Video: A B&W workflow tutorial

After the series of articles on color and B&W – and of course the M-Monochrom review – I got a huge number of emails asking about my workflow for B&W conversion. I originally tried to put this post into a conventional text and image format, but gave up shortly after I realized it would be impossible. Instead, have a video! I don’t claim to be any good at video production (forays into this are are another topic for another day), but I think this should give you a good idea of how it all comes together. Excuse the lousy sound, that bit I still haven’t quite gotten figured out yet. I suppose I need some collar mics or something – the equipment buying never ends…

Anyway, enjoy the video. MT



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Black and white conversion options

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Water drops. Nikon D3100, 60/2.8 G.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails after the Leica X2 and M-Monochrom reviews asking about B&W conversion and processing; I guess the M-Monochrom announcement had a knock on effect on the way people started seeing things. It doesn’t make color cameras redundant for B&W work, though.

Let’s start by demystifying two things.

1. Certain cameras have certain particular B&W characteristics. True, but only if you use JPEG. If you are shooting RAW, they provide different starting points – this is from a tonal response point of view – but ultimately you can get a consistent look regardless of the camera. I know, because I do this all the time.

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Singapore. Fuji X100

2. There are benefits to a monochrome-only camera. True. The Bayer filter and subsequent conversion is an interpolation of neighboring pixel image data to extract color information; luminance information is lifted from the photosite. Any sort of interpolation will reduce tonal accuracy and increase noise, because the luminance value you’ve got is now an approximation instead of a true value. However, it’s fairly easy to see that whilst there are benefits to shooting monochrome-only, you can actually convert a color RAW file into a monochrome one, and lower the perceived amount of noise – though not to as low a level as a monochrome-only camera. If you have a poor interpolation method, then the luminance values can be affected too – once again, increasing the perception of pixel-level image noise in a color image. Bottom line: yes, lower noise, and yes, better detail.

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Trees. Leica M9-P, 21/3.4 ASPH.

Also one of the images available in my print offer.

However, what you lose from a monochrome-camera is the ability to do control the relative luminance level of individual color channels. Why is this important? Suppose your color scene has a relatively small range of background tonal values, but your subject is a very different color. Its luminance may be the same as the background, but it stands out because of the difference in color. As we concluded in a previous article, this kind of image is a very bad candidate for B&W conversion off the bat, because you’d land up with something very flat-looking. (Real life translation: running out and buying an M-Monochrom isn’t going to solve your B&W conversion woes, but it will give you an interesting starting base – especially when it comes to noise and dynamic range. Those of you who don’t mind doing a bit of work, hold on to your normal cameras. And in fact, these techniques apply to the M-Monochrom too.)

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Noryn Aziz in the spotlight. Nikon D700, 24-70/2.8

Actually, if you’re prepared to do some work, this not necessarily the case. It’s still possible to separate the subject from the background on the basis of luminance only; you just need to work a bit harder. You’ve even got a few options here. Park that thought for a moment, we have to introduce the basics of B&W conversion first.

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Shadows. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

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A sample image for the purposes of demonstration for this article. This is the original file, converted from RAW, with all of the sliders set to zero. Olympus OM-D, 45/1.8.

The simplest method is to desaturate. All this does is throw out color information, and leave luminance information only. You are then free to do whatever you wish to complete processing of the file. After much investigation and experimentation, this is actually the method I use, coupled with another trick or two. Desaturation can be done in ACR (saturation slider, first tab) or in Photoshop (Hue/Saturation tool, then desaturate the master)

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Straight desaturation. Note overall lack of contrast.

Slightly more complicated is the gradient map. You can use the standard linear black to white transition (press D in photoshop first, then add a new gradient map adjustment layer) – which gives very similar, but not quite the same, results as desaturation. Gradient maps with a straight gradient tend to be a bit more contrasty than desaturation. If you want to experiment a bit, it’s actually possible to put in intermediate control points into the gradient and bias it towards a high key (mostly white, black fades out faster) or low key (black stays for longer) look. What actually works here will depend on your image, however, so be prepared to do some fiddling. The good news is that if you use a new adjustment layer, the gradient is easily modifiable without having to redo your entire conversion.

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Gradient map, linear gradient. Note increased contrast over the straight desaturation.

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Gradient map, low key gradient (mostly black)

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Gradient map, high key gradient (mostly white)

Finally, we’ve got the channel mixer. Best used on the RAW file in ACR, this lets you decide how much of each individual color channel goes into making the final image. Note that the tool only uses the luminance components of each channel, and it’s additive; this means that color (and perceptual color) information is discarded. To make things even more complicated, there’s a separate B&W conversion adjustment layer in Photoshop itself that effectively does the same thing as the ACR conversion, but it only has six channels for you to play with instead of the eight in ACR.

