Digital Black and White Workflow - Last revised: 9/30/2005

Well, I'm back to shooting film. But here's the workflow I was using when I was shooting digital:

Here is the workflow I currently use for digital input to black and white digital output. It is not quite the same if the image originates with black and white film.

SHOOTING

I'm currently using the Canon 20D. It may be something else by the time you read this but shooting is always done in RAW mode. I don't think it's necessary here to get into the pros and cons of RAW vs. JPG shooting.

Although the Canon 20D can show you black and white images for RAW mode, I don't use that capability. It has no effect on RAW file, and I actually like to see the shot in color first.

For spontaneous shooting, I shoot at 1/3 or 2/3's underexposed. With the 20D custom function 4, metering and focus are detached from each other. You can do the same thing with the AE lock button, but I generally prefer to pre-focus and meter separately.

Even with the underexposure, I'm pretty careful to meter for the highlights. All of this goes to the fact that I find you need to be very careful not to overexpose highlights (and this is exactly the opposite of film where you want to make sure not to lose the shadows) and in both cases, the caveat is: unless you want to. If you've clipped important highlights in all three channels - you cannot get them back. They haven't been recorded. On the other hand, the closer you can get the highlights to the right side of the histogram - without clipping, the better.

But exposure is an artistic decision. If you are photographing a car approaching at night and you want to expose for the headlights, then the rest of the capture is going to be pretty thin. As a general rule, I find it best to expose for the highlights, but not to have them in the middle of the histogram as the camera may want to do. You simply want to capture as much data as you can so it is best to simply try to keep the highlights from falling (clipping) off either side of the histogram.

Once you've got all the data, there are many methods for expanding the dynamic range in Photoshop.

TRANSFER OF FILES

CF card into card reader. Files are COPIED (not cut and pasted) to a folder for that day on the hard drive. I organize the captures by day because later it is easier to do a backup onto DVD by day. I can't organize anything by subject since on any particular day I may have all sorts of subjects.

After the files are transferred, I run a job in NERO BACKITUP and any new or changed files are copied to an external hard drive. Files are still not erased from the CF card unless I am going out to shoot again. So at this point the RAW files are in three different places.

At some point, during the week, I will do a series of DVD backups by day.

The same NERO BACKITUP job is set to run once a day, so anything I may have worked on during that day goes to a second hard drive.

Coming from the film world, the backup process is worth mentioning because of the obvious reason that your RAW file is your negative.

Digital RAW CONVERSION

I'm using CAPTURE ONE to do most of the RAW conversions. One of the things I like about it is that you can click a grayscale button and quickly get an idea of what is going to be interesting in black and white. However, the conversion is still done in 16-bit color. Some minor corrections to color balance and exposure are made, and - this is important for my workflow - color saturation is increased. At this point, I'm still trying to preserve data during the conversion so that if I want to I can adjust it later in Photoshop.

The reason for doing the conversion in color is twofold:

1 - Masking and layer blending in Photoshop is easier with a color file than with a monochrome file.

2 - When the file goes into Power Retouche Black and White Studio, there are controls that allow you to add / remove color filters. These are handy to, for example, lighten skin tones, or darken a too bright sky. It is a similar effect to placing filters on the lens - but not exactly the same.

CAPTURE ONE is multi-threaded, meaning you can go on to some other task while it is processing selected images in batch mode.

No sharpening has been applied yet.

INTO PHOTOSHOP (The First Time)

Everything so far has been done at 240 dpi, and at the original size. No sharpening. No resizing. If the file is going to need masking, that is done at this point as selection is much easier to do while you are still in color.

POWER RETOUCHE, Black and White Studio

Another useful plug-in.

At this point I'm working on the converted TIFF file. Power Retouch is a "destructive" adjustment. Once you begin to fiddle around with the controls, you are removing data from the capture. You can always go back to the original RAW file and start again.

It has settings to emulate the wavelength sensitivity of various films as well as many other useful features for converting to black and white. There are other ways to get to black and white, including layer blending, channel mixing, etc. but Power Retouche gives the most control.

So now we have a 16-bit, black and white rendition (though still in RGB mode). Saved and then into:

GRAIN SURGERY

Yes, another plug-in. Digital images are just a bit too smooth for my taste. One of the best features of Grain Surgery is the ability to sample film and then apply it to the image. In my case, I have sampled HP5 PLUS developed in HC110B. The sample is really just a grain pattern, and you can make adjustments such as:

Size of the grain
Intensity of the grain
How the grain should be blended
How the grain should appear in shadows, mid-tones, highlights
And a lot more.

It also has an excellent noise-removal program that I use when I've been shooting at ISO 1600.

File is saved and then...

BACK INTO PHOTOSHOP

So here you are doing your final adjustments before going to print. Cropping. Size changes. Any additional layer adjustments etc. The file is saved at the correct print size and then sharpening is applied for print. The file is converted to 16-bit grayscale.

EPSON 4800

I'm currently using the Epson 4800 for output with Ilford Smooth Pearl paper. There are reviews of the printer everywhere - so I'm not going to put that here. But for black and white printing, one word: fabulous. Bronzing is no longer an issue. Gloss differential is next to nothing, though that depends on the image, the paper, and how the image is "processed" in Photoshop.

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