Print Like Ansel Adams

Tips and techniques from one of the experts at Nash Editions will help you make your best black-and-white prints ever

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Figure 1

As the digital march continues onward, there’s one thing that will never change: the pure aesthetic quality of elegant black-and-white imagery. My position at Nash Editions has exposed me to a wide variety of photographic art, and with that variety comes a plethora of problems. Much of my Photoshop skills are a direct result of problem solving. Every day I work with photographers, optimizing their images, helping them to realize their vision on paper. Rather than covering a comprehensive overview of my black-and-white workflow here, I’ll focus on some of the more unique techniques I use to improve black-and-white images.

Meaningful Black Point, Meaningful White Point
Contrast, contrast, contrast. It’s the framework of black-and-white imagery. A proper black point provides a solid base for your image. Like all workflows, it’s important to get started on the right path. Setting a black point and a white point is the process where we tell Photoshop which areas of our image should be black and which areas should be white. This is crucial when dealing with the overall contrast of your image.

Every image is unique. Technically, setting the black point is finding the darkest pixels of the image and setting that to a value of 0, and setting the white point is finding the lightest pixels of the image and setting that value to 255. The technical approach is rarely the appropriate one, however.

It’s important to establish what I call a meaningful black point. You must visually identify the area of your image that you want to be black and then set that to be a black point. Often, you end up sacrificing unimportant shadow details in other areas of the image. Keeping some detail in the lighter areas of the image is important; giving up detail here leaves these areas printing with no information, essentially allowing the paper color (paper white) to show through.

In the image of salt beds in Badwater, Calif., I wanted the shadows under the piles of salt to have a meaningful black point as opposed to the mountains at the edges, technically the darkest portions of the image (Figure 1). The result is a more defined image with subtle shadows in the foreground.

Most images benefit from setting a meaningful black point and a meaningful white point. Keep in mind that there always are exceptions. For example, finding a black point and white point in a foggy landscape may not be appropriate. Doing so increases the contrast of the image and renders an unnatural atmospheric look, where the expected gradation of the tones isn’t as smooth as one expects. Remember that you always have to approach each image on an individual basis.


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Shadows/Highlights Shadows/Highlights is an adjustment tool that’s often overlooked, yet it’s an invaluable tool when you want to establish the full tonal range of an image. Shadows/Highlights is a recovery adjustment, used to recover information from the shadow and highlight.

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Figure 2

Shadows/Highlights isn’t an adjustment layer, and without utilizing smart objects, any application is a permanent change to your image. Thus, it’s a tool that should be used with an exit strategy in mind. A good workflow incorporates duplicating your layer for the Shadows/Highlights adjustment, therefore keeping your original layer unchanged.

Here’s a breakdown of the workflow. Duplicate your background layer and call it Shadows/Highlights. Go to Images > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights, ignore the built-in default settings and check the box Show More Options. Set everything in both sections labeled Shadows/Highlights to 0. Leave the setting in Adjustments at 20. We’ll set this as our default by clicking the Set As Default button. In the future, the Shadows/Highlights adjustment will come up, leaving your image visually unchanged until you make adjustments to it (Figure 2).


Figure 3

Now we’re ready to do some work on an image from Sedona, Ariz. (Figure 3). We want to open up the dark portions of the image, the areas of concern. To get started, in the Shadows section, use 40% for the Amount. It may start to look blotchy, but don’t worry about it; that’s what we want.

Pay attention to the concerned areas of your image; slide the Tonal Width over until you see these areas go flat in contrast or become blotchy. The Tonal Width slider controls the tones on which the adjustment will act. Moving it too far to the right will cause your midtones to open up along with your darker tones. If this happens, move your slider back to the left, reducing the effect in the lighter tones.


Figure 4

The Radius or magic slider brings it all back. Slide it to the right, and as you do so, look at your image. The contrast slowly comes back; at your discretion, stop when it looks good. The Radius brings back the contrast of the image. There’s a tendency for halos to develop during this process. You can reduce the halos by further adjusting the Radius amount. Fine-tune it at this point. Decrease the amount if the lightening is too strong.

To recover information in the light areas, repeat the steps above, this time under Highlights. Again, start with 40% for the Amount. Slide the Tonal Width to the right until it appears a little flat in the areas about which you’re concerned. Watch these areas, and slide the Radius slider to the right. When these areas clear up, stop. Increase or decrease the amount as needed (Figure 4).


