B&W In The Digital Age

Talented artists are always eager to embrace new technology if it has the potential to enrich their art and bring forth their vision. If he had access to today's tools, what would Ansel Adams do?
B&W In The Digital Age

More than 20 years since his passing, Ansel Adams is probably still the most widely known black-and-white outdoor photographer. He didn’t shoot digitally because digital imaging as we know it didn’t exist in those days. But I think the legendary black-and-white master would be quite interested in digital imaging were he in his shooting prime today. Adams was all for any technology that could increase his control over the image-making process, and digital imaging certainly does that. With film, Adams could adjust the exposure in camera to control the dark areas of the image, adjust development to control the light areas, and then control the lightness or darkness of the overall print via the enlarger exposure, control overall contrast by choosing the printing paper grade, and dodge and burn to make local areas of the print brighter or darker. He couldn’t watch the film develop, he had to watch the print develop by the light of a dim safelight, and he had to wait for the print to wash and dry before he could see what he had.

b&w in the digital ageWith digital imaging, you can adjust brightness and darkness, overall contrast and local contrast, in precise and repeatable increments, and even apply colored-filter effects and see the results on screen in real time—no waiting, no wasted paper, no smelly chemicals (Adams, the environmentalist, would appreciate that) and no dark required.


Along with his celebrated technical expertise, Adams was renowned for his creative eye. No matter what camera or medium you use, you need good subjects in good light, interestingly composed.

b&w in the digital ageAdams imagined what each print would look like before he exposed his film. He exposed, processed and printed his negatives to present to the viewer what he saw and felt that made him take the shot in the first place. This is one key to understanding Adams’ work visualizatio—seeing the image in his mind’s eye before he made the shot.

Okay, you saw something that moved you to make a photograph.

How do you turn the image on your memory card into what Adams termed an expressive print that shows the viewer what you saw and felt when you shot it? Let’s look at how you can apply a little Ansel to your digital photography.

Adams shot mainly in black-and-white because that’s how he "saw" images and because black-and-white offered him more control over his images than color. Today, digital imaging offers the advantage of tremendous control over both black-and-white and color images.

Getting Black-And-White

You can get black-and-white digital images by shooting them that way in-camera or by converting color images to monochrome in the computer via your image-editing software.

Shooting in monochrome mode, you’re working in black-and-white from the start, and the images you see on the camera’s LCD monitor will be in black-and-white, making it easier to think in black-and-white. This can be a useful way of learning to see black-and-white images.

heron red channel heron green channel
Clicking on the Red channel gives a result similar to shooting the original image through a red filter—still not quite right. Clicking the Green channel in the Channels palette results in a decent but still gray image.
heron channel mixer heron levels
Using the Channel Mixer, you can adjust the lightness and darkness of the red, green and blue tones individually. Here, moving the Red slider to +66%, the Green slider to +20% and the Blue slider to +28% resulted in a better black-and-white image. Moving the top-left Levels slider to the right produced a better black tone. The top-right slider was left where it was to avoid blowing out the highlights.
heron curves heron hsb
Moving the middle of the curve up slightly brightened the midtones and moving the bottom portion down slightly produced richer dark tones. Converting the image to black-and-white by moving the Saturation slider all the way to the left results in a grayish rendition of this image.

If you shoot RAW images rather than JPEGs, you’ll have more and better material to work with in the computer, including richer tonality in highlights and dark tones. You can double-process a RAW image, once for the highlights and once for the dark areas, then combine the two perfectly registered images in Photoshop to get a greater range of detail. And RAW images can be processed to color or black-and-white—you’re not locked in to one or the other. Adams would have shot RAW.

Calibrating Your System

If you want your prints to look like what you see on your screen, make sure your monitor and printer are properly calibrated in terms of color rendition and contrast. This is easily done with a color-calibrating device such as Datacolor ColorVision Spyder2 Suite, Pantone Huey or X-Rite Eye-One. Follow the easy instructions that accompany the device and calibrate regularly every few months.

If you choose to shoot your black-and-white digital images in color, there are some advantages. You can use different
color-to-monochrome conversion techniques to achieve different results and even do multiple conversions. You also can apply infinite color filtration after the fact (see the Filters sidebar).

If you’re shooting in the RAW format and using the camera manufacturer’s RAW converter, simply select Monochrome in the conversion software. Doing so is effectively the same as shooting images in monochrome mode in-camera. If you’re using a third-party RAW converter, the color-to-monochrome conversion process is more complicated, but often gives you more control. I prefer to do the color-to-monochrome conversion in Photoshop, after converting the RAW image to TIFF format in the RAW converter.

