As I discussed in my first article in this series, Creating Bold Black and White Landscape Photographs, one of my favorite aspects of black and white photography is the opportunity to depart from reality, especially in terms of emphasizing boldness, drama, and contrast. For my digital black and white photography, photo processing plays a large role in realizing my vision for each scene. In this article, I will share my general approach to processing digital photos in black and white, go over my favorite processing tools, and share two start-to-finish examples.
Processing for this photo was simple - darkening the dark tones, lightening the bright tones, and cleaning up a few small imperfections in the sand. I intentionally processed this photo with a heavy hand toward darkness, which helps the light ridges stand out.
While my color photography stays fairly close to the scene as I experienced it, the final result for my black and white photographs often represents a significant departure from the initial RAW file as you will see in the examples below. I do not intend for my black and white photos to be a representation of a reality that you might experience but instead want them to be a dramatic, bold interpretation of nature.
This photo required many processing steps to balance the exposure, emphasize texture in the tiles, deepen the tones in the cracks, and emphasize the storm in the sky.
Key Photo Processing Tools for Black & White Landscape Photographs
I use basic tools in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop to process all of my digital files. While using presets and formulaic software can be a great learning tool and offers a good place to start to learn photo processing, I have found that making manual adjustments in Lightroom and Photoshop leads to better, more personal results. My most important processing tools include the following:
Whites, blacks, lights, and darks sliders in Lightroom : For less complex photos, these four sliders, plus the Lightroom curve adjustment, offer excellent tools for adjusting tones in black and white photographs. For example, sliding the blacks slider to the left and whites slider to the right will offer a big boost in tonal contrast with two simple steps. If you choose not to use Photoshop for processing black and white photographs, these tools will help you get the best results using Lightroom alone.
The levels and curves tools in Photoshop: These two humble layers do the vast majority of the heavy lifting when I am processing my black and white photos. These layers are helpful for creating both global and local adjustments.
Luminosity mask layers in Photoshop: A luminosity mask can be paired with a levels or curves adjustment layer to very selectively adjust tones within a file. In both examples below, I use a "lights luminosity mask" to adjust only the lightest tones in the photo without affecting the rest of the scene (in the geyser photo, lightening the lightest tones and in the canyon photo, darkening the lightest tones). These masks can also be used to adjust darks and midtones. Since black and white photo processing is all about adjusting tones and contrast, these masks are incredibly useful and versatile. I use Tony Kuyper's TKPanel to quickly generate these masks (if you are just getting started with luminosity masks, Tony's free panel is a good place to start).
Dodging and burning layers in Photoshop: Dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) are traditional darkroom techniques adapted to digital photo processing. In Lightroom or Photoshop, dodging and burning can be done in a lot of different ways. My method is simple. I use the TKPanel to add a dodging or burning layer in Photoshop and then use a low opacity brush (2-4%) to paint white (dodging) or black (burning) over the areas of a photo I want to lighten or darken. This technique is very helpful for emphasizing/de-emphasizing lighting or features within a landscape.
For a photo like this, all of the processing could be completed in Lightroom (adding a vignette, plus darkening dark tones and lightening light tones using the whites, blacks, lights, and darks sliders).
Processing Workflow Overview
The core of black and white photo processing is adjusting tonal contrast and working to emphasize (or de-emphasize) light, mood, landscape features, and composition. My workflow for applying this approach, through the tools described above, can be distilled into the following general steps - all of which are discussed in much more detail, with many examples, in my ebook on black and white nature photography:
1. Goals & Roadmap: Before starting, my most important step is thinking about my goal for the photo and then working through a rough roadmap of how to get to the end result that I envision. In my workflow, this is the hardest and most important step. It requires creative energy and sometimes experimentation to envision the final result, while applying the processing steps is usually easier once you're experienced with the various techniques. This is an iterative process in which I think about my goals for the photo and start moving in that direction with small steps.
2. Initial Steps in Adobe Lightroom: My process starts with a RAW file in Lightroom, where I begin with technical adjustments (like removing chromatic aberration and reducing noise), cropping/leveling, and initial balancing of the exposure (for example, between dark land and a brighter sky).
3. Move Into Adobe Photoshop - Convert to Black & White: Although I could get pretty close to the same final result using only Lightroom for many of my photos, I like the ability to work with layers and use some of Photoshop’s more efficient tools. So, after initial steps in Lightroom, I take the photo into Photoshop and convert it to black and white using the black and white adjustment layer. If darkening or lightening specific colors in the photo will help introduce contrast or get me closer to the final result I envision, I sometimes experiment with the color sliders on the black and white adjustment layer. Often, however, I find that I prefer introducing contrast in other ways (levels, curves, and luminosity masks).
4. Global Adjustments: Once I have converted a photo to black and white, my primary processing steps include adjusting the tones, building up contrast, and emphasizing/de-emphasizing aspects of the photograph. I start with global adjustments (adjustments that are applied to the full photograph). My first step is typically adding a global levels adjustment to set the black and white points and then I make other global adjustments to exposure and contrast as necessary.
5. Local Adjustments: After making global adjustments, I move on to fine-tuning specific areas of the photograph through targeted local adjustments. Here, I typically use levels, curves, and luminosity masks to make changes to luminosity (brightness/darkness) and contrast within specific areas of a photo. I also use various dodging and burning techniques to adjust the lighting, contrast, and mood within specific parts of the scene.
6. Finishing Touches: My final step is typically cleaning up dust spots and adding other finishing touches (slight Orton Effect, selective sharpening, adjusting the texture of clouds, etc). Next, I let the photo sit and return a day or two later, adjusting steps 3 to 6 until I think the photo is finished.
