The blackest blacks (on style and editing)

I have gotten a few questions on how I edit my pictures, how I get that specific black and white look, and I will try to enlighten you in this post.

First of all, let me make it clear I do not belive post-processing is the important bit. The moment you decide to press the shutter, the desicive moment, is what makes the picture. But there is a reason why you are told to not judge a book by its cover – thing is you usually do, and I belive that how your pictures look can be a good tool in relating a message, and it makes your pictures and portfolio recognizeable. Anyone will recognize a picture by Picasso because he had a distinct style. By building your own style, you create a signature and by using a distinct style that you are confident with you make your work recognizeable. Everyone who knows me and my style will be able to point my pictures out from a crowd (I hope, otherwise I will need to do more work), and anyone who considers hiring me will look at my portfolio and see what kind of pictures they will get from me. Finally, by having a style you make yourself different from all the other shutterbugs out there who get turned on by the latest hot filters from the blogosphere, in turn making you interesting for potential clients because you can provide something different.

The topic of style is covered well on the interwebs, for instance this blogpost discusses the subject well:

This article on Photography and the american dream is a little bit of topic, but style will be a large section of your branding, as described to the

Now, what is my style? As you may know it is black and white, and it can best be described as the blackest blacks and the whitest whites. B/W is often called monotone, monocrome or simply greyscale, but I like the term black and white because that is what it is. Often I see B/W pictures that are grey, dull, flat, not at all tapping into the magical simplicity the non-existance of colours can provide.

The following processes are done in Adobe Lightroom 4 (LR4) if not stated othervise. 

Here’s an example, a picture of the lead singer in Dimmu Borgir shot at Folken in may:

Original version, only raw-converted from default settings in Lightroom 4.

Now, the easiest thing will be to convert this picture to greyscale by dropping the saturation-bar all the way to zero, and you get this:

De-saturated version.

Now look at what happens if I instead change the colour-mode to Greyscale (all this done in  Develop-module via my own presets) and correct contrast and white- and black-points:

Bitch, work that contrast!

Now we’re talking. I have also added a vignetting and grain under the Effects drop-down. Bonus points for dodge-burning and you are ready for POY!

Speaking of vignettings, use with care:

If I ever see you post a picture like this I will not talk to you until you hand me a decent size bag of candy and a choclate cake with an apologizing frosting-picture of a really, really cute cat.

I mentioned dodge/burning, a tecnique of selectively darken and brighten specific areas of the picture, often to draw attention to the subject. Vignettings can be done with far better precission than with d/b in Photoshop than with the vignetting-setting in LR. Dodge/burning can be done in several ways, google it. Here’s an example of the effect:

Without dodge-burning.

With dodge-burning in Adobe Photoshop CS5 using a layer-method. All else is equal.

Grain I said? Why grain? Because it makes the pictures look a little less digital and a lot more real. And honestly, todays sensor are so good that you will have a hard time making those nitty-gritty rock photos reminding you of the days of pushed Tri-X 400. (If you didn’t understand that last sentence, ask you grandfather about push-processing). But it is not a big deal, and more a matter of taste…

Another useful black and white control is colour mixing. Basically, when you have a colour RAW-file you can utilize the colour-information to create the same effects filters would in the glorious days of film (again, grandpa’ Shutterbug is the one to ask). The mixing makes specific colours lighter or darker, making it possible to hightlight elements and hide others. The following pictures are edited with the BW-filter presets that come with LR4:

Original file

Green filter, highlights the subject well but fails to give the contrast I want.
Blue filter, making the subject badly lit and makes the skin look bad.

The difference is big, and it’s clear how you can drop the blues in this picture to highlight the persons. Also note LR comes with an Auto colour-mixing that does a good job in most cases.

My edit: Dropped blues, hightened reds. Note that bumping the reds often gets rid of any imperfections to the skin, saving you from Photoshop-time.

If you shoot concerts the colour-mixing is best left at zero on all channels. Concert-lighting is a nightmare colour-vise as most light-tecs have a thing for LEDs and all blue or all red lighting sets. This light miss the different wave-lenghts you will find in mixed light, making the processing engine in your camera go hay-wire (the explantion to this can be found in the anatomy of the common Bayer-array senor). I use two custom made presets for black and white, where one is for ordinary use and the other for concerts. The difference is the latter have a bit more contrast and a flat colour-mix.

Final note: This blogpost is intended to give you insight into my way of editing pictures specifically, which is fast and to the point (Work the contrast, savour the whitest whites and the blackest blacks and I am golden. A good jazz-record is also a winner…), and how to utilize black and white digital post-processing in general, but most importantly I hope you understand the importance of creating a signature style for yourself. If that is something else than my style, great! Work it, cherish it and evolve it. If it is the same as mine that is great too, we will have a lot to talk about over coffee (also, I will let you shoot my wedding if I ever have one). Also remember style can be what you shoot too, not just how the picture will look like, but when you shoot a wide range of subjects a specific style will help people see it is your work.

Final final note: I considered posting my LR-presets for you to download, but I’d rather see you making your own and not just copying mine. Creating a style is about trial and error, and making presets that fails to work is a part of the process.

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