Return of the Two Toned World

I recently wrote about black and white conversions in the Two Toned World post and I have since continued my test of different techniques. Selling five 70x100cm prints in black and white recently for a client taught me a thing or two about black and white conversions and printing them!

Another advantage of black and white photos – besides being able to shoot in the middle of the day – is when it’s raining cats and dogs you can escape into Photoshop and go through old shots and try them in black and white. This Saturday it rained non-stop so I spent the day gathering and checking all my gear before takeoff this Wednesday to Australia – and toying with black and white conversions in Photoshop. With no colours in the world on a gray rainy Saturday I thought it only appropriate to work in glorious black and white:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Nambung National Park in Western Australia
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Copenhagen’s Lake Peblinge in duotone
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Duotone Tree in Fog
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

The first two shots were converted using Alien Skin Exposure2 plugin which I have found to be by far the best way to convert to black and white. The level of control is incredible and the results are perfect. No posterisation or any problems at all in the converted files; they’re gorgeous and will print big with no visible pixel problems. The last shot of the Tree in Fog was converted directly in Lightroom 2.0; also a good way to convert. All 3 of them are in duotone where the shadows are pure black, but highlights have a slightly warm sepia tone. This lends the photo a bit of warmth while steel keeping it in stark mono.

Here’s a few tips on the conversion and printing process:

  • Viewing reflected light off a print compared to direct light from a monitor (calibrated of course!) are two different beasts. With no colours, a black and white print may appear somewhat darker than the image on screen so experiment to find just the right conversion. You may need to do an image that onscreen appears slightly too bright to achieve the print you want.
  • You want a full range of tones from black through all shades of gray to white. Don’t leave big areas of pure black or white though; they look less satisfying in print. Make sure you have shadow detail, don’t burn any highlights. Use shadows and highlight tool in Photoshop for this. White on paper in a black and white print just means no ink is used; so you’re just seeing the paper colour.
  • Create contrast and more contrast than you would in a colour photo – or the print looks a bit dull. Remember though; no burned highlights and no big black areas, always have some detail. Create different layers for shadows and highlights adjustments and blend them manually using masks to ensure contrast but also have detail.
  • Black and white prints can hold a lot more sharpening than colour prints but still you must watch out for unsharp mask halos. They are very visible in big prints.
  • It’s very easy to overdo the conversion and create posterized areas; usually the sky is the first to suffer. This may look alright on screen but is to avoided like the plague once you’ve seen it on a print! You may be tempted to do something like +140% red channel, -50% in the blue channel but it will severely posterize your sky and ruin your print.

After a lot of work I feel I have finally learned how to do satisfying black and white (well duotoned) digital files, something which I have previously found almost impossible and one area where I used to think film was so much better. With some clever techniques; a digital Ansel Adams style print is possible (now if only I had his eye for compositions).

11 Comments on “Return of the Two Toned World”

  1. Ah yes, posterisation- for me this is the main problem holding back the creative process in digital B&W conversion. With less than ideal light, getting that big contrast in a blue sky with clouds often led to image breakup. Adding noise helped for the print, but wasn't not always satisfactory. I don't print much B&W these days and so haven't really appreciated if the 5D files can handle this processing better than the 10D files did…I'm not sure if the 14-bit conversion of more recent Canon DSLRs helps in this respect.

  2. Some of the things you can do to help: Shoot the original shot with a polarizer filter. You can oversaturate the colour file before converting to bw – helps with the contrast between sky and clouds. It can be done but you need to be very careful when converting the file.
    I'm not sure 14-bit will really help compared to 12-bit because the problems isn't not enough colours. The problem is we're converting colours to 256 levels of gray and that's rather limited. Give it another go with your 5D files, I'm know it can be done!

  3. Flemming a little tip on using the unsharp mask to reduce the halo. Once you have applied the unsharp mask go to (Edit in the top menu > and choose fade unsharp mask) it will bring up a box and it should be preset to Luminosity. Apparently what it does is it applies the sharpening to the luminosity (detail) of the photo and not the colour channels.

    A little tip I got from the Scott Kelby book 7 point system. Very basic photoshop book but it has little cool tips like that in it. So I thought I would share.

  4. Hi Matt and thanks. Yeah I know that little tip, does help with reducing halos on colour images. Why Photoshop had to make this 2 operations though is baffling. In Corel Paint Shop Pro the USM simply has a box "Sharpen only luminance channel" you can tick and it's one operation only. I have that 7-point book as well, most of it is disappointingly basic but I did pick up a trick or two from it.

  5. I think you managed to nail the conversions Flem.
    Still love the second one, it's amazing how much detail you've still captured. I would have imagined some of the finer points would have been lost.

    Definitely makes me want to look at converting some of mine. Always wondered how it would go on some but i've never got round to trying.
    B/W is back in fashion for sure!

  6. I'm bringing bw back – yeah! 😀

    Thanks very much Stephen. Yeah with careful conversion you can save every little detail and that is what makes big bw prints so amazing. Have a go and see if you get bitten by the bw bug as well 🙂

    I'm off to the colours of Australia tomorrow though, so bw will be back later this year!

  7. I agree Flemming. On the back of the book is describes the user level and beginner to advanced. Which is a bit of a stretch. Definitely not advanced.

  8. oh i'm already bitten! just lacking the skill 🙂
    but definitely intending to try them out when i get some time (which at the moment seems to be the hardest thing!).

    hopefully Oz turns on a show for you when you're here. really looking forward to seeing the results!

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