My processing for this photo focused on emphasizing the patterns in each mud tile. The patterns add visual interest so I wanted them to stand out.
Each photo is different and this process is always iterative - I take a few steps forward, assess my progress, and then possibly reverse a decision or two, eventually moving forward in the right direction until I have a finished draft or final version to share.
Depending on the photo, this workflow might take as little as ten minutes with only two to three layers in Photoshop. Other photographs, like the Utah Canyonlands example below, take far more time and require many small adjustments to get to the final result. Other more advanced techniques, like exposure blending or focus stacking, will introduce additional complexity and processing steps, as well. With this overview in mind, I will share how I applied this workflow and the key processing tools in two examples below.
Byzantine - Yellowstone National Park
I took this photograph in Yellowstone National Park last winter. We snowshoed to a nearby geyser basin and passed this area on the way. I found these patterns fascinating, primarily because of the curving lines across the frame and intricate details throughout. I also like that it is impossible to determine the scale of the scene, which helps make the subject more abstract.
As discussed above, I find it helpful to start my processing by envisioning a final result and then thinking about the steps I need to apply to get there. I sometimes do a quick sketch in Lightroom before getting started to make sure that my ideas are heading in the right direction. Applying the processing steps is easier once I know where I want to take a photo.
In this example, my main goal is to significantly expand the tonal range of the file – make the darker tones much darker and the lighter tones much lighter. This expanded tonal range will create a more dramatic, eye-catching rendering of the scene. By darkening the darker areas of the geyser and the water, the delicate lighter ridges will stand out.
The processing for this photo starts with combining six exposures in Helicon Focus, which was necessary to get the subject sharp from front to back (this is called focus stacking). After blending the RAW files in Helicon Focus, I made my initial adjustments in Lightroom, which included basics like removing chromatic aberration and adding a bit of noise reduction. I first processed this photo in color and after viewing the result, I decided that the photo could also work well in black and white.
I have included my Photoshop layers panel below so you can see each step I took to get to the final result (the first adjustments start at the bottom, with the final adjustments at the top). While this looks like quite a few steps, this panel includes both the adjustments for the color file and the conversion to black and white - all of which were necessary to get the the final result. My adjustments fall into two general categories – increasing contrast between the lightest and darkest tones and continuing to brighten the brighter tones, both globally and in a targeted way. I used the black and white adjustment layer, curves, levels, a lights luminosity mask, and a dodge layer, all of which helped me adjust the contrast and tones within the file in different ways.
The first adjustments start at the bottom, with the final adjustments at the top.
This is an example of how my process is iterative, meaning that I like to take a few small steps forward rather than make one dramatic adjustment. In this case, that meant brightening the delicate ridges in multiple ways – adjusting the white point using a levels adjustment (a global adjustment), using a curves adjustment on a lights luminosity mask (a more targeted adjustment), and dodging (or brightening) a few spots that still needed more work (a very tine-tuned local adjustment).
Canyon Strike - Utah
This photo is from a wild day in Utah. Summer monsoonal storms are always invigorating to experience - from afar. From a safe distance, we photographed this thunderstorm moving over Canyonlands National Park. Without a lightning trigger to help, I only caught a few strikes during log exposures, including this double-pronged strike hitting a far away mesa.
Since I took this photo in the afternoon with relatively flat light falling over the landscape, the RAW file looks dull. Still, the scene has the core elements necessary to make an interesting black and white photograph. To start, the clouds offer a lot of texture. The lightning itself is a very small but important element of the frame, as it communicates the intensity of the storm. Finally, the rim of the canyon is much brighter than the rest of the surrounding landscape - a tonal difference that is essential for making this flat light work in terms of depth and contrast. Without the white rim, the canyon would be a mass of dark tones.
My steps for processing this photo focus entirely on building up the tonal contrast - emphasizing the darks and lights to bring drama and boldness to the scene. This means darkening most of the land, brightening the canyon's white rim, emphasizing the lightning strike, enhancing the texture of the clouds, and bringing detail back into the far canyon walls. These processing steps will help emphasize the composition and add structure to the scene.
As you can see in the Photoshop panel below, most of my adjustments focus on small parts of the scene. After balancing the exposure, I start focusing in on the details and make iterative changes towards my goal through these smaller steps. As in the example above, I return to the same steps - like darkening the light tones on the horizon - a few different times. I do this because I find that smaller, less dramatic steps layered upon one another create more nuanced, finely-tuned results compared to one big adjustment. Letting a photo sit can also bring on the need for further adjustments. In this case, I decided that the lightning strike needed more brightening after revisiting my initial processing.
You can follow each of my steps in the Photoshop layers panel below. I use all of the key tools I discussed above for both global and local adjustments. With the label for each layer, you can see how I applied each tool to move the processing forward.
I hope this overview gives you some ideas for processing your own black and white photos in a way that emphasizes drama and boldness. As you can see from the two examples, these steps can help transform a flat file in exciting ways, thus opening up many avenues for creativity. If you have any favorite approaches for processing black and white photographs, please share them in the comments below.
About the author: Sarah Marino is a nature photographer, photography educator, and writer. In addition to photographing grand landscapes, Sarah is best known for her photographs of a diverse range of smaller subjects including intimate landscapes, abstract renditions of natural subjects, and creative portraits of plants and trees. Sarah is the author or co-author of many well-regarded educational resources for nature photographers. Along with her husband, fellow landscape photographer Ron Coscorrosa, Sarah splits her time between a home base in rural southwestern Colorado and living a nomadic life in an Airstream trailer. This mix allows for extensive travel, exploration, and extended stays in some of North America’s most inspiring wild and natural places. Website: www.naturephotoguides.com