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Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas were two of my heroes in nature photography, both superb practitioners of color photography with nature. I got my start in photography working with black-and-white, however. I hated processing film because it was so boring, but I loved making prints in the darkroom. Like many photographers, Ansel Adams was also one of my heroes, and I read his books multiple times until I felt I understood the potential of black-and-white work.
Yet, because color was so critical to my photography at the time, I began to do less black-and-white. A few years ago, I returned to black-and-white work in the computer with some plug-ins from Nik Software (Color Efex Pro, to start) and the excellent black-and-white section of Photoshop Lightroom. What rekindled my love for black-and-white photography, though, was Nik Software's introduction of Silver Efex Pro 2. This tool allows me to experiment quickly to gain the most from black-and-white images.
Black-and-white, to a degree, abstracts any image. The world doesn't exist in black-and-white, so by definition, black-and-white is an abstract art form. Because of this, you can't rely on color to carry the photograph or to emphasize certain elements in a scene.
Good black-and-white photography starts with an image that has a structure to it that works well with black-and-white. It's often disappointing to simply try to change any photograph to black-and-white if you haven't found its structure. Structure in a photograph holds it together just like the underlying structure of a house holds it together. Structure can come from contrast that helps set elements apart. Or look for defining elements in a photograph that have different levels of brightness. And look for adjacent colors that are quite different so they show contrast when converted into black-and-white.
This will make more sense with some specific examples, all of which have a strong structure to support the black-and-white photo.
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When I first made the conversion to black-and-white in Silver Efex Pro 2, I didn't like any of the presets on the left side of the interface. What made this picture appealing to me were the flowers and the way they went from foreground to background in the photograph. So I went to the color filter section of the program.
When I shot black-and-white with film, I had a complete set of color filters to use. Color filters change colors to different tones of black, white and gray. For example, a red filter makes red brighter and blue darker. The problem with using color filters and black-and-white film is that you're locked into one filter to change the scene for the image you expose.
Now, in the computer, you can try different filters to find out which color gives the best translation of color to black-and-white. Silver Efex Pro 2 features a slider that mimics the effects of having an infinite number of filters. Simply click on the slider and move it back and forth until you see the tonality you like. For me, this picture came alive when the flowers became bright and the grass became dark.
Rob Sheppard is the former editor and current editor-at-large of Outdoor Photographer. See his video tutorials, learn about his books and find his workshop schedule at www.robsheppardphoto.com.
Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2
Silver Efex Pro 2 came out as I was primed to get back to black-and-white photography. It offered just enough extras compared to the first version that I fell in love with black-and-white photography all over again. Silver Efex Pro 2 is a relatively easy program to learn, with presets that quickly allow you to look at different ways of interpreting your color image. In this new version, you now can adjust highlight, midtone and shadow brightness separately from the overall brightness adjustment. In addition, you can use a new slider, Dynamic Brightness, that smartly adjusts brightness for fast and easy adjustments.
Contrast and Structure have some new controls to allow more nuanced adjustments. Contrast includes a slider called Amplify Whites and another called Amplify Blacks that allow you to adjust whites and blacks, respectively, in the picture much better than any other program. Whites and blacks are important parts of any black-and-white image, so this is a welcome addition. And Soft Contrast allows you to adjust contrast without it looking too harsh.
Some new finishing adjustments to the program let you darken individual edges with Burn Edges—classic darkroom work. You also can darken all of the edges at once in Vignette, add some cool borders in Image Borders and change the overall color tone of the image in Toning.
My preference is to use this program coming out of Lightroom, though you can use it in any Photoshop product, as well as Aperture.
You can download a fully functional trial version of Silver Efex Pro 2 for free at www.niksoftware.com.