Editing color digital into black and white

Long time without a little "how to" post !

I was going thru Flickr today (please, don't upload your entire memory cards on flickr, be selective, you're only has good as your worse pictures), and saw tons of really funny looking digital B&Ws.

Some are obviously meant to be looking in some way, some are very poor attempt to get whatever effect (film? shoot film then). They often are the fruit of very bad underexposure do to people not using the curves on the camera, or often in line with bad strobist work.

First of all, a little irrelevant but worth mentioning: for the price of a SB 900 flash, you can get 2 Elinchrom flash units + pods + umbrellas, 400W each...just saying, if you want to get into strobist stuff, do it well. In that field equipment matters and you need power.

So I'll now assume you want to edit a correctly exposed color shot. Most people desaturate, and that's it. Could work, it's one type of B&W but it's likely not going to work the way you want, since it'd pure luck if it did.

Why that?

Well the reason B&W film works so well is that it never knows what a color is. It gets amounts of light, period. No translation from red to gray. When you make a color shot B&W, with Photoshop, you have to take into account that red and blue, at the same light intensity, don't feel the same. Also it happens that blue is the sky, red is the main component of the skin...so messing up your B&W conversion could be like exposing poorly. With film, you use filters on the lens to cheat that. With digital, good news, you can shoot then think.

Examples in line:
This is the raw file saved as a JPG, no editing.

This is the "portrait" BW setting in photoshop: see how it takes colors into account. The blond hair look nearly darker than the back ground, though it's not at all how you feel when looking at the original file. Maybe this portrait deserves a different treatment? Let's try...

This is the "scenic landscape" settings. Notice that whatever the software and whatever it's called, you can reproduced those setting as they look on the screen shot. In that case blue intensity is much lower, hence the blueish background looks darker than the hair. I find that the model now stands out, shines, the picture has a stronger feel. Let's see if we can push that even further...

 Now I used the Infra red setting, meant to look like it's an actual infrared shot. We got a stronger "Harcourt studio" effect. That's the one I opted for, though I just lowered the gap between green a blue a little to avoid it looking too much like Infra red.

The fact is, you'll never have one preset working for one type of picture: if the background was a red brick wall, it'd be totally different. My point is : try, but go beyond desaturation !

Finally, you might need to play with 2 things: contrast and mid tone contrast. Mid tone contrasts will tend to increase the feeling of depth, 3D in a way.
You know what contrast does.

Good luck with your B&W, this is in no way top level professional stuff, but I believe in receiving a hint then practicing ! This is art, we don't need a manual :)

Feel free to drop a comment if you have questions !

Shot with a Nikon D80, 35mm f2 Nikkor lens, 2 Elinchrom D lite 2 @ 4 flash units.

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