Better Black and White Photographs

When Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers met German singer Nina Hagen, he admired her jacket. Nina took it off and gave it to him. Anthony initially refused the offer, but Nina insisted, stating that "giving stuff away creates great energy". He wrote the song "Give it Away Now" and dedicated 5% of all his future earning to charity. Pretty cool. 

Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of my tricks and tips I've developed over the past few years in the hope of making the world a little better too. In a small way, really. We won't be reinventing the wheel, but hopefully there'll be something here for you to work with and improve your skill. Today, I'll start with how I edit black and white images to get this kind of dusty-looking, but sharp style:

How To Edit Photographs.jpg

It's not that difficult really. You will need a decent image editor that allows you to work with layers. I'm using Photoshop CS6 for this, but Photoshop Elements will be sufficient. To be honest, even something like the free online Pixlr will allow you to do at least the majority of what will be explained here. 

To start with you'll need your image. I always encourage people to shoot colour and convert to black and white later, rather than shooting in black and white on the camera itself. The main reasons for this are to prevent loss of detail in the image and to have a file that can withstand some radical editing. Now I'm not talking about elongating arms or adding four noses when I say radical editing, it's more so to do with the tonal range of the image; Images taken in black and white contain a lot less information than colour ones. This means there is less information to be edited and you can end up with images that just can't withstand what's required. 

Right, so here's our starting point:

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Right, a decent photo in all it's technicolour glory. We want to make this black and white and there are a few ways to do that. You can simply open the image in photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate and take it from there, which is fine, but if you've shot the image in raw, you'd be foolish not to do the conversion in the Camera Raw program. This allows for total control over the conversion.

We can see below that by bringing the saturation to -100% we lose all the colour, but if we look at the yellow highlighted boxes, we can see that the colour balance is still affecting the final appearance of the image. This is a great benefit of Camera Raw. If you were to try this in Photoshop, you could lose some vital information in the image that will be important later on. 

So if you are using Raw, you can play around with this and the rest of the tools, but you should be aiming for a nice middling-to-bright image (like the first option show above). Make sure the whites aren't blown out and that the blacks have even the slightest bit of detail in them. When you're happy open it up. 

How To Photoshop.jpg

It's nice and punchy, and if realistically you could stop here, but with this method you'll be opening up those blacks and dulling down the vibrant brights. 

So once it's open, duplicate the image onto a new layer (Cmd+J). This is something I always do, it's always handy to work on one layer and have not only a back up, but something to see your progress since opening. 

Next thing, create a new empty layer (Cmd+Shift+N). We'll call this layer White. In this layer, use the rectangle tool (U) and draw a White rectangle that fills the entire layer. Your entire screen should look like a polar bear in a snowstorm about now.

Set the opacity of this white layer to around anywhere between 10-20%. You should see a brighter image in which the darker areas of the image are visible now. Go to the Layer Style and select Colour Overlay. Set this to Black and change this opacity to about 20-30%. If you really want some area to pop out, select the eraser tool and with a strongish opacity on the eraser (around 70%), carefully erase the areas that want to pop out. Because you have the original layer underneath - the strong contrasty one, it should really stand out. 

With the last process, you should have seen this go to this:

Next thing is to apply a small Gausian blur. 

Select the marquee tool (M) and set it to Circle. Draw around the face of your subject and a little bit more. I generally stop around the belly-button area. Then inverse this selection (Ctrl + Shift + i). You inverse it because you want the subjects surroundings to be blurred not the subject's face!

Whatever you do, don't go mad here. Lots of people over do the blurring process.

It's easy to overdo the blurring, but you want this subtle, not like some horrible border. Rule of thumb for things like this: Rarely should there be a need to go above 19% with the blur tool, or at least that's what I've found with experience. I went with 13% for this image.

Now, when you apply this, deselect the marquee (Cmd+D) - you may notice a small band of blurring on the edges of the marquee selection. To get rid of this take your eraser tool, apply a soft radius and set the opacity low (anywhere around 15%) and draw over it liberally. It'll blunt the edges of this selection and look seamless. 

Add in a bit of Dodging and Burning where you see fit.

The whole result will look like the top image when it's done. 

It's not game-changing, but it's enough to make it stand out amongst all the quick and black-heavy edits you'll see knocking around Facebook and Flickr.

There are easier ways to do this effect, but for me, this is a way where you can edit each piece quickly, but thoroughly, while seeing what your edits will do easily. 

I hope this helped in some way!