How To Edit Black And White - Stephen Jennings Photography

How To Edit Black And White

Black And White... It's What I Do...

I love black and white photography, there's just .. something about it? I find it conveys emotion better, it isolates my subjects better, it's more interesting and pleasing to look at, and honestly I think I'm pretty good at it.

You might think that editing black and white is the same as editing a color photograph. Well, it is and it isn't. There's a few differences. For starters, instead of editing saturation, vibrance, hue, etc you focus on Luminosity. Luminosity is the brightness, or strength, of a particular color channel. 

For instance, if I increase the luminosity of Red, red throughout the photo will become brighter, or whiter, and if I decrease they become darker. That can come in handy for inreaseing the brightness of skin, lips, clothing, etc; it helps form a more dynamic photo.

The second big difference is the reliance on contrast; you need powerful solid black and bright whites to to create  a truly interesting black and white photo. 

Below you'll see my tutorial on editing a black and white portrait. The tools I use will be a Macbook Pro for editing, with a Waccom Intuos Pro 4 for editing/painting, Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC. The camera and lens: Nikon d800 with a 85mm f/1.8 lens.

Let's Get Started... 

The photo we will be using is to the left, a portrait of the lovely Alexandra. You can see that it's a wee bit crooked (I could list a thousand excuses as to why, but really, it was just a photographer fail) but otherwise well exposed and the focus right on the eyes; nice and sharp image with lovely bokeh and shallow DOF.

The camera settings: d800, iso 100, 1/125s, f/2.0 with an 85mm prime lens.

First we have the photo imported into Lightroom, and we will straighten the photo. One of the biggest rules for composition is placing eyes on a line of Rule of Thirds, well I want to keep a bit of her shirt in the photo so I won't be too concerned about being right on the line. I want the eyes centered and level, with a close approximate of the top line of thirds. With the eyes slightly above the line it will add to a more dramatic and "strong" appearance for the final product - breaking the rules of composition is perfectly acceptable!

Next We Convert...

Convert the photo to black and white using the "B & W" Mix panel where you would normally edit colors. You'll see the photo change to monochrome, and see the channel mixers under this panel that will be used to tweak some of the photos appearances. Already you see given her fair complexion the eyes are the focal point, as if the entire photo exists for the sole purpose of highlighting her eyes. 

Then We Mix...

Once converted, we adjust the Mixer, we will adjust the various luminosity levels of these color channels.

Red: I drop red specifically for her lips, to make them a little more contrasted.
Orange: I bump orange up a bit to brighten her skin and her hair overall, it brightens the photo considerably. 
Yellow: Dropped slightly for contrast with orange
Green: Dropped a bit to darken the background, in order to separate her from the trees better. 
Aqua: With colors like this I slide all the way down, all the way up to visually see what it effects.. in this case, nothing, so it doesn't matter what you do with it.
Blue: Dropped to darken her shirt and eyes.
Purple: upped to brighten her dress and patterns.
Magenta: Upped to keep the patterns bright.

The Eyes...

I edit eyes in lightroom .. I've never seen a reason to use Photoshop, mostly because I hate over processed eyes. That's not to say I don't process eyes in my photos, I just try my hardest to make them pull you in .. without looking at them and thinking "fake." I don't do any liquifying or dramatic modifcations, just playing with contrast and brightness here.

Firs thing I do is increase "clarity" which adds micro contrasting to the eyes, don't overdo it though! the amount I use depends on the photo, in this case it was a little stronger. I then counter the effect of Clarity by upping whites, drop blacks and tiny bit of contrast. This mixture of effects will create a more contrasty eye, hopefully without being too dark nor too bright and thus looking fake. An important step: Make sure you edit both eyes the same! use one adjustment brush for both eyes.

Catch Lights...

Using another adjustment brush make "half moon" shapes at the bottom of the iris and up Whites to create a natural looking glow to the eyes.

Lastly using a third adjustment highlight the dark portion of the Iris around each eyes and up Blacks to bring out that ring (called a Limbal Ring .. fun fact for the day!) Again, make sure you don't over do it and make your subject look weird.

Sclera And Contrasty Eyes...

Last bit for the eyes... Sclera. That's the white part of the eye and one of the easiest to go overboard on. I upped Whites by 22, it's enough to make the eyes bright but not glowing robot bright. I take another brush and brush in contrast around the the outside of the eye lids, just a little bit. Then using another brush I brush in -31 black to the very inside up portion of the bottom eye lids, this helps contrast the eyes a bit.

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