September 16, 2009

Secret Tools and Techniques for Great Black and White Images


Have you heard about the many tools designed to give you great black and white images? There are special b&w conversion programs, plugins to make your images look like a specific type of b&w film, monochrome ink sets, custom print profiles, hi-tech monitor calibrators and more.

Are all of these necessary to produce a great print? I don’t know, but I don’t use them.  My philosophy is “keep it simple” and for me, these tools are just expensive distractions that might make a 2% difference in the look of my image, but it takes the focus off of the 98%, the things that really matter.

Here are the secret tools and techniques that I use to create a great b&w image:

1.     Start with the right shot. Certain images tend to lend themselves to b&w more than others and I look for subjects with great blacks and contrast opportunities.

2.     Shoot in RAW and B&W mode. This will allow you to see the image on the camera display in b&w (making visualization easier) but the RAW image will still be in color, allowing you to convert it how you like.

3.     Do as much in the RAW conversion process as possible.

4.     Convert to b&w in Photoshop using the B&W Conversion tool (never desaturate or simply remove the color). Play with the color sliders to see how each will change the image and produce better contrasts. These sliders are like adding color filters to the lens, but after the fact and can make a dramatic difference in the image.

5.     Don’t overuse the global controls. I try to avoid them whenever possible because they apply the effect to the entire image instead of selectively. I use dodging and burning as my primary tool, which allows me to change the image just where it is needed.

6.     When dodging and burning, work slowly! I typically set the dodge/burn tool exposure to 1-3% and hardness to 0. Then I work very very slowly and let the effect build.

7.     Use a pen and tablet to dodge and burn. The pen gives you precise control and the tablet is pressure sensitive. A mouse cannot do a good job of dodging and burning like a pen and tablet can. And purchase the largest tablet you can afford, once you learn how to use it, you will become addicted and it will become your primary processing tool.

8.     Use a decent printer.  Like cameras, there are many good printers but I love the Epson series with their wonderful K3 inks, and the included “b&w print mode” gives fantastic results.

9.     Use a good paper, but be careful not to get caught up in the search for the “perfect paper.”  I have friends who have been searching for years and the truth is that there are many wonderful papers out there that will server you well.  I personally use Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308 and Epson Exhibition Fiber.


Let me oversimplify and summarize it this way; I produce my prints with a copy of Photoshop l, a pen and tablet and an Epson printer, and that’s about it.  You don’t need complicated or expensive extras to create stunning black and white prints.

Now I’m not saying those extras cannot improve your prints, I’m just suggesting that the time to experiment with the extras is after you’ve produced the best print you can with the basic tools and can go no further.  Until then, that 2% extra improvement will just be an expensive distraction.

This is just my opinion of course, and there are many who might disagree, but I’ll let my images speak for themselves.


12 thoughts on “Secret Tools and Techniques for Great Black and White Images

  1. Hi Cole. Thanks for that explanation. It is always helpful to know how work that you admire is produced. Having studied your images on your website on my screen I would love to see how one looked in print. Because I live in New Zealand I would be happy to pay for the postage. I think you have my address from my subscription to your newletters.
    Kind regards,
    John Suckling

  2. Thank Cole! I will be passing on this post to my students. While I teach them the hand-coloring part, making the best black and white print to color on is so important. I cover it in the class but I love the way you have presented it here. I use very similar techniques to make my black and white prints and have felt in the past I wasn’t doing “enough”. I use the advanced B&W setting on my epson 3800, set it to a warmish tone and love the way it turns out. Thanks again!

  3. Hi Cole: The points you present here are a reminder, that we must keep our post process simple. Taking the time to learn the few points you have listed, over time one will develop their own unique style. Thanks Jeff

  4. Dianne, it’s easy to think we are not doing something right when we see how others do it. For me, the result is the only thing that matters.

    I just think the Epson printer and the advanced black and white more software is fantastic!


  5. Jeff, I agree. I think that getting too involved with the technical is a real distraction. The search for perfection becomes the holy grail, and of course there is no perfection nor holy grail.


  6. Hi Jeff,

    Would love to see a print if there are any left. Let me know if you need my address under separate cover. Also, any chance you’ll be able to describe your masking technique in the near future?

    Thanks, Bob

  7. Thank you so much for this! After all the dinking around and sensory overload with “fancy schmancy” programs, keep it simple really appeals to me!

  8. I love those BW images that show deep blacks and whitest whites ~ those are the ones that really sing. Too many BW’s are the compilation of several shades of the mid range between the two and oh,how those images cry out for help. I think that it’s all about the contrasts…

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  11. Just a note on your #4 above: While it is true what you say about global modifications, you can make selections based on highlights, midtones, shadows or shapes and then apply Levels, Curves, etc. just to those isolated areas. That can also make a dramatic difference without making change to the whole images.

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