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Channel mixer via ACR, decreased reds; note how the subject (in this case, predominantly in the yellow channel) stands out more from the background.

Remember the conundrum of how to isolate a different colored, but similarly luminous, subject from the background from earlier? The solution to this is the channel mixer. You can increase the luminance of the primary color of your subject, and decrease that of the predominant background color; the converse also works. The problem comes when you’ve got a mixture of colors in both subject and background, and some of those are common colors. (Don’t get carried away though: remember that some images just don’t work in black and white).

This isn’t, the entire toolkit, of course. You’ll find that after this kind of conversion, things look rather flat. That’s because a lot of how the human eye perceives contrast and separation is dependent on differences in hue; obviously we have removed that, so we have to artificially put it back in again. Two of Photoshop’s tools will be your best friends here: the dodge and burn brush, and the curves tool. Understand how both of these things work, what the dos and don’ts are, and you can work magic with any B&W conversion. A tablet is also extremely helpful for these things, as it gives you precision control and feathering over your brush application. It lets you avoid hard edges, odd abrupt transitions, and permits highly precise editing.

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Desaturation with grad blue filter layer in multiply mode (higher density at the bottom of the frame) to darken the bottom red sign

At this point, it’s probably worth talking about plugins and filters. The former are either a set of Photoshop actions, or a separate program, that controls the conversion – specifically the luminance translation of each colour channel into a luminance value – and the tonal map of the final file. Whilst they are extremely popular and used by many ‘internet street photographers’ either to save time or because they are unable to get their desired results from a nuts and bolts conversion, I personally avoid them because they do not give you enough fine control, and even worse, everybody’s images that were run through that filter look the same. There is no personality or skill in that.

Photography is arguably art and very much down to personal taste. If you are 100% happy with the way those results look, great; I’m jealous of the amount of time you’ve saved in your workflow. However, claiming this is art is disingenuous; it’s like finding out Ansel Adams shot BW400CN (a B&W film designed to be run through a C41 color processing machine) and developed it at the local pharmacy – instead of Tri-X or Plus-X, controlling his development time and chemical composition, and then cutting precision masks to dodge and burn portions of his subjects.

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That ‘arty’ high contrast, high grain look. It’s actually what heavily pushed Tri-X used to look like, but how many people actually know that firsthand?

There’s a second type of filer that’s useful, and in either form, it performs a similar function to the channel mixer – it either admits or cuts out light that’s of a certain range of wavelengths. The most common example of this is a physical red filter that goes over the end of your lens; the effect is dark skies, because very little of the blue spectrum passes through the red filter and onto the recording medium. It works with digital too, but you have to remember to adjust exposure accordingly, and obviously not use it in color mode. You can also replicate this effect digitally. Add in a new layer, make it one color, and then select the appropriate blending mode; then only do your B&W conversion. There are interesting results obtainable through this method.

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Final image, desaturation + curves + selective dodge and burn + second round of curves + slight palladium tone layer

If you pull back the B&W conversion layer slightly – assuming you didn’t directly apply the conversion to the image – then it’s also possible to use a color layer to create a toning effect; sepia or platinum is probably the most common. You can even use a graduated fill layer to provide a variable effect; this is especially useful for increasing the density of skies, for instance.

Personally, I prefer to shoot color and then convert to B&W; not because I can’t decide upfront how a scene should be presented, but because there’s a lot of flexibility in how I want to handle the conversion later to highlight certain aspects of my subject, or achieve certain tonal looks.

I’ll go into detail on my personal B&W workflow with an end to end example in a future article. MT

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Some thoughts on storage and backups

What are your images worth to you? And by worth I don’t necessarily mean in a financial sense; how would you feel if your primary hard drive toasted itself and you lost most or all of your images today? What would you do? Personal and family images would be be irrecoverable and gone forever. Your stock library would suddenly cease to exist. No more portfolios. Images that you hadn’t finished editing and obviously not yet delivered to clients…imagine having to ask for a re-shoot.

Clearly, backup is important. Very important. Currently, the weakest link is in the camera at the time of capture: most cameras only have a single card slot, which means only one copy of the image at any one time. Even those that have dual card slots and allow parallel writing (best configured to mirror to give optimal flexibility) create issues when browsing, deleting and otherwise managing files in camera – it isn’t seamless or intuitive, and the limitations of a button driven graphical UI make file handling less straightforward and easy that on a PC. And even if you mirror your files to both cards, if your camera happens to suffer say impact damage or a moisture-induced short, you can probably say goodbye to both cards. Incremental backup to a PC on site either via an Eye-Fi card, WLAN or tethering is an option, but can be time consuming and downright impractical if you’re a photojournalist.

