Make Your Best Black-And-White

B&W: Where To Start • Histograms In All The Right Places • Diffraction Ratings • Enhancements • New Film Scanners

Colorado’s Crystal Mill was photographed as a RAW color image and converted in Photoshop CS5 using the Black And White Adjustment Layer. Within the adjustment layer, I was able to lighten the yellow leaves and darken the sky. A Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF 17-40mm set to 26mm and an exposure of ¼ sec. at ƒ/16 was used.

B&W: Where To Start
Q Many articles in OP suggest software programs to try for converting color images to black-and-white and discuss how to fine-tune the converted images. In your opinion, what’s the most beneficial starting point for capturing an image you intend to output in black-and-white: color or black-and-white?
A. Clifton
New Jersey

A The best place to start, no matter what your intended output, is with a RAW-format, well-exposed, sharp color capture with controlled contrast. The more quality information you’ve captured, the more you can do with it. Why limit your options by capturing in black-and-white? If your camera has a black-and-white mode, you can use it like a Polaroid, but make your final exposure in color and in the RAW format. Any digital color capture can be converted to a quality black-and-white image file. There are lots of ways to make that conversion. Photoshop, of course, can make the switch while offering many processing and filter options. Another excellent program I use is Nik Silver Efex Pro ( The software adjusts grain and emulsion sensitivity to match your choice of 18 different popular black-and-white films.

Histograms In All The Right Places
Q Is it possible to access an image’s histogram or information obtained from it after the images are downloaded into your PC? Such info would help a great deal in separating your good images from the ones that belong in the recycle bin.
A. Ashahmiri
Via the Internet

A The histogram is an important tool for digital photographers because it displays the range of tonal values in an image and alerts you to possible under- and overexposures. You can refer to the histogram on the LCD on the back of your camera for use in making exposure adjustments in the field. But the histogram is also, as you note, extremely useful during evaluation and post-capture processing of your photographs.
The histogram that displays on the back of your camera and the one that comes up in Photoshop, Lightroom or most other post-capture editing software are essentially identical for any particular image. If your software doesn’t offer the histogram, you need to upgrade!
A well-exposed photograph presents a histogram with data that doesn’t stack up against either wall of the graph; pixels displayed on the far right (whites) or far left (blacks) of the histogram have no detail. Alterations to exposure (such as bringing out detail in highlights and shadows) that you make as you work on your images will change the histogram. That’s another reason to work only on copies of your images and to save your “keeper” digital files in their original form.

Diffraction Ratings
Q I quickly found that if I stop down the aperture on my new upgrade lens much beyond f/11, there’s a significant loss of image sharpness. I use a tripod for all landscapes, so I surmise that diffraction is the problem. Are there diffraction ratings for individual lenses at various apertures?
B. Eddy
Via the Internet

A Diffraction (distortion of the light rays entering the lens) is amplified at smaller apertures, causing significant loss of sharpness. It’s frustrating because we often choose smaller apertures to increase our depth of field, or in-focus range. While particular lenses may vary, most lenses gain sharpness as they’re stopped down two to three stops from the maximum ƒ-stop (ƒ/2, ƒ/2.8, ƒ/4, etc.). At ƒ/11, the sharpness should be excellent; there’s a small amount of compromise in sharpness at ƒ/16, but this coincides with a significant increase in depth of field. At ƒ/22 and higher, diffraction becomes a major detriment to image detail.

Due to individual variations, photographers should spend some time testing their own lenses to determine the point of maximum sharpness and depth of field for each one. It’s good to know this before you head out to the field! One source to use for lens comparisons is Photozone; it’s an excellent site with a vast array of lens tests online (

Q My wife and I are planning a trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks this year. Some of the books I’ve read about photographing in these parks recommend using an enhancing filter without giving any specifics. My web research turned up many filters that enhance various colors; I’m particularly interested in emphasizing reds, greens and rusts. Do you recommend the use of enhancing filters and, if so, do you have any recommendations for a filter (or two) that would help my photography in these parks? I already have a polarizing filter.
J. Brady
Via the Internet

A The only filter of this type that I use—occasionally—is a polarizing filter that has a slight enhancing feature built in. This is the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo, which combines an LB Warming Polarizer and an LB Color Intensifier ( I feel that true enhancing filters give an unattractive magenta cast that isn’t necessary in the digital era when you can make any color improvements you want post-capture in the computer, with much more control.

There are two filters I frequently use for digital, both of which would be useful for your landscape photography at Yellowstone and Grand Teton. First, the polarizer darkens the sky and removes reflections, enhancements that are hard to emulate in the computer. But be aware that polarizing filters can cause unsharpness when used on telephoto lenses, usually beyond 200mm, and you should never use it when capturing a panorama sequence. I also use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND neutral-density filter. It gives me more control over shutter speed and exposure, especially when photographing flowing water, one of my favorite subjects found in abundance at Yellowstone.

New Film Scanners
Q I’ve been shooting for many years with film, and recently I made the switch to digital. I’ve converted some of my slides to digital images, but drum scanning is expensive. I was thinking that a way to reduce the cost was by way of a slide copier. What do you think? Is there one that you recommend?
H. Vazquez
Via the Internet

A For many digital photographers who worked in film in the past, scanning of 35mm slides and negatives is an essential task. Flatbed scanners are used by some photographers and are a good alternative for larger film formats, but aren’t the optimum solution for the smaller 35mm. My choice over the years for 35mm film scanning has been a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 and, for medium-format film, the Nikon Super Coolscan 8000/9000. Unfortunately, Nikon has discontinued the Coolscan series of scanners, so I went looking for an alternative.

Plustek ( has stepped in to fill the void with a series of film scanners with higher resolution than the Nikons and many features that will help to capture all the color and sharpness in those 35mm images. Remember that your scanning workflow needs to accomplish more than the creation of a high-quality digital copy of a film-based image. Scanning is the time when you must also clean up any dirt, fibers, publication residue, fingerprints or scratches your slides may have picked up over the years. Bringing each slide to its utmost potential in the digital era will take some time. But the Plustek scanners give you a bit of a boost with an excellent software called SilverFast, which helps to eliminate any dust or scratches that might be present in your film images.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.


    George, I have been a reader and subscriber since the beginning and since Galen and John Netherton have passed, yours is the first place I go when I receive my issue of OP.
    One thing I would add regarding your comments on diffraction. In my tests with my 7D and lenses, 12-24, 28-70 and 50-135, I have found that the angle of incident has a bit to do with the amount of diffraction.
    If the sun is in the 180* arc back lit to the sensor (film)plane, diffraction has nearly zero negative affect on image quality. Just the opposite if the sun is in the 180* arc forward of the sensor plane.
    I would be interested to know if you have had similar experiences.

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