations:
'Recipe' or image-specific: Generally there will be a few controls you standardize on for all your shots, based on your taste and personal style, and some that are particular for each individual shot. For me the former include the toning (Sepia 19 at around 20%, which looks to me about like the early Multicontrast Classic from Agfa) and the blackline (Image Border) (Type 3 at –90%, because I like black borders around prints and always printed the blackline in the darkroom). Tonal relationships, print balancing, and local contrast and sharpening are almost always image-specific.
Keep output in mind: The processing depends on final size. I do most screen corrections at 100%, and they don't look quite right at the small Web size—generally the small JPEGs look sharper, the local contrast gets goosed up a bit, and they look too dark—I often increase brightness by 10% for the small Web versions of the images. This picture of Zander for instance looks good to me at 100% but there's too much contrast in his face at Web size, the way you're seeing it here:
I'm very aware that when I start printing for my OC/OL/OY project, I'm going to have to learn to post-process for the print size, and for the printer output. Those corrections are bound to also not look quite right for screen sizes, whether 100% or Web size. Corrections are output-specific.
The picture of Zander hasn't been lightened for the Web, so if it looks a bit too dark to you....
Work up to it and then back down again: In general, with any of the "overusable" controls, a good principle is to creep up on it and then back off. This is especially true of sharpening controls, perspective corrections, or the notorious "Structure" slider in Silver Efex Pro 2. For those of you who don't use the program, here's what the Structure slider does, exaggerated to make it obvious:
An image that could use some local contrast enhancement...
...But not this much.
It's a local contrast enhancement, like the Clarity slider in ACR or "reverse sharpening" in Photoshop.
Guiding the eye: This image is a good illustration of another principle. I'm always thinking about emphasis within the picture and the way the eye travels around inside the image. You want to use your controls to draw the eye to what deserves attention, and not to distractions. In this picture, for instance, it doesn't do the eye any favors to draw attention to the patches of light the Christmas tree lights make on the wall. (Look how much that changes from the first to the second example.)
For this reason I usually prefer to avoid applying local contrast enhancements to the entire picture, but to sharpen and enhance contrast in specific small areas that you want to be vivid. And for that matter, it seldom does "bokeh" (out of focus blur) much good to be sharpened and enhanced in contrast. So rather than apply the structure slider to the whole picture here, I'd be more likely to use the lasso tool to select Adrianna's face, arms, and stuffed animals, feather the edge, and then do local contrast enhancement and sharpening within that limited area. Often I'll select successively smaller areas to apply more, sometimes finishing with just the eyes. I almost never sharpen a whole picture.
Image geometry: But back to the principle of "creeping up and then backing off"—a common error many amateurs make is to overcorrect converging verticals. We're used to lens vision, and the eye expects to see it in most handheld photographs. So when correcting converging verticals, don't correct it all the way—just relax the effect so it doesn't seem extreme. But be sensitive to the fact that "literal" correction also seems extreme to the eye.
There's still a lot of convergence in the second version, but if you made the verticals exactly vertical you'd lose the sense of the building looming above you and of looking up at it (plus you'd emphasize perspective distortion). It's just not a good subjective impression of the way we see.
As with the Structure slider and all controls that are easy to overuse, a good way to go about it is to add more and more little by little, then when you get to the "enough" point, back off a little bit.
The light: Another hint is that I find it helpful to keep in mind the light in which the picture was made. The picture of the buildings was shot at dusk, when the light was murky and darkening. The first picture above actually brightens it a bit from what it really was. The second picture brightens and clarifies still further, but it doesn't do any good to take a file shot at dusk and try to make it look like midday sunlight. If you want sunlight, come back and take another picture when the sun's out.
This is another common amateur mistake—making the light always look the same. I think it's better to respect the light the picture was made in, at least to some extent.
Color Filters: If you're unfamiliar with color filters, keep in mind that color filters tend to lighten their own color and darken their opposite (knowing which colors are opposites is just as important in working with black and white as it is with color, possibly more so). Just as a hint to get you started, I'd say that with outdoor landscape shots, look at the skies and clouds when trying color filters; if working with pictures of people, look at the skin tones. Yellow filtration often improves Caucasian skin tones, for example.
Look: As with everything in photography, converting a file to B&W is all about judgment. What matters is how it looks good to you. There's no single right way to do a B&W conversion. Go ahead and indulge your personal style; it's what you've got. Make it look right to yourself, based on your taste and your expectations of how you like B&W to look.
A good baseline is to pick a photographer whose technique you love and would like to mimic. Often this can be a single photobook. Looking at those pictures again and again is a good way to "calibrate your judgment" for your own work.
I'm having a bad typing day (some days I can type, some days I can't), so no more for now.
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Featured Comments from:
Edie Howe: "Re '...I fiddle until it looks right': Amen! Sing it Brother Michael, SING it, a-MEN! I'm too busy deciding what 'looks right' to be writing down how far I tweaked the shadow clarity/structure slider in the software. My eyes are on the image, watching what changes, how it changes, and if I like it."