Try these steps to bring more detail and expression to your black-and-white imagery
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HDR technology is ideally suited to black-and-white photography. Like a master film and paper printer working with graded papers and elaborate dodging and burning recipes, HDR lets you pull maximum shadow and highlight detail from tricky images. The key, just like in a traditional darkroom, is moderation, which you can see in Joseph Eckert's examples on these pages.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography can be an extremely useful technique for bringing out microtexture, enhancing the effect of light and shadow, and creatively influencing the overall tone of an image. All of these elements lend themselves immediately and powerfully to black-and-white photographs, making HDR another viable tool in the monochrome photographer's arsenal.

As an example, look at the following images. Figure 1 is a single-exposure photograph that I converted into black-and-white—actually, the "middle," or 0 EV exposure, in a bracketed series I was taking for HDR conversion. Figure 2 is the full HDR conversion using the steps I'll outline in this article.

Figure 1
(Without HDR)

Figure 2
(With HDR)

Many photographers wonder about the "right" way to make a black-and-white HDR, given that there are numerous possible paths you can take through the editing process to achieve the end result. I'll show you how I do it the way I do it and also address a few alternative methods. I encourage you to experiment and discover which method works best for you, artistically, creatively and economically.

How I Create A Black-And-White HDR Image
For this article, I'm using HDRsoft's Photomatix for my HDR rendering. The same basic workflow steps apply regardless of which HDR software package you're using, however, be it Oloneo PhotoEngine, Nik Software HDR Efex Pro, Unified Color HDR Expose, Photoshop's Merge To HDR Pro or any of the many others.

First, I always shoot RAW. This allows me greater latitude and control of adjustments in post, and when shooting bracketed shots for HDR, if there was too much movement in the frame, I can use a single RAW shot to create a pseudo-HDR by saving multiple files from the same RAW, each with different exposure values (see the sidebar "Creating A B&W HDR From A Single RAW File").

When I have my five RAW files, taken via bracketed exposure (usually +/-3 EV—standard exposure, -2, -1, +1, +2 EV), I run each RAW file through Adobe Lightroom, using a preset so each exposure receives identical treatment. I typically boost the clarity, contrast and sharpness (masked), and reduce noise, and I sometimes also alter the color and white balance at this point. I then save JPEGs for normal day-to-day work or TIFFs for exceptional landscapes from each RAW, usually just naming them 1 through 5.

I pull those files into Photomatix and start the tone-mapping process. With Photomatix, as with HDR Efex Pro and the others, I can create presets that are roughly set up according to my general preference. I like a more natural look to my HDR images, rather than overdone or excessively haloed. Once the preset is in place, I start tweaking sliders to get the look I want. This is a process of learning and experimentation with your chosen software.

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While technically not a black-and-white photo, desaturated images can make an impact. Try creating this look by making a black-and-white layer and reducing the opacity to around 70%.

At this point, if I know for sure I want to eventually end up with a black-and-white shot, I alter the tone-mapping to enhance the textures, lighting and depth of shadow. I'm aiming for a color version that will work well in black-and-white.

Once the image is tone-mapped, I save it as a new JPEG or as a 16-bit TIFF when I'm particularly excited about a shot. I pull that JPEG or TIFF into Photoshop, where I reduce the noise further. This is almost always necessary with HDR. Most tone-mapping introduces noise because you're combining multiple images and noise is additive. I currently use Nik Software's Dfine noise-reduction plug-in for this, but any method you like should work. Then, I generally use Curves to alter the image contrast further, and I may use Content Aware to remove any dust specks that may not have shown up on one shot, but do now after the image has been tone-mapped. This happens more often than you might expect.

Next, I save the color JPEG or TIFF, then I go to Nik Silver Efex Pro, which creates an adjustment layer automatically. This plug-in is my favorite method of converting a color image into black-and-white because it provides a lot of options and precise levels of control in addition to preset film emulations. That being said, you can use the Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop, or Topaz Labs' B&W Effects plug-in, or just about any other color-to-black-and-white conversion method you like.

After adjusting the image in Silver Efex Pro (a process that deserves an entire article in its own right), I have my black-and-white image. At this point, I suggest you try one more thing. Since you have the black-and-white image on an adjustment layer, try reducing the opacity of that layer to around 70% so part of the color background layer shows through. This gives you a "desaturated" look that can be incredibly powerful for some shots, so much so that you may actually prefer it to the black-and-white you were going after.

If you still prefer the black-and-white, set the layer opacity to 100%, merge down, and save, and you now have your black-and-white HDR image. This workflow required several different software packages and a fair amount of patience. Here are the steps, broken down:

1) Import each RAW into your preferred software and use a preset on each, then save as separate files.
2) Pull each file into your HDR rendering software, tone-map, then save as a new file.
3) Pull the new file into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, and save the color file.
4) Create an adjustment layer.
5) Run your favorite color-to-black-and-white conversion method.
6) Save the black-and-white file.