My current workflow is still subject to this limitation:
– I shoot as normal, and backup to a computer as soon as I’m done with the shoot.
– I won’t format the cards until everything is backed up, which means that I have two copies of the files at any time (and yes, I have a lot of cards – SD: 3x32GB, 5x16GB, various odds and ends; CF: 2x16GB, 3x8GB, 3x4GB – it’s a lot considering I’m only dealing with 14MB per RAW file on my sole CF camera (D700).)
– At incremental stages – usually every hour or so when editing – I’ll run a time machine backup of my working machine’s drive, which gives me a third copy of the original files, and a second copy of the edited files.
– Hard drives are kept disconnected from the computer and power supply to prevent any accidental data corruption due to surges, odd software glitches etc.
– Once I’m done with the processing and editing, I make duplicate backups of all files onto a pair of hard drives.
– Time machine the main editing machine again – now I’ve got four copies of the finished files, and five copies of the original files. Still with me?
– I don’t keep the original files on my main editing machine because of space limitations, but I do keep the finished files.
– Now I can format the cards from the shoot – this leaves me with four copies of finished files, and two copies of the originals.
– You want to maximize redundancy and failure-proofing with your backups, so keeping one full set of files off-site is a good idea. It’s also nice because you can easily access your work if you’re not in the office. Both of the backup hard drives and the time machine drive I currently use are 1TB portables; they require no external power supply and are small enough to go anywhere. One stays in my bag, which is almost always with me.
– There’s yet another copy of my portfolio files and critical image files on my travel machine (a Macbook Air) and iPad, making six sets for critical files. I’m fairly confident with this setup that I’ll be able to find an image if I need to, even if two or more drives fail. (And that’s not counting the drives that I’ve archived, which I’ll touch on in a minute.)

Now you’re probably wondering what happens if my backup solutions run out of space – after all, these days 1TB isn’t that much, and the minute you touch video work (a whole new kettle of fish) then the storage requirements multiply exponentially.

Fortunately, the pace of file size increases has also roughly matched then pace of both increases in storage density and processing speed (score one for Moore’s Law). I double the size of the replacement drives I buy – usually one every year and a half to two years or so – and find that gives me enough breathing room. When the new drives are in, I’ll make a fresh copy of all the files (NOT using a cloning tool, because that can also clone over any errors and bad sectors the old drive has – negating some of the advantage of fresh drives) onto my new, larger drives.

I recently had my time machine drive fail; that, culminated with a general lack of space (only 50GB left and plenty of those enormous D800 raw files) made me upgrade to one of these array thingies. I’ve got a WD MyBoook Studio II 6TB array, which is set to RAID 1 (mirroring) and partitioned into a 1TB block for my time machine backups, and a 2TB block for storage. Firewire 800 is thankfully supported, which makes moving huge files around quite painless. I’ll probably add one of the new WD portable 2TB Firewire/ USB3 drives to replace my portable 1TB so I can keep an offsite backup of my work on me (and a handy archive) wherever I go.

Backup is something everybody needs to think about seriously, today. Tomorrow may well be too late – there have been several occasions where I’m glad I was running multiple backups; unluckily I had a Maxtor primary drive and a Maxtor backup drive fail within a day of each other – leaving me with just a single (fortunately non-Maxtor, those things are a disaster) drive. If you can’t afford to lose your images, don’t put it off! MT


I get two questions regularly:

1. “What camera should I buy, or should I buy X or Y?”
2. “I have the same equipment as you. How do you make your images look the way they do? Why can’t I do it?”

I’m not going to address the first question here. As for the second question, there are two answers and one fundamental underlying question: assuming the problem isn’t with your composition, what is it about your workflow that creates that very visible difference in the final image?

Workflow is very important to professionals, because if you’ve got a very high image throughput, then you can take on more work, deliver better quality images to your clients, and at the end of the day, make more money. So it’s in our interests to be as efficient as possible, without sacrificing quality. Good workflow should have the absolute minimum number of steps, be fast and easy to execute, automated to the greatest extent possible (but recognizing that individual images are like children: you have to treat each one differently) and most importantly, be camera independent. The latter requirement is so that you are free to use the best tool for the job without worrying about what to do with the files later. There’s no getting around the fact that different cameras and lenses require different amounts of editing or correction to achieve the desired results; it’s just something that has to be built into your process.

A common misconception is that workflow just covers the post-shoot editing process: it doesn’t. Workflow affects the entire way you execute an assignment, from preparation to final image delivery. What follows is a high level overview of the way I work, and some of the key steps.

