Before and After: Bradford Pear, Blooming in Black and White

From Black & White Photography: The Timeless Art of Monochrome by Michael Freeman:

At the risk of oversimplifying, subtracting colour from imagery allows the other graphic elements and dynamics to increase in importance….

Colour is so integral to our experience of the world, and of imagery, that most people (and most photographers) do not separate it in their mind’s eye from everything else that is going on. In order to understand what happens when we take it away and work in monochrome, we need to know how it fits in to the total range of image qualities; also, how it differs from the other elements in its effect. [Colour] elicits subjective and emotional responses in a way that other image qualities do not…. The subjective response to colour is powerful and pervasive, and as a result, takes over viewer response to many photographs. If the colour component in an image is strong, rich, unusual, or simply noticeable, there is a good chance that it will swamp the attention….

And because colour triggers emotional responses, there is also usually an unquestioned assumption that it works on a scale of beauty, or at least attractiveness. To say “what a spectacular sunset”, or “look at how blue the water is”, or “that gray really sets off the pink”, or any of the many other common value judgments on colour, is to acknowledge that the effect of colour can be likeable — and for most people should be likeable. This gut reaction to colour is by far the most common, and in this way it stands apart from the other formal graphic elements….

There are a number of ways of subdividing the graphic components of an image, but the most generally accepted are: point, line, shape, texture, and colour. In the way that these are used and interact, there is contrast, balance, and dynamics (or vectors). Subtracting colour enhances those remaining. In practice, this means that the components and qualities most affected are the graphic ones of shape, the graphic structure of the image, and the gradation along the gray tonal scale, as well as the three-dimensional ones of volume and texture.

One Wordless Wednesday back in January, I processed and posted a series of color photos of a vintage camera; then a couple of days later, converted the images to black and white and wrote about the workflow I used. That was my first attempt at color to black-and-white conversion with Lightroom or the Nik Collection, and it was fairly easy to get the results I wanted since the color images leaned toward monochrome and the primary subject was mostly black and silver.

After posting some photos of a Bradford Pear blooming in front of my house on last week’s Wordless Wednesday, I wondered how those multi-colored images would look if I turned them into black-and-white. The budding blooms are a key image element and they vary from light green to bright white, depending on how much the blooms had opened. I wanted to see if I could create black-and-white versions that emphasized the opening blossoms, reducing — but not eliminating — background elements that provided additional context (spring!) to the images. My goal was to elevate the quality of the photos by making the blooms, regardless of whether they were opened or not, “pop” out of the image in shiny bright white.

All of my adjustments to create these images were completed in Lightroom; this time, I didn’t use any Nik Collection filters at all. I’ve been trying to better understand where the two tools overlap, when to choose one over the other, and when to use both. For these images, I converted to black and white in Lightroom — which created the flat-looking versions you can see in the middle column of the second gallery below — then made basic image adjustments (to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks) to emphasize the blossoms and fade the backgrounds. I then worked through the individual color channels in Lightroom’s Black and White Mix panel to balance the blacks, grays, and whites in each image, mostly by adjusting green, yellow, and red channels to create that balance.

I also applied quite a bit of sharpening to the images, which, surprisingly, didn’t create any apparent distortion but helped bring out the textures, patterns, and highlights of the individual blooms — probably because the sharpening tool mainly had whites and light grays to work with. As a final step I experimented with split-toning — a Lightroom tool I haven’t used very much but want to learn more about. For these photos, I used split-toning to shift gray in the shadows from a warm to slightly cooler color, which provided the silver-white brightness I was looking for when I started this workflow.

Select the first image to view larger versions; then, if you are interested, take a look at the second gallery showing the transitions.

Below are three steps in the transition of these photos from color to black and white. The first column shows the processed color image from my original blog post; the second column shows the color image after conversion to black and white but with no other adjustments; and the last column shows the final version, with adjustments to exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks, the individual color channels, sharpening, and split-toning.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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Before and After: Tiny Bubbles

Every now and then I like to prowl around in my photo archives to see if there are some images I’ve forgotten about that capture my imagination, freshly. The photos I posted on Wordless Wednesday last week (Wordless Wednesday: Five Found Flower Photos) came from one of those prowling expeditions, when I discovered a folder containing about 200 photos that — despite all the photo rework I had done for my Flickr Reboot project — I had overlooked. They were all taken nearly a decade ago, one fine spring day, when many of the flowers were in bloom, and include bee balm, butterfly bushes, coneflowers, hibiscus, lantana, and mandevilla. I’m working through them all now, and will upload a few galleries throughout the week, but I finished this set of lantana blossoms that all had tiny bubbles in common, and decided to post them now.