These steps require the use of Photoshop (or the equivalent), an HDR tone-mapping package and, if you follow what I do, software for denoising the image and more software for changing the image to black-and-white:

1) Lightroom and/or Photoshop (for RAW processing and cleanup of the HDR image)
2) Photomatix, PhotoEngine or HDR Efex (for tone-mapping and creating the HDR image)
3) Nik Dfine or Topaz DeNoise (for noise removal)
4) Nik Silver Efex Pro (for black-and-white conversion)

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Alternative Methods For Creating A Black-And-White HDR Image
Most HDR software packages, including HDR Efex Pro and PhotoEngine, accept RAW files for processing bracketed shots, and most have presets built in that will create black-and-white images for you right off the bat—no importing into Photoshop or another external black-and-white conversion plug-in needed.

The steps are much simpler:
1) Import each bracketed RAW into your HDR software.
2) Use a black-and-white preset.
3) Tweak, as necessary.

You can create a single-shot HDR image by processing a RAW file for different "exposures" and combining them together as if each was a separate photograph.

PhotoEngine, in particular, makes this very easy, with a couple of preset black-and-white options to choose from and then tweak. And the results aren't bad at all. I personally prefer the sharper, clearer look and greater flexibility I get using my recommended workflow, and the central drawback of the alternative workflow is that you don't get a separate color version to play with (unless you process again with a different preset, of course), nor can you easily create that desaturated look I described.

However, the alternative method is faster, which can be important when you're processing a large number of shots on a tight schedule. It's also cheaper, since you could get away with only one piece of software (your HDR rendering package).

Another alternative workflow is a tweak on my recommended workflow. In this version, you skip processing the RAW files in Lightroom; the remaining steps are the same:
1) Import each RAW into your HDR software.
2) Tone-map (in color), as you prefer, and save as JPEG or TIFF.
3) Pull the new file into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, and then save the color file.
4) Create an adjustment layer.
5) Run your favorite color-to-black-and-white conversion method.
6) Save off a black-and-white file.

This method saves time by not making you run through Lightroom, and still lets you save off a separate color and/or desaturated version of the shot. It's also the method some of the developers of HDR software recommend using, since the RAW files contain the most information for the HDR rendering software to use. I've found that Lightroom (and other processing software packages) have some of the best RAW color, contrast, sharpening and denoising algorithms available, however, and as such, I like using them from the start to get those clear, sharp results.

Whatever method you end up choosing, the most important single factor is your happiness, creatively and artistically, with the fruits of all your labor. Experiment, try each way with the same set of bracketed shots, and figure out what you're most comfortable with. There are still other workflows possible, so try things out and have fun, and make it your own.

See more of Joseph Eckert's work at josepheckertphotography.zenfolio.com.

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Creating A B&W HDR From A Single RAW File

Single-Exposure HDR

Multi-Exposure HDR

An advantage of shooting in RAW is that you can, in post, manually alter the exposure value of the shot. This means you can save off three to five different files from the same shot that have different exposures and then combine those in an HDR rendering package to tone-map and turn into an HDR shot.

Some people don't consider this "real" HDR, since you aren't using truly different exposures; however, even if it's just "fake" HDR, it can be extremely useful when you have a shot with a lot of movement in the frame, yet the lighting/shadows/etc., would benefit from HDR. An example might be a dramatically lit crowd scene, where people are chanting and moving and, therefore, bracketed shots would be impossible to align. It's also easier, although in some shots—particularly those with a large dynamic range—you'll see a difference if you use multiple in-camera exposures.

As an example, the first image is a "fake" (single RAW) HDR processed from the 0 EV exposure from a bracketed series. The second image is an HDR processed from the entire bracketed series.

The steps would be as follows:
1 Import the RAW file into Lightroom and use your preset; save as 1.
2 Import the RAW file again, set the exposure to -2.00; save as 2.
3 Import the RAW file a third time, set the exposure to +2.00; save as 3.
4 Pull each file into your HDR rendering software; manually set the correct exposure values if the software asks for them (because the data for each image will show the same exposure).
5 Tone-map, then save as a new file.
6 Pull the new file into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, and save off the color file.
7 Create an adjustment layer.
8 Run your favorite color-to-black-and-white conversion method.
9 Save the black-and-white file.

1 Comment

    Having a strong interest in HDR, I like to read articles on the topic. Unfortunately, there’s some less than good information here mixed into the very pleasing photography.

    So-called ‘faux HDR’, done by multi-processing the same original capture does nothing. It is of zero benefit. If there is a scene with lots of movement, either make due with a single exposure, or use the anti-ghosting tools available in the majority of HDR programs now. These have become quite good, and the one in Photomatix (since that’s what the author used) is quite powerful. Doing HDR with faux brackets really is a way to accentuate noise because noise will become more evident in the pushed exposures and will be exacerbated in tonemapping.

    WRT noise in HDR, yes it can be problematic, but I’d suggest the reason is because of the nature of HDR to enhance everything – good and bad. It will become an issue, in particular, when using increased ISO settings, if the brackets don’t capture enough range, or when pushing too hard with the tonemapping controls, especially those for local contrast.

    In actual fact, one of the real purposes of HDR is to reduce noise. This happens because the HDR software takes the best parts of each source image in creating the merged result. This means the higher exposed images of shadow areas (where noise is most apparent, usually) are being used. Essentially a form of ETTR, then, a technique which is designed to minimise noise.

    I cover manual and software blending, including an extensive discussion of B&W, all with the goal of natural results in my new book ‘The Anti-HDR HDR Photography Book’.

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