Your Perfect B&W Print

Ansel Adams called the print “The Performance.” OP shows you, in-depth, how to use Photoshop to get your image ready for the best performance possible.
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Even in an age of photo sharing online, the print remains the ultimate expression of a photograph. To make your black-and-white images print with maximum impact, follow Ming Tshing’s step-by-step process.

 


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As the digital march continues onward, there’s one thing that will never change: the pure aesthetic quality of elegant black-and-white imagery. While the aesthetic stays constant, there have been changes in technology, so we’re reexamining and updating how to prepare your image to make the very best fine-art print possible. Working at Nash Editions has exposed me to a wide variety of photographic art. With that variety, comes a variety of problems. Many 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, I’ll focus on some of the more unique techniques I use to improve black-and-white images and get them ready for printing.


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Black Point, White Point
Contrast is 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 your 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. Very 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.


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

Most images will benefit from setting a meaningful black point and a meaningful white point. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions. For example, finding a black point and white point in a foggy landscape may not be appropriate. Doing so will increase the contrast of the image and render an unnatural atmospheric look.


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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 areas.

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.


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


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Open up the dark portions of the image, as those are the areas of concern. In the Shadows section, put in 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 blotchier. The Tonal Width slider controls the tones the adjustment will act on. 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. 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 (Fig. 3).


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To recover information in the light areas, repeat these steps. Put 40% in for the Amount. Slide the Tonal Width to the right until it appears a little flat in the areas you’re concerned about. Watch these areas. Slide the Radius to the right; when these areas clear up, stop. Increase or decrease the amount as needed.

Black & White Adjustment Layer In Photoshop CS5
Working in the digital world, it’s almost a given that your images are going to start out their life in full-blown color. We want to take those color images into the elegant world of black-and-white. A brilliant tool that eases this transition, introduced in Photoshop CS3, the Black & White adjustment layer has been refined further in Photoshop CS5. It’s a visual and more 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 prior to the new feature was to use the Channel mixer. 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.

 


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To begin, select the target adjustment tool from the Black & White Adjustment palette. Pressing the mouse over the area of the image we want to adjust, CS5 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 & White adjustment layer changes according to the color you clicked on. It’s as easy as point and click (Fig. 4).


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Regional Adjustments
Here, we make adjustments to the image that are regional. In my image of Lake Tahoe, I made two regional adjustments. First, I started with a Curves adjustment layer and a layer mask (Fig. 5). I then placed the Curves adjustment layer into a Group where I added a layer mask with a gradient (Fig. 6).

I do this to keep the creation and future adjustments to my layer mask simple. By grouping the Curves adjustment layer, I now combine the effects of two layer masks (Fig. 7).

The second regional adjustment is a Curves adjustment layer with a layer mask that lightens the shoreline (Fig. 8).


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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 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 one night, he came up with what would later become called the Midtone Contrast layer.


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This Midtone Contrast and Michael Reichmann’s local contrast enhancement were put to use in the Clarity adjustment found in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.

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 Layer > Merge Visible. This creates a flattened version of your image at the top of the layer stack. Rename it Midtone Contrast (Fig. 9).

Now, let’s change the mode of the Midtone Contrast layer to Overlay and lower the Opacity to 20%. Once this is done, select from the filters menu 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 (Fig. 10).


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This next step is very important. In the blending options of the Midtone Contrast layer, we change the values for Blend If. With the Midtone Contrast layer selected, go to Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options. At the bottom center of the dialog box we see two gradated sliders for the Blend If option. Set the slider under This Layer to 54 / 76 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, then clicking on the slider and dragging it apart.

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.


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Sharpening
We now come to the final step in my workflow, and I stress this as the final step. It’s my firm belief that sharpening should be applied last, and I’ll tell you why. First, sharpening is based on the intended use of the image. Sharpening for the web is different than sharpening for inkjet output. Second, everything you do is a reflection of the previous step in any workflow. The color, contrast and overall tonality of your image will affect where and how much sharpening is applied. Thus, your final image is an expression of these three elements.

There are many third-party filters you can use to sharpen. If you want to stick with the base filters supplied in Photoshop, however, the High Pass filter is a good one. Similar to the Midtone Contrast layer, we want to select the top layer in our Layers palette. Hold down the Option key on the keyboard. Go to Layer > Merge Visible. This creates a flattened version of your image, placing it at the top of the layer stack. Name this layer Sharpen. Change the Blend mode of this layer to Overlay (Fig. 11).


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Change the magnification of your image to 100%. Go to Filter > Other > High Pass. The preview checkbox won’t work to preview the sharpening. We can work around this by using the Undo keyboard shortcut Command Z. As of this writing, there’s a bug in CS5 (Mac version) that causes Command Z not to work initially. If you’re using CS5, move the slider for the Radius amount with the mouse first before continuing. Start by typing 0.1 in the Radius. Select the 0.1 with your mouse and type in 3 (Fig. 12a and 12b).

Using this workaround, to preview the sharpening, hold down the Command key and press Z. This is the keyboard shortcut for Undo. The first time you press the Z, the 3 changes to 0.1; pressing the Z again reverts it back to 3. The value 0.1 is, in effect, the “before” view. When the radius has 0.1 in it, the image has no visible sharpening (Fig. 13).

Looking at the image at 100% magnification, increase the Radius by 0.5 until it looks sharp. Use Command Z to preview. Once we’re happy with the sharpening on the screen, press OK. We’re sharpening for output to an inkjet printer. When you look at this image at 100%, it should look coarse and oversharpened. Use the Opacity of the Sharpen layer
to reduce the amount of sharpening.


Final Toned Image Ready For Printing

Our final step is to add dimension to the Sharpen layer. A Luminosity mask varies the amount of sharpening based on the tonality of the image. We want more sharpening in the dark tones and midtones and less in the lighter tones. In the Channels palette, hold down the Command key and click on the RGB channel. This loads the channel as a selection (Fig. 14a).

With the Sharpen layer selected, we want to add a layer mask. Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection. As you can see, the mask is an inverted black-and-white version of the image (Fig. 14b).

I finished the image with some toning (Fig. 15). I used a Solid Color adjustment layer with the color settings of R:111, G:102 and B:54; keep in mind that my working color space is ProPhoto (Fig. 16). You should find a tone that works well with your images. I set the Blending mode of my Solid Color layer to Soft Light and created a Luminosity mask on the Solid Color layer.

In no way is this the only workflow for black-and-white images on their way to be printed, but I’ve found that it works well. Please take from this what makes sense for your own workflow.

Ming Tshing is an educator, a photographer and a digital-imaging specialist. He has been photographing in the United States and Asia since age 16. You can find Photoshop Actions dealing with the Midtone Contrast and Sharpening adjustments covered here at the link files.me.com/mtshing/dvkrg1 E-mail Tshing directly at mingtshing@gmail.com.

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