Black/White To The Rescue – Part 1

In 1968, at the age of 16, I set up my first darkroom in this small area of my parent’s basement.  Over the next few years I spent hundreds of hours in that darkroom playing with the development of my own images.  In those days everything was done in black/white, and I soon learned how much control you could have of how the final image looked.  One photo could take on a dozen different looks by simply changing what you did in the darkroom.

Now fast forward 40+ years (yikes!).  I am still spending hour upon hour developing my own images… only the the wet darkroom has been replaced with a computer and Photoshop.  The largest percentage of image manipulations these days involve color images.  I am still a huge fan of B/W.  With this article, I would like to illustrate how B/W techniques can make a huge difference in a final image:  first with a less than perfect color image, and secondly with an image that is pretty good as a color image.  I have chosen a couple of photos that were show of my oldest son, Justin, a few months after the birth of  his son,  Zachary Mario.

Rescuing a Struggling Image

Figure 1

Figure 1 - Original Image

Figure 1 shows an original color image that was saved on my computer about 7 years ago.  The original raw file has been misplaced and all I have of this image is this rather poorly developed, high contrast, bright yellow, JPEG version of the file.  If you click on the image to view it in a larger size, you will see it is does have a high contrasty, mottled look.  To fix the color would take quite a bit of effort, and would be much easier to do if the original version was still available.  However, converting this to a toned B/W image can make this photo look pretty nice without having to worried about the screwy color renditions.

There are a number of ways to do this.  First you could simply convert the image as is to a gray scale image, but this direct conversion almost always results in a ho-hum B/W image.  Although both Photoshop CS4 and CS5 have a B/W adjustment layer, I usually don’t like the results I get from it.  Consequently, I use two procedures which I really like:  a channels mixer adjustment layer, or an image calculations conversion.  In Part 1 of this article,  I used the channels mixer adjustment approach, and the following procedure is what I used to go from this so-so color image to a really cool duo-toned image with some selective focus.

Step 1.  Convert to B/W with Channels Mixer Adjustment Layer
  1. Open in the image in Photoshop.
  2. At the bottom of the layers panel, click on the “Create new fill or adjustment layer” icon, which is the 4th icon from the right.
  3. Select “channel mixer”  from the list of options that appear.  Immediately a channel mixer layer will appear in the layers palette and the options for the layer are shown in the “Adjustments” dialog box.  This box should automatically be shown in CS4 or CS5, but you may have to double click the layer in the layers palette if you have earlier versions.
  4. In the adjustment layers palette, click the “monochrome” box, then play around with the 3 color sliders until you get the B/W that looks good to you.  A couple of guidelines for use of the channels mixer adjustment layer.  Pay attention to the “total” value underneath the blue color slider.  Whatever you do with the three sliders, this number should end up somewhere around 100.  Don’t worry if it goes a little high or low, but don’t let it go much above 120-125.  Secondly, don’t touch the constant slider.  If you need to adjust the  overall brightness or contrast of the photo, do it with a “levels” or “curves” adjustment layer.
Step 2.  Convert The B/W Image Into A Duotone
Figure 2 - First Duotone

Figure 2 - First Duotone

You may really like the results of your image after the above steps, but I am really partial with the duotone technique, so I often follow the following procedure to convert the B/W image.  A duotone image uses 2-4 different colors to tone the image.  Each of those colors can be applied in different amounts, and can be applies to highlights, midtones, and shadows in varying amounts.  With a little experimenting, you can come up with some wonderfully toned images that are quite striking.  Photoshop comes with a bunch of duotone (2 colors), tritone (3 colors), and quadtone (4 color) presets.  I usually play around with those to find one that looks pretty good, then play around with the individual color curves (described below) to get the best application of the colors.

  1. Flatten your image by choosing  Layer–>Flatten Image
  2. Now convert the image to grayscale by choosing Image –> Mode –> Grayscale.  This is not the same as just converting the image to grayscale without first  going through the B/W steps discussed above.  But it is necessary to to this step before the next one.
  3. Now comes the fun part.  Choose Image–> Mode–> Duotone.
  4. This brings up the “Duotone Options”  box preloaded with the last duotone that was used.  You can choose a different duotone by clicking on the down-arrow button to the right of the Presets box.  If you want to experiment with other duotones that are in a different directory, or with tri- and quadtones, you will need to click the little open dialog box that is to the right of the presets down-arrow.  I will generally load a bunch of them until I find one that is visually appealing for an image.  Figure 2  is a result obtained for one of the Photoshop quadtone presets, as is shown exactly as the preset rendered it.
  5. If you click on Figure 2. you will see that the image is better than the color version, but I still didn’t like the effect.  I found another quadtone that I liked even better, and used it.
  6. Figure 2a - Final duotone

    Figure 2a - Final duotone

    You can really experiment by starting with one of the presets and then modifying it to customize the effects of the duotone process.  You can click on any one of the solid color boxes in the Duotone Options dialog box and select a totally different color.  Most of the time I don’t actually do this, but it is a way to come up with some really cool duotones.  I do, however, often edit the “curve” associated with each color.