In Photoshop, the simplest conversion methods are changing the mode to Grayscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale) or moving the saturation slider all the way to the left (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation). These methods offer very little flexibility and are rarely the best ways to convert color images.

A better method is to use the Channels palette. Click on the Red, Green and Blue channels individually to see which looks best. If one looks the way you want, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale. This method mimics the effects of shooting a black-and-white image through a red, green or blue filter (see the Filters sidebar).


b&w in the digital age - chaparral
Black-and-white conversion via Photoshop’s Channel Mixer.
Original color landscape. Photo by Rob Sheppard.

chaparral - color


chaparral - color

Original photograph of paintbrush scene. Photo by Rob Sheppard.
b&w in the digital age - chaparral
Using Photoshop’s Channel Mixer to do the conversion allows the photographer to adjust each primary color’s gray rendition individually, resulting in a black-and-white image with more impact

Probably the most versatile way to convert color images to black-and-white is by using the Channel Mixer (Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer, then click the Monochrome box). This provides lots of control over the resulting tones, but requires a lot of playing. Remember that the Red channel makes red tones lighter as the slide is moved to the right and darker as it’s moved to the left; likewise for the Green and Blue channels. A good rule of thumb is to make sure the percentages of red, green and blue combined equal 100 percent, although some images might work better with a higher combined percentage (for a brighter image) or a lower combined percentage (for a darker image).The new Photoshop CS3’s Channel Mixer even includes black-and-white presets to get you started.

Handy Digital Darkroom Tools

Photoshop contains lots of tools, but you only need a few of them to optimize a black-and-white photograph. Here are the best ones to use.

Levels. Generally, it’s best to begin work on a digital image by setting its black and white points using the Levels control. This is especially important for black-and-white. Adams said in his book The Print that "...a note of pure white or solid black can serve as a 'key’ to other values...but there is no reason why they must be included in all images, any more than a composition for the piano must include the full range of the eighty-eight notes of the keyboard." In short, set the black and white points to suit the image you visualized when you shot the photo.

Black-And-White Inkjet Printing

Not long ago, you pretty much had to use special black-and-white inks to make excellent black-and-white prints with an inkjet printer, and this is still the way to go with older printers. In fact, a number of photographers have a second printer dedicated to black-and-white printing.

With more and better inks, smaller ink droplets and better drivers, today’s inkjet photo printers from Canon, Epson and HP—especially the larger-format models—do an excellent job with black-and-white. These devices can turn out full-tonal-range prints with no colorcasts
(unless you deliberately create a toned print).

While any self-respecting aspiring Ansel Adams will do his or her own printing, there are some excellent digital labs out there for those who choose to have someone else make their prints. Check out "Working With A Lab" (Jan./Feb. 2007) on the OP website, www.outdoorphotographer.com.

A good starting point for Levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) is to move the upper left and right sliders in to the edges of the histogram to turn the brightest and darkest pixels in the image pure white and pure black. Press the Alt/Option key as you do this to see where the blacks and whites actually are in the image. The Levels histogram is a good reference, but your eye should remain the ultimate arbiter: Do what looks right. Most images work best if they include a pure black tone and a pure white tone, but some don’t.

Curves. Adams used different developers and development techniques to adjust the midtones and contrast of his images. In Photoshop, this is best done with the Curves control (Image >Adjustments > Curves). Moving the middle of the curve up makes the midtones lighter, while moving it down makes the middle tones darker.

If you click on the lower portion of the curve, you can adjust that separately: Moving it down makes the dark tones darker, moving it up makes the dark tones lighter. Likewise, click on the upper portion of the curve, and you can move that portion up to make the light tones lighter or down to make them darker. You can click multiple times on the curve itself to add anchor points, but one in the middle of the curve and one at the middle of the lower section and the upper section usually will suffice. A tip: A little movement of the curve goes a long way.

Shadow/Highlight. This control (Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight) can bring out amazing amounts of detail in underexposed dark areas and overexposed bright ones. It can help open dark midtones if used carefully. The default Shadow setting of 50 percent is usually too strong; try 30 percent as a starting point.

Layers. Photoshop’s layers and layer masks are features Adams would have loved. Layers allow you to make each change to your image independent of other changes and make it easy to keep track of them. Even more important, layers let you make changes nondestructively, without affecting the image’s pixels. None of the changes you make is applied to the image pixels until you flatten the image (Layer > Flatten Image) when you’re done; thus, there’s only one change applied to the pixels instead of lots of changes individually.


