Back in 2018 I took a week-long photography workshop (“The Soul of a Photograph“) at Santa Fe Workshops led by Christopher Michel. Along with a dozen other photographers, we explored many aspects of creating images with impact while out and about in some of the beautiful venues in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It was a wonderful week with a great teacher who is famous for his beautiful and prolific work.
For most of the week I was teamed up with Cira Crowell, another great photographer who lives in Santa Fe. We had a great time together working on our images – including a particularly great day working with a few models at Eaves Movie Ranch outside of Santa Fe.
The following year Cira taught a new course in Santa Fe titled The Language of Black and White which I was also able to attend. Cira is passionate about the power of black and white imagery and she built her course on some of the earlier work and teachings of George DeWolfe who had also taught at Santa Fe Workshops. Coincidentally, I had met George on a visit to Havana in 2013 and had several wonderful chats with him over buffet breakfast at our hotel that week in Havana. Note: Cira is planning to teach another section of this course in July 2021 in Santa Fe.
Taking Cira’s course in Santa Fe opened my eyes to exploring new techniques to apply black and white processing to my images – in particular how to add depth to my images so that they take on more of a three dimensional look even though they’re just two dimensional by nature. I shared some of my thoughts about the course on our local InMenlo blog. One of the exercises involved taking one of the color paintings of a great master and converting it to black and white – while adding depth.
This month I started an online version of Cira’s course as a follow-up to the in-person workshop I took two years ago. While being together in a classroom seems ideal, an online workshop comes pretty close in terms of providing the vehicle for teaching and understanding. And it’s a necessary approach in this pandemic era where our travel opportunities are so severely restricted. What falls away with the online approach are the social dynamics of being together – an important aspect to the workshops held in Santa Fe.
In the workshop, we’ve been exploring post-processing in Lightroom – converting a color image to black and white – and using some of the tools available to move beyond just the default conversion from color to black and white. Below is an example – a simple color photograph of an orange on a countertop being converted to several different versions of black and white.
One of the important lessons in this process is understanding the difference between the values in an image versus the tones in an image. Different tones can result in the same values – creating some unusual situations such as red converting to the same tone as green, for example. If you have a red subject on a green foliage background, for example, the subject will almost disappear into the background.
This can be visualized by looking at these two images that depict the luminance values vs the color tones. You’ll notice that the reds and the greens have very similar grey tones while the yellows are much brighter grey and the blues are much darker greys.
Learning the language of black and white is all about learning how to translate these hues into greys so that the image of an image is enhanced.
When converting a color photo to black and white in Lightroom Classic, the color sliders can be used to change the tonal values of the different colors. You can actually adjust the colors first in color before converting to black and white and then take the image through a quick round trip through Photoshop to preserve your color edits before then converting to black and white and editing further. This technique provides the most control over the translation from hue to tone in the greyscale image.
A final round trip through Photoshop can also be used to add depth to the grayscale image. In Photoshop duplicate the background layer and change the blend mode to Soft Light. Adjust the opacity to a low value – say 15% as a starting point. If need be you can add a layer mask and control more precisely where the effect is applied. If you want even more you can duplicate the layer again and see how that works. Then save the image back to Lightroom Classic for any final edits.
And remember, black and white isn’t “plan b” – it’s an intentional approach to creating classic, more timeless looking images.