May 23, 2009

Please Tell Me the “Secret” to Your B&W Conversion!

Many people ask me to tell them the “secret” of my black and white conversion.  Here is the secret: great black and white images are not made in the conversion process.  You can buy the most expensive plug-in’s and execute the most complicated processes to convert your images, and it will not guarantee a great image.  There are no shortcuts or simple proceedures.

Okay, so what is the “secret?”

It’s that you must plan for a great black and white image starting with the selection of the scene and then all the way through the processing.  I tell people that it’s 50% the shot and 50% the post-processing.

Taking the Shot:

My style relies on dark images with bright subjects.  It’s this contrast that creates an image that can really jump out at you, so when I go out shooting, I’m looking for these types of scenes.  While there will be many scenes that catch my eye, if it doesn’t have this potential, then I know the shot will not work for me.


When I create an image, I have a vision of what it’s going to look like, and generally the original shot doesn’t look anything like my vision of final image.  That’s where the post-processing comes in; using very simple techniques I “create” the image.  I do not use curves, profiles, layers, plug-ins or any sophisticated techniques.  I simply adjust the brightness and contrast and then dodge and burn the image like a painter would paint a canvas.

Above is one of my latest images from England; the Old Wardour Castle.  While it appears to have been shot at night, it was a 30 second daytime exposure.  The key is that I knew in advance what I wanted the image to look like and this vision was realized by underexposing the image and then extensively dodging and burning it to create a night-like scene.

So while the conversion process is important, it’s not really the key to a great black and white image.  What’s most important is that you visualize the image in advance and then take control by creating the image along the way.


P.S.  For those of you who are still interested in my conversion process, here it is:  First, I shoot in b&w mode and RAW which produces a color image that I convert using the “channel mixer” method.  In Photoshop you choose Image/Adjustments/Channel Mixer.   Check the “Monochrome” box and then adjust the Source Channel color sliders to see how adjusting each color changes the image  (note: some prefer the “Black and White” converter over the “Channel Mixer” method as it offers slightly more control and is a bit easier to use).  That’s it!

16 thoughts on “Please Tell Me the “Secret” to Your B&W Conversion!

  1. Hi Cole,
    Your post is very informative. I do convert images to Black and White using contenta converter, I am very satisfied with its functionality. But along with a conversion software I think one needs to have creativity and a vision which I think comes through experience. The snapshot that you have shown here is amazing and it only shows how experinced and skilled you are. Your blog is worth subscribing to for a person like me

  2. Cole: Good to see that you are home, safely I presume. And now we all know how to make copies of your images!!
    You left out the personal vision requirement, that the rest of us mortalas may or may not have.
    Previous post called your image a “snapshot”, which may speak volumes, or may not.

    Shalom, y’all

  3. It drives me bonkers when my work is in an exhibition and people want to know what camera I use as if the camera does all the work! Same thing applies to technophiles who want to know exactly what exposure etc. but nothing else. Composition, light, thought process, breaking the “rules” never occur to them…I guess those are some of the differences between an artist and someone with a camera. Thanks for your share. I use the same slides in RAW too.

  4. Welcome home Amigo. I’ve gotten busy with a new job working in the College gardens for the summer but my mind keeps drifting back to Moab. I would love to see you post some of your images from the workshops. What I enjoy the most about your wonderful B&W interpretations is that they always have a “mood” about them and my mind’s eye often lingers.

  5. Hi Nikki, Gerry, Marilyn and Susan! Nice to hear from you all. Thanks for your comments and additions.

    Yes, VISION is the KEY and technology should be there to support it. For years I was a technophile and focused on equipment, processes and the latest science. But that was just a cover-up for not pursuing my own art, feelings and style. So I am very sensitive and cognizant of the need for a personal vision.

    To counter this natural tendency of mine to focus on the absolute, the logical, and the technical…I’ve swung my pendulum far in the other direction, and pursue everything as simply and directly as I can. I am trying to focus on my vision and pushing everything else that might distract, out of the way.


  6. Hi Cole,

    Can you tell me how to get better at dodge and burn. I try and try, but I overdo the blacks and whites and get an image thats too contrasty. Any tips you can give me would be great.

  7. Cole, i’m stunned by your work and the wisdom from your lens work interview and the generosity of sharing your techniques with us. My students will be studying your work next semester. I teach B and W and digital in a high school in Maryland. I’m thrilled to now be one of your fans. Je

  8. Love your style Cole and have a simple 2 part question about your exposure; A. Was the final exposure actually underexposed, ie. dark looking on screen and ‘brought up’ in post? 2. For static architecture, are your long exposures mostly used to eliminate tourists walking about or is there another, more ethereal photographic benefit to them?
    Thanks Cole. Your blog is a new destination point for me.
    Bob Estremera

  9. Thank you Bob.

    My use of a long exposure in this image was to create the “ghost” in the image. But it can be used to eliminate people as you suggested or to create great cloud effects which can be used to seperate the building from the background.

    This image was under exposed by about a stop and then further darkened in processing.

  10. If I understood well:
    “Above is one of my latest images from England; the Old Wardour Castle. While it appears to have been shot at night, it was a 30 second daytime exposure. The key is that I knew in advance what I wanted the image to look like and this vision was realized by underexposing the image and then extensively dodging and burning it to create a night-like scene.”…then you dont’t follow the “up-to-right” histogram I mean you don’t meter to a white zone with texture and go up two steps. You meter a white with texture and go back two steps (or more) the histogram. In theory you loose lot of bits of information. Am I right? or, meavy, you play with the ISO number?

  11. Osselin, my techniques are very simple. I use the in-camera meter and using manual mode, I expose -1 stop or sometimes even -2. My in-camera histogram is very heavily weighted to the left and my highlights are nowhere near the right.

    Then I dodge up my highlights in Photoshop.

    These are all shot at ISO 100 and I am using 13 stops of Neutral Density. So I do not mess with the ISO.

    I am losing a lot of info, in the shadows, but my images rarely have shadow info by my own design.


  12. Many thanks for your faster answer. Excuse my ignorance, when you say 13 stops of Neutral densitiy you mean that you place a serie of filters on the lens until you arrive to +13? Or you mean that your camera has a “latitude” on ACR of 13 steps?
    When you shot at 30″ which aperture corresponded,please?
    Many thsnks for your kindness.I hope that I don’t disturb you with my questions and excuse my English, I’m from Barcelona (Spain).
    I’m very interested in your method cause I have read lots of books on B&W and I have studied some B&W workshops in Spain but I never found anyone wirh a method so original, beautiful , simple and effective than yours. My congratulations for this fact.

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