I think these are photos of Mozelle Lantana — though I’m not entirely sure. I’ve grown many lantana varieties, some perennial, some annual, and some that were technically annual but came back for a couple of years anyway. If I could tell from the photos where on my property they were taken, I’d know for sure; but, as you can see, there is no defining background detail so I’m guessing the plant’s name based on the variety of colors in the blooms. I had just watered the garden, and when I noticed how the water droplets attached to the flowers as little glassy bubbles, I abandoned my gardening chores and brought out the camera instead.

The first gallery shows the final versions of these eleven images, after processing them through Adobe Lightroom and the Nik Collection. Select any image to see larger versions; and if you would like to read more about how the photos were processed, scroll down.

The second gallery shows the before-and-after versions of the eleven images above. I like to write these before-and-after posts (which are now assigned to their own category on this site) to help me think about what I’m doing with image processing and give me practice explaining it. One of the key things I’ve learned from all this practice, though, is this: subtle changes can improve a photo as much as drastic ones, but the cumulative effect of a set of subtle changes can be pretty dramatic.

Cropping and straightening are the first two things I do to every image in a set I’m working on, to set the images to 16×9 aspect ratio if I didn’t take them that way in the camera. Once that’s done, I use Lightroom’s automatic tone adjustments, letting Lightroom adjust exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. I then apply the same level of sharpening and noise reduction to every photo.

These initial adjustments establish a starting point for the rest of my workflow in Lightroom and the Nik Collection. After completing them, I refine Lightroom’s automatic adjustments, typically reducing exposure slightly if it looks like Lightroom has over-exposed the images. With these photos, I also darkened both shadow levels and blacks, which emphasized color in the flowers without adding saturation or luminance.

Since it was High Pollen Season in Atlanta when I took these photos, the before images show a yellow cast from the pollen dust as well as artifacts that collected on the camera lens and the flowers — which present as dark dashes (if on the lens), black spots (if in the shadows) or white spots (tiny-bright “light catchers” from the sun). I removed some of the yellow color cast by adjusting white balance to a cooler (more blue) setting, then used spot removal to clean up the artifacts and dust. As a final step in Lightroom, I adjusted the sharpening mask, which has the effect of applying more sharpening to the image foreground and less to the background, reducing the appearance of background noise. In Lightroom, you can press the right-slash (/) key to compare the before and after versions of any photo you’re working on, so I used that to perform a quick visual check on each one, to make sure I hadn’t strayed too far from the original image with my adjustments. Then I selected each image for processing with Nik Collection’s Color Efex Pro.

From all my practice with Color Efex Pro, I’ve settled on a handful of filters that I apply to photos when I’m trying to enhance realism but not necessarily add creative effects. To make the process more efficient, I have a recipe set up in Color Efex Pro to apply the effects to each photo simultaneously, then work through them to adjust settings on individual photos:

  • White Neutralizer, which brightens whites without altering any of the other colors.
  • Brilliance/Warmth, which increases saturation and has a setting called “perceptual saturation” that enhances the three-dimensional or depth-perception character of the image.
  • Tonal Contrast, which I use to soften backgrounds if I want to further reduce background detail beyond Lightroom adjustments; or Pro Contrast, if I want contrast adjustments but want to retain background detail.
  • Darken/Lighten Center, which I use to shift visual focus to a specific area of the image and create additional background shadowing.
  • Remove Color Cast, to remove any color cast that has been created by the other adjustments — which, for these photos, consisted of ridding the photos of too much yellow or green shading.

That’s it! Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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Before and After: Soft Steel

From The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran:

“[If] art is about realism, why even create the images? Why not just walk around looking at things around you? Most people recognize that the purpose of art is not to create a realistic replica of something but the exact opposite: It is to deliberately distort, exaggerate — even transcend — realism in order to achieve certain pleasing effects in the viewer. And the more effectively you do this, the bigger the aesthetic jolt.”

From Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images by David duChemin:

“Stories move forward through conflict, but photographs — limited to one frame, one moment in time, and no possibility of a character arc — move forward and imply story through contrast. Contrast in photographs occurs in two significantly different ways. The first is visual contrast. A high-contrast black and white image is one in which the extremes — the blacks and whites — are strong and prominent, and what lies in between — the midtones — are fewer. With color images, that contrast occurs between colors at opposite ends of the color wheel — blue and yellow, for example. Similarly, conceptual contrast is about the extremes of ideas, and the point at which they clash. Both can be called contrast, but to distinguish them I will call the difference in tones and colors contrast and the difference in concepts juxtaposition.