1. Prep
– Make a list of equipment you’re going to need.
– Charge batteries, and bring 2x the number you think you’ll need – s*** happens.
– Ensure you have spares: cards, batteries, flashes, bodies, RF calibration spanners…
– Unless you’re shooting a run-and-gun stealth photojournalist assignment, or are going to be carrying your equipment for long periods of time, take everything you think you might need. Better to have it and not use it rather than miss a shot for want of a lens.
– Pack with plenty of time to spare, in case you find you’re missing something or can’t decide which configuration to use – at least you’ve got time to think it over or go out and buy anything critical that’s missing.

2. Shoot
– Turn up early so you can set up (if required) and be relaxed. Nervousness means jumpy hands which means blurred images.
– I always shoot RAW, for maximum latitude later when processing.
– Write-protect your keepers in camera to prevent accidental deletion.
– Shoot bursts where possible, both to get duplicates (insurance) and a choice of material to work with later.

3. First edit
– Delete the ‘obvious fail’ shots in camera when you have downtime – but ONLY when you have downtime. Missing a shot because you were staring at the back of your camera is an amateur’s mistake. I’ll probably dump about 50% of the images at this point.

4. Post-shoot
– Unpack
– Clean equipment – lenses, filters, eyepieces, LCDs etc.
– Recharge any depleted batteries
– Put everything back where it came from, so you can find it again next time.

5. Dump cards
– I will dump all cards to my primary processing machine at this point, and leave the cards unformatted back in the camera – just in case a file gets corrupted or I need the original, I know it’s still there.

6. Backup
– I use a Mac. At this point, I’ll run a time machine backup on my primary processing machine.

7. Second edit
– Delete the images that don’t really work at larger sizes – see my previous article here on editing. I use Adobe Bridge to delete and rate images. Another 50% of the images will go.

8. RAW conversion
– Depending on your machine, figure out how many RAW files you can open before it starts to slow down (use the ‘efficiency’ display in Photoshop; it’s in the bottom left of your image window. 100% means that everything is being loaded to RAM, which is the fastest way of editing). I can open about 15 12MP files in 16 bit before things start to slow down. This means I’ll probably load 20-30, because I also delete some at this point.
– Load bunch of files (20-30) into Camera Raw.
– Make primary exposure adjustments; I will adjust white balance, exposure, shadow/ highlight recovery sliders, vignetting.
– I only crop to aspect ratios that are non-native for my camera. If I’m using a multi-aspect ratio camera like the Leica D-Lux 5, I won’t crop at all.
– I have created a color profile for each camera I use so that I can get consistent color and the same look out of any camera I use, this is applied to the raw file in ACR.
– And same for the tonal response curve.
– Open the files in Photoshop (I’m using CS5.5 Extended now) at maximum quality: 16bit, full resolution.
– B&W conversion: depending on what final look I want, there are many options: gradient map, desaturate, channel mixer…to be the subject of a future article.
– Make curve adjustments – sometimes up to four or five times.
– Any retouching is done at this point – e.g. dust removal for product shots, or color enhancement using brushes and masks. I use a Wacom Intuos4 6×9″ tablet for this, nothing else so far gives me enough fine control.
– Local dodge and burn where applicable.
– Finally, sharpening: do this last, so you don’t land up increasing image noise/ grain. Must be done after curves.
– Convert to 8 bit and desired color space.
– Save final file. I generally use a maximum quality JPEG unless the client demands otherwise; you really can’t tell the difference unless you’re going to do future manipulation on it. (Revisiting old files will be the subject of another future article).
– Optional: do an incremental backup again, if it’s a big conversion job you can’t finish at one sitting, or if each file is time consuming and will take a lot of effort to duplicate.

9. Final edit
– Go through the set again. Keep only the unique, essential images. By the time I’m done, I keep only 1-5% of the initial shoot volume.

10. Portfolio selection
– I keep a portfolio of images for the subjects I commonly shoot; this gets updated after every shoot, especially if I feel there are images that should be added. It’s my aim to have at least one image to add to the portfolio (and replace an old one) from each assignment; this way, I force myself to continually improve.

11. Backup and format
– Dual duplicate sets of images with all raw files to external hard drives, one of which is kept offsite
– Keep finished files only on main processing machine
– Final backup: time machine of main processing machine
– Only now will I format cards. Where possible, I keep at least two copies of the original files – just in case something goes wrong. It’s happened to me in the past, and I’ve been very, very grateful that I did remember to backup. I’ve been doing it religiously ever since, and highly recommend you do the same.

A note on filing: I store images in hierarchal folders by Subject>Event/date>Subset. This allows me to find things easily. I have a separate folder for work on assignment, which is named with something sensible and a date. I don’t like database-based programs for image management like Aperture, because it’s very difficult and unwieldy to manage if you have a lot of images.

12. Delivery
– Send off the images to clients; either over the web, or via DVD.

Now, repeat! MT