Lessons from the Shop: How to take Great B&W Photographs - Pt. 3

By Steve Terlizzi
Click Photos to Enlarge
Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2


Colorful Wall BeforeColorful Wall After 
I have successfully converted my color photograph to black and white using a black and white adjustment layer. I am done. Well, not quite; there is some fine-tuning to do and I don't mean output sharpening.
I have four steps that I take when I am fine-tuning a black and white photograph. Let's look at them:

Set Your Pure Black and White Points

LevelsTake a look at your photograph and its histogram in the Levels adjustment layer. Are you happy with the pure black and pure white points? Should there be less detail in the shadows or more pure white in the highlights? By moving the left slider to the right and the right slider to the left, you can add more pure black and pure white to the photo, respectively.
Why do this? I personally like the sharpness of a pure black or pure white to the muddiness of a grey. However, one has to watch on what details are lost by the action. Is there a guideline to give on how much you should do? Unfortunately, no; you need to train your eye to know when enough is enough. How do you do that? Examine great B&W photographs and practice, practice, and practice.


Determine Your Overall Brightness and Contrast

CurvesAre you happy with the overall brightness in the photograph? Do you need to boost the contrast? This is the second step in the process.
Normally, I use curves to do this. And yes you could use curves to set the pure black and pure white points, too. With Photoshop there are often many ways to do the same thing. The curves simply translate all the pixels from one value to another value with the x-axis being the original values and the y-axis being the new values. If you shift the curve upwards, then the pixels get lighter and if you shift the curve downwards, then the pixels get darker.
Of course, no one says that the curve can only shift upwards or downwards. In fact, some pixels can be lighten by shifting upwards, while shifting downwards will darken others. This is exactly how you can introduce more contrast into the picture. Shift down the left part of the curve and shift up the right part of the curve.

Tweak Curves When Needed

Also, you can have more than one inflection point in the curve. By adding additional inflection points, you can fine-tune the curve even further. You can pin the curve to its original values or just simply change the direction of the curve at will.
It needs to be done with caution, since it can introduce some weird and unrealistic effects. Of course, sometimes that can be valuable too! Nevertheless, over-tweaking the curve should be watched.
Finally, the curves layer will change the value of all the pixels in the photo. While you can use masking to hide its effect, it is best used to large areas of the photograph.

Dodge & Burn with Masks When Appropriate

BurnSo what do I do to lighten a shadow area (dodge) or darken a hotspot (burn)? I either use the dodge and/or burn tool on an original layer if it is a quick, last minute touch-up (remember it’s a destructive action). For more extensive work, I will create a dodge layer and a burn layer and set their blending modes respectively. Then, I can dodge and burn non-destructively.
So there you have it. We’ve finished our three-part tutorial on "How to Make A Great Black and White" photograph.
Enjoy the world of black and white photography and happy shooting!

Complete Series