  7. Click on one of the curves next to a color and you bring up the “Duotone Curve” dialog box.  This shows how that particular color is going to be applied to the B/W image.  On the bottom of the box (what we technical geeks would call the x-axis) is a scale going from highlights on the left to shadows on the right.  The vertical axis is the amount that is being applies.  Most of the time you will find that very little of the color is applied to the highlights, and more and more of the color is applied as you move into the midtones and shadow areas.  I generally start with the curve for the darkest color, usually black, and adjust it to give a good overall contrast, then play around with the others.  Figure 2a shows the final duotone I got after adjusting the curves of one of the warm quadtone presets.  If you click on the photo and look at the larger version, you will see the overall duotone is much more pleasing than the first version.
  8. Once you have the final toning affect you want, convert the image back to color mode by clicking Image–>Mode–>RGB.  This allows you to save it as an JPEG file.
Step 3.  Select Focus Effect For The Finish
  1. Although Figure 2a is a great rendition of the original color image, there are always additional things that can be done to enhance an image.  Since the focus of this portrait is my grandson (at least for me), I though it would be nice to do something to really draw the eye of the viewer to the baby’s face.
  2. Make sure the image is in RGM mode, then duplicate the background layer.
  3. Click on Filter–> Blur–> Gaussian Blur
  4. In the dialog box, adjust the amount slider to get the desired blurring effect.  The amount you have to specify will depend on the resolution of your file.  I ended up with about a 2.o for the radius.  I didn’t want to totally blur Justin’s (my son) face, but I wanted him to look slightly out of focus.
  5. Figure 3 - Final Image

    Figure 3 - Final Image

    Next add a layer mask to this blurred layer by clicking on the “Add a mask” button at the bottom of the layer panel.  This is the third icon from the left.  On a Photoshop layer, a layer mask acts just like a painters mask.  Where the mask is black, the effects of the layer are  “masked out,” and where the mask is pure white, the total effect of the layer is allowed to appear.  Shades of gray represent the effects partially showing through.

  6. Make sure black is selected as the foreground color, and choose the gradient tool.  If you don’t see the gradient tool, click on the paint bucket tool, and while holding down the left mouse button, drag slightly to the right to open up the icon.  The gradient and bucket tools share the same icon position is the toolbox.
  7. At the top of the Photoshop screen there is an “edit the gradient” box that shows the current gradient.   Click on this, and when the gradient dialog box appears, choose the “Foreground to Transparent” preset, which is usually the 2nd icon from left on the top row of the presets.  Click OK.
  8. Next to the gradient “edit the gradient” box resides a group of icons that allow you to select the gradient style.  Choose the second one from the left to get the “radial gradient” style.
  9. In the layers palette, select the blurred layer and click on the little white mask icon to make sure the the the layer mask is selected, and not the layer itself.
  10. In the photo area, click on the spot you want to appear the sharpest, and draw out towards the part you want to be totally blurred.  The shorter this line you draw, the sharper the gradient will be.  You will actually see the gradient appear in the mask icon.  The longer the line you draw with this procedure, the more gradual the gradient will be.  If you want a good picture of the gradient you have generated on the mask, click on the mask icon again while holding down the “alt” key and the photo will be replaced with the actual layer mask.  If you don’t like the affect hit “ctrl-V” to undo the effect and redraw it.  To leave the mask view, simply “alt-V” the mask icon again.
  11. Figure 3 shows the final image.

Part 2  of this article will show a similar approach for another  photo of these two.  The color image is very good, and the B/W conversion uses the image calculations procedure.  It will also demonstrate how selective focus can help the photo tell an entirely different story.

About clayandali
Trained as a research chemist, but have been involved with Entrepreneurship for over 30 years. I have been involved in photography for 41 years. Ali is a graduate of the Ohio Institute of Photography in Dayton, OH. She loves both portrait and landscape work.

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