Figure 5

Black And White Adjustment Layer
In CS3

Working in the digital world, it’s almost a given that your images will start out their lives in full-blown color. We want to take those color images into the elegant world of black-and-white. Photoshop CS3 gives us a brilliant tool that eases this transition: the Black and White adjustment layer. A visual and intuitive way of converting color images to black-and-white, this new adjustment allows us to interpolate the different colors of an image to a gray value. A common way to do this previously was to use the Channel Mixer, but a major drawback was that we quickly forgot what colors were in parts of our image without previewing it. Switching back and forth, constantly previewing the image, disrupts the creative process.

The target adjustment feature of the Black and White adjustment layer is a more intuitive way of adjusting the image. Pressing the mouse over the area of the image we want to adjust, CS3 selects the underlying color’s slider for us. We then can darken the area by moving the mouse to the left and lighten the area by moving the mouse to the right. The color slider in the Black and White adjustment layer changes according to the color on which you clicked. It’s as easy as point and click (Figure 5).


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Midtone Contrast
At Nash Editions, Mac Holbert and I have worked on countless images over the years. One common issue we find with images is a lack of contrast in the midtones. In the beginning, we added contrast to these areas by using a basic curve, locking down the lighter and darker tones and targeting additional contrast to the midtones. Although this worked to increase the contrast in the midtones, we knew there was a better, more direct way of accomplishing this. True story—as Mac was sleeping in bed, he came up with what we called the Midtone Contrast layer.

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Figure 6

Here’s an overview of the workflow. Create a Stamped Visible layer at the top of your layer stack. Select the top layer in your Layers palette. With the Option key pressed, go to the menu Layer > Merge Visible. This creates a flattened version of your image at the top of the layer stack. Rename it Midtone Contrast.

Change the mode of the Midtone Contrast layer to Overlay and lower the Opacity to 20%. Once this is done, go to Filters > Others > High Pass. In the High Pass Filter dialog, set the Radius to 50 and press OK. We want to remove all colors if there are any from this Midtone Contrast layer. Use the Desaturate command from Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.

This next step is important. In the blending options of the Midtone Contrast layer, change the values for Blend If. With the Midtone Contrast layer selected, go to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options (Figure 6). In the bottom center of the dialog box, there are two gradated sliders for the Blend If option. Set the slider under This Layer to 50/70 for the black and 185/205 for the white. We have to split the slider to get the values we want. Splitting the slider is accomplished by holding down the Option key, clicking on the slider and dragging it apart.

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Figure 7

The Blend If setting fades the contrast out of both the black and white areas of the image, focusing the contrast to the midtones of the image. You can increase or decrease the midtone contrast by changing the opacity of the Midtone Contrast layer. The finished result is in Figure 7.

In no way is this the best or the only workflow for black-and-white images. Please take from this what makes sense for your own workflow.

Ming Tshing is an educator, photographer and digital-imaging specialist at Nash Editions. He has been photographing in the United States and Asia since age 16. Tshing teaches at the Art Center College of Design and at Santa Monica College, participating in numerous workshops across the United States. You can find Photoshop Actions dealing with what has been covered in this article at www.tshing.com.

10 Comments

    In reply to Jerry’s question, it will always be difficult to print true B/W images from a desk top ink jet printer simply because of the amount of colours they print with, ie cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
    With out getting too technical, to print a grey colour the printer uses a mixture of the four colours to make the different shades of grey and black which is why you will see the colour in B/W print. If your printer had a grey ink, such as the HP Z2100, it would use the grey to print the grey areas and not the other colours.
    So you would get a true B/W picture.
    These printers are available in the UK from a company called HP Plotter, online http://www.hpplotter.co.uk

    While this article is super for the B&W conversion process it does not deal with the actual “printing” problems most of us must deal with; getting a true B&W print from our ink-jet “color” printers. All of these printers tend to send a color tone/tint into the print which takes away from the beauty we see on our monitors. That problem is the one I would like to see a solution for so I could put this excellent work-flow to good use.

    I have always been fascinated by high contrast black and white. this article is on target for where I am as a beginning digital photographer. I have tried teh workflow as presented adn have one problem; I’m using Capture NX. How do I take the workflow from CS3 and use Capture NX. This is the first copy of Outdoor Photography I have read and it is wonderful!!!

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