“Contrast, a strong difference in tones or colors, is what pulls the eye. Our eyes function on contrast and look for areas where those contrasts are the strongest. Even perceived sharpness in images is a function of stronger contrast. Where there is a slower gradation of contrast, i.e., blacks slowly turn to gray and then white, the eye sees it, in a photograph, as less sharp. In color, as in black and white, contrast pulls the eye, and that pull will be read as intentional…. Awareness of the visual pull of contrast allows us to orchestrate the image in the most intentional way possible, pulling the eye to key areas with greater contrast and pushing the eye away from areas with lower contrast….

Juxtaposition also draws the eye, but it has more to do with engaging the mind as it’s less a contrast of visual elements and more a contrast of concepts. Where tonal contrast is about the difference between blacks and white, juxtaposition — or conceptual contrast — is about the differences between ideas…. Why this matters is the same reason tonal contrast matters: we pay attention to it…. The contrast draws our attention.”

A couple of nights ago I had a dream that Wordless Wednesday was a real thing in the real world, not just a blogging meme on the internet. On Wordless Wednesday in the real world, people stopped talking for twenty-four hours once a week. Interactions among humans were done without spoken words: everything from going to the bank to meetings at work to running errands took place with hand signals, writing notes, and showing each other pictures. Phone calls were out; text messages with emojis were in, bigly. Wordless Wednesday had evolved into a cultural practice that — in the backstory of a dream — was simply accepted, like so many norms, as the way things were done.

You never really know what precipitates certain dreams, but they often seem to arise from intense mental experiences. Maybe I’ve spent too much time on the blog lately, which could be true since over the past couple of weeks, I put in quite a few long hours prepping this site before migrating followers from WordPress.com. Or it may be from a subconscious current that started flowing as I was reading the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness — which I loved and tore through all 1,300 pages earlier this month — where the characters (humans and animals) can hear each others thoughts, communicating words, images, and events without speaking aloud. The capability is called Noise — a term that in itself creates an interesting juxtaposition (opposites and contrasts!) since it occurs in the mind and not in the auditory physical world. As the novels progress, and the characters develop their Noise capabilities, they shift more and more from using words in their thoughts to communicating in images … so just imagine the Wordless Wednesday possibilities….

The images I posted on Wednesday were taken some time ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where a series of large leaves crafted out of steel are attached to the wall of the visitor’s entrance. These photos are among many still lurking in my archives that I’ve not previously done any work on, potential candidates for deletion that I come back to now and then to see what I can create. The original images always bugged me because they were under-exposed and certain background elements seemed intrusive or badly colored and once upon a time I didn’t know what to do about that.

Here are the original images (click one to see larger versions in a slideshow):


Other than the generally mushy backgrounds, the upper left corners of the images in the second column needed attention; but I couldn’t crop those elements and shadows out of the picture without clipping too much from the main subjects. So as a first step I used spot-removal in Lightroom with some carefully-adjusted feathering to blend the colors and shadows in those corners out of existence. I also spot-removed out the bolts used to attach the leaves to the wall, since I knew from experience that they’d get emphasized when I added saturation to the images in the Nik Collection.

For most of the images I’ve posted here on my blog, I’ve typically used a Darken-Lighten Center filter in the Nik Collection to shift emphasis to a focal point and draw your eye to that point by — as the filter’s name suggests — darkening the background and lightening the center. After applying contrast and color adjustments, I tried the same approach with these four images, but the results weren’t good: the shadows cast by the leaves looked raggedy and grainy, creating inconsistent vignetting around the edges of each image and splashing too much reflected color from the leaves onto the backgrounds. No matter how much I fiddled with the Darken-Lighten filter’s adjustments, I couldn’t get to a result that I liked.

So … what do you do when the way you always do things just doesn’t work? Try doing the opposite.

Instead of darkening the backgrounds and lightening the centers, I switched to lightening the backgrounds and darkening the centers — which removed much of the color cast from the backgrounds and eliminated most of the vignetting, leaving only some subtle shadows behind each leaf. As a last step, I applied Classical Soft Focus, which does just what the name implies: it softens the appearance of primary image elements, which, in this case (with backgrounds now largely a single color) softened and brightened each of the steel leaves while leaving the backgrounds unaffected. The result, I hope, was to “achieve a certain pleasing effect” for you, the viewer.

Select the first image to page through a slideshow and examine the before-and-after versions. You won’t regret it! 🙂


Thanks for reading and taking a look! Bye for now….

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Before and After: Camera Studies Camera in Black and White

From Black & White Photography: The Timeless Art of Monochrome by Michael Freeman:

“Black-and-white film photography, its image qualities and processes, have a great deal to teach us…. What sets black and white apart from colour is that it is not the way we see the world, and it does not pretend to represent reality. It is a translation of a view into a special medium with very particular characteristics.”

