Watch the Details in Black-and-White

I love the new interest in black-and-white photography. It offers some great opportunities to go beyond the "common" color shot and create something striking and unique. It is funny to write that. It wasn't all that long ago that in publications, black-and-white was the stuff treated poorly and put on the "cheap" pages, while color went beyond the "common" black-and-white shot. How times have changed!

I was working on these leaves of the poor man's umbrella plant from the cloud forests of Costa Rica. I love this plant. It is very common in the cloud forests (which are like rain forests, but higher in the mountains, and literally, they are frequently in the clouds). I could spend a lot of time photographing these wonderful big leaves (they are a good 3-4 feet across) and I have at times.

In black-and-white, they have a lot of potential for character. The texture and forms of the leaves really work nicely in black-and-white. But there are two very important details that, for me, make all the difference in the final shot.

First, the leaves needed to be balanced visually in terms of brightness or tonalities. In the color image, there are some differences in brightness of the leaves that become more obvious when the image goes to black-and-white. You can see this in the brighter leaf at the top left and the darker leaf, bottom right. The black-and-white below is in mid adjustment -- the leaf at the top left has been darkened some.

Once I had converted the image in Silver Efex Pro 2, I used some control points to better define the overall image. Black-and-white so emphasizes tonalities that if you aren't careful, you will create a composition based on bright and dark things that were not intended. I also did some additional work in Lightroom when the image was done to help balance the leaves so that visually, they would work together with their textures and forms and not compete.

Second, the red veins of the leaves are so important here. A direct translation of most images with red and green into black-and-white will make the red and green the same or a similar tonality. You can see from the color how the red veins really stand out. And in the earlier version of the scene, the veins just do not have any real presence. The black-and-white looks best when they stand out, too. I used the color filter section of Silver Efex Pro 2 to help define the difference between red and green. I didn't want the veins dominating the photo, but having them stand out more really helps strengthen the black-and-white.

It is often details like this that can make the difference when you translate color into black-and-white.

A reminder -- Nik Software still offers a 15% discount for folks who follow my work. Just put in rsheppard as the code when you check out. Also, I do have a trip scheduled to Costa Rica later this year, in that dead time right after Thanksgiving (which happens to be a great time to be in Costa Rica), and it will include a day of specific field instruction to help make the rest of the trip more successful. More at Holbrook Travel.

3 Comments

    While I use Lightroom for B&W, the tools and ideas you have presented are very similar to my process and an article I wrote a few months ago. Just a basic conversion sometimes isn’t enough to really underscore what’s special about a B&W picture and some tweaking will bring out your intentions more vividly. I like that you’ve gone through step by step to illustrate what you mean. Nice.

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