When you shoot a scene in color, the colors make or break the shot. When you shoot in black-and-white, the black, white and gray tones make or break the shot. In black-and-white, those lovely red roses that stood out so dramatically from those green leaves in real life will blend together as middle gray tones in the photo. As a digital black-and-white photographer, you can examine the monochrome image on your camera’s LCD monitor right after you shoot it and see if the tones of different-colored objects merge.

Ansel Adams, like most black-and-white landscape photographers, used colored filters to separate tones in his images. Digital photographers can do the same—in fact, a number of digital cameras have built-in digital colored filters.

The basic concept behind using colored filters for black-and-white photography is that a filter will lighten tones of its own and similar colors and darken tones of its complementary color in the resulting photograph. The most popular colored filters used by black-and-white outdoor photographers include yellow, red and green.

Yellow and red filters render a blue sky darker than it would appear in an unfiltered shot, which is useful when you want white cloud buildups to stand out strongly against a dark sky. A red filter renders red flowers lighter and green leaves darker, which is handy for shots of foliage, where the red flowers and green leaves, both reflecting about the same amount of light, would appear about the same shade of gray in an unfiltered photo (you also could use a green filter to get darker flowers against lighter leaves).

Adjustment layers (Layer > New Adjustment Layer) let you do Levels, Curves and other corrections. Duplicate Layers (Layer > Duplicate Layer) allow you to do just about anything without affecting the original pixels.

A good layer workflow might be:

  • Open the original image and save it as a TIFF or PSD working copy.
  • Create a Levels adjustment layer
    (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels) and set the black and white points.
  • Create a Curves adjustment layer and adjust the middle tones.
  • Use Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools to adjust local contrast or do it via additional layers and layer masks, as described below.

Layer Masks. Layer masks let you apply changes to selected portions of an image rather than the entire image. When you create an adjustment layer, Photoshop automatically creates a corresponding layer mask. Layer masks make it easy to do what Adams did by dodging and burning. For example, to darken a specific area of the image, create a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast) and move the brightness layer to the left to a setting of -20 or -25. This turns the whole image darker.

Painting black on a layer mask conceals or hides the layer's effect, so the adjustment isn’t applied to those areas. Painting white on the layer mask reveals the effect below, so the layer’s adjustment is applied to those areas of the image. In our example, you can fill the darkening layer with black to hide its effect (Edit > Fill, choose Black) and then use a white Brush tool to paint over (reveal) the areas where you want the effect (darkening) to be applied.

Software For B&W

The camera manufacturers’ RAW-conversion software provides basic conversion capabilities and sometimes more—Nikon’s Capture NX is a good example. Current versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements come with Adobe’s versatile Camera Raw RAW-image converter, and it also can be purchased as a stand-alone. Other good RAW converters can be found in Apple’s Aperture, Phase One’s Capture One, DxO’s Optics Pro, Digital Light & Color’s Picture Window and the B/W Conversion Filters in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 2.0.

There’s also a number of plug-ins for Photoshop (and applications that
use Photoshop-compatible plug-ins) that provide black-and-white photographers with useful tools. Among them are Alien Skin’s Exposure, B/W Styler for Windows from The Plugin Site and Black & White Studio from Power Retouche.

We don’t have room to go deeply into layer masks, but you can learn all about them at the Outdoor Photographer website (www.outdoorphotographer.com).

Finishing Touches

Once you have the tones of the image as you want them, there’s one more step Adams considered important. You want to keep the viewer’s eye in the frame, and bright areas near the edges draw the eye out of the frame. So Adams burned in the edges of his prints, darkening them.

You can do this in Photoshop. An easy way is to create a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment layer, darken the entire layer by moving the Brightness slider to a minus number (again, -20 or -25 is a good starting point) and fill the layer with black to hide the darkening. Then, using a large, soft brush, paint white over the edges of the image, revealing the layer’s darkening effect.

For more details on producing digital images, check out OP Editor Rob Sheppard‚’s book Outdoor Photographer Landscape and Nature Photography with Photoshop CS2, which provides information for the digital nature photographer, including a whole chapter entitled "What Would Ansel Do?"


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    I am going through this post and thinking of it?۪s theme and trying to understand what is this post about. At last I can have found something from this post which feels pretty good.

    “It is true that nobody could print my negatives as I did, but you could get something more out of them through electronic instruments. The quality of the image is not a product of the camera, but of the person using t, and there are no limits to imagination an expression.” M. Ansel Adams.

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