So recently I have had a lot of people asking me how I go about editing my black and white portraiture. Many people seem to struggle with black and white conversions and resort to simply setting saturation to 0%. There are many different ways of controlling the conversion process and like everything different people do it different ways. I have found the easiest and best results come from using a mixture of Adobe Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex 2. Below I will hopefully explain how I go through editing my images in a relatively simple way.
First off I import the image I want into Lightroom. I am probably going to get some stick because this is a particularly bad raw file. As you can see from looking at the histogram in the top left corner, the histogram is weighed towards the left hand side which mean that it is underexposed. Ideally you want to get your raw file histogram as far over to the right as possible whilst not clipping the highlights. This is called ‘Exposing to the Right’ and is a technigue to capture maximum information in your raw files.
The first part of the editing stage is the exposure control, I correct the histogram with a small increase in exposure until it looks about right. I then use the ‘Blacks’ and ‘Whites’ sliders to stretch the histogram as far to the left and right as possible without clipping. This is extremely important in black and white because it gives you a full range of tones in your final image. I then finish by adjusting the highlight and shadow sliders to correct the exposure which may have moved with the ‘Whites’ and ‘Blacks’ slider adjusment.
I will then crop and straighten the image to level it out, remove any distractions and perfect the composition. The closer the crop is to the face the more it accentuates the eyes, therefore I try and crop right up to the ears. Recently I have discovered the golden ratio crop overlay which is accessed by pressing ‘O’ on your keyboard with the crop tool selected. The golden ratio has been used in art for centuries and the rule of thirds is actually just a simplification to make it easier to use when out and about. I find that the golden ratio tends to have a much more pleasing composition than the rule of thirds and it is something I am using in my work more and more.
After the cropping is complete it is time to get started on the conversion using Nik Silver Efex. I have included a preset for download at the bottom of the page that I use as a base for all my B&W portrait conversions. So first things first you want to open up the image in Silver Efex. Then on the left hand side (once imported) you can select the preset I created. The key to a strong emotive black and white image is having a full range of tones all the way from black to white (there are a few exceptions in some images). This is done by controlling the histogram as we did before, however I find with most black and white images you can actually clip the shadows or highlights a lot more than the colour version without it looking wrong.
Sometimes in black and white images large areas of clipped highlights or shadows can be used effectively to add a drama to the image. In the bottom left corner of the Silver Efex interface is a small histogram with numbers below. If you click on a number you will see that all the tones in that exposure zone are highlighted on the image. This is a really easy way to check for clipped shadows and blown highlights. You can control the tones in the images by either increasing or decreasing the sliders labelled Highlights, Midtones and Shadows to control brightness and by also using the Amplify White and Amplify Black to control contrast . The mood you want the image to portray will influence if you try to create a low key or high key image. The preset that I have included gives a low key look to your portraits and is especially powerful when combined with direct eye contact from the subject (as per example image).
Once you have the tones in your image as you would like them, you can control the microcontrast of the details with the sliders labelled ‘Structure’. By controlling the structure in the highlights, midtones and shadows you can add or remove emphasis from certain areas of the image. On this image I added extra midtone structure to excentuate the child’s scars.
If you particularly like deep contrasty images you can apply a gentle S-curve to the curves graph which will deepen the blacks and lighten the whites. The curves graph is an art-form in itself as you can essentially control all tones in the image from the one curve.
After this is all complete I then finish with a vignette and also some edge burn to make the image stand out even more. Vignettes draw the eye to the centre of the image and burning the edges of an image is essential if you plan to frame the image with a light coloured mount.
After saving the image in Silver Efex it should appear back in your LR catalog. On this image I ran some final tweaks with the adjustment brush to boost the clarity of the skin on the face and to darken and blur to boys t-shirt as the bokeh was distracting.
Hopefully this simple workflow will be of some use to people out there who see black and white conversions as I difficult process. I much prefer this method to mixing the individual colour channels as it is much faster and easier to get a consistent result in your work.