On Wednesday, I posted a series of photos of a vintage camera, a No.1 Pocket Kodak. While working on the photos, I accidentally converted one to black and white in Lightroom, briefly thinking “Well, that’s kinda cool” but then flipped it back to color and continued processing the batch. I hardly ever work in black and white, you see, because I’m so colorful, but I still thought it might be fun to come back to this set of photos and give black and white a shot, especially since most of the color in the photos came from the background or from the slight blue cast emanating from the camera body. I also got a bit of inspiration from a Christmas gift a friend sent me…

… a series of books by photographer Michael Freeman — including the one I quoted above — that I’ve been reading from nearly every day since I got them.

I took the color photos with two of my favorite lenses: a Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens that’s about 25 years old (that even has its own Wikipedia page) and a Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens that I’ve had for a few years (that has no Wikipedia page but gets used for many of my closeups and macros). Both lenses do well in low light and even intentional under-exposure, so were ideal for the camera photos: taken on my dining room table lit by a single window, with supplemental lighting from a small LED flashlight (yes, you read that right) that I normally use for finding things in the depths of dark closets. I did use a high ISO when taking the photos — because I forgot to check my camera’s ISO setting before shooting (oops!) and it was set to 1600 — but Lightroom and the Nik Collection did a suitable job of ridding the photos of what little noise was captured.

So I made copies of the color images that I’d processed and posted — having done mostly saturation and contrast adjustments — and ran them through Nik’s Color Efex Pro, applying these filters:

  • Black and White Conversion, where I made brightness, shadow, highlight, and contrast adjustments;
  • Tonal Contrast, to soften the images slightly and create smoothness in the backgrounds;
  • Darken/Lighten Center, to accentuate lighting on the camera and shift the eye’s focus to the camera body;
  • Detail Extractor, to reveal the structure and texture of the camera’s bellows and leather case, recovering a bit of detail that was lost by the Tonal Contrast adjustment.

The first gallery below shows the black-and-white versions of Wednesday’s images. Personally I think they’re interesting, but what I really liked was experimenting with the same tools I’ve been using for color photos for a while now, in the world of black and white. I avoided special effects — like applying warming filters, converting them to sepia-tone, or adding grain for that aged look — and concentrated on how to make the primary subject appealing without color.

In the second gallery, I’ve set the black-and-white and color images side-by-side. You can select the first image and page through a slideshow to view them as before-and-after versions. Thanks for looking!




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Before and After: Exposing Hidden Autumn


“Photographs led me to cameras, and over the years the camera became an object I could think with. I could think about light and shadow, about composing the frame, and about what it meant to live in a certain way, to make decisions at many levels, and to document the world.” — from the essay “Salvaged Photographs” by Glorianna Davenport in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle

“Nobody can commit photography alone.” — from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan


One of the reasons I’ve always liked photography – and why I’m often drawn to closeup or macro photography – is that viewing the world through a camera creates an opportunity to focus on sights that might otherwise remain unseen. Looking through the camera restricts my view to what fits within the frame, letting distractions fall away, and that remains true if I zoom in or out, or pan horizontally or vertically: what I see through the lens becomes what I choose to see at that moment, and most of what’s outside the frame slides from awareness as I make those choices. I might add to or subtract from that view by manipulating the camera or the lens; but when I take the photo, I’ve selected something that’s captured my interest, or struck me as aesthetically pleasing, or has frozen an instant of time that seems to matter subjectively.

After taking the shots, what I do with them now includes a set of additional (and for me, recently learned) choices that give me the chance to further refine the images toward this deceptively simple idea: this is what I saw and this is what I want to show you.

I assembled the gallery of images below from those I’ve been working on for my Flickr Reboot project; they were all taken at Point Au Roche Interpretive Center or near the city of Plattsburgh in northern New York. While I’ve been posting quite a few similar images (see Autumn Close Up: A Photo Gallery), I set these aside for a couple of reasons. First, as I was reviewing my archived photos, I had flagged every one of these (and quite a few others) to be deleted. Second, I didn’t actually delete any of them and decided to take another look once I got more experience with the tools I was learning, to see what I might do with them even though I originally thought they should be deleted. Other than being on the chopping block for a while, these images had something else in common: they were all hidden bits of autumn, subjects tucked away behind tree trunks, barely visible among shrubs, or nearly buried under fallen logs. Because they were all so hidden – and it was an overcast day as well – the exposures were pretty poor and most of the original images were very dark. I remember crawling on the ground at times to get some of these shots and was disappointed that they ended out being so badly exposed, but I kept them anyway from some vague notion that one day I would figure out what, if anything, to do with them.

With the help of new skills, I wanted to find out if I could recover each of these well enough to create an acceptable image, and simultaneously learn more about how to think about image post-processing. It can be quite a challenge to convey the thought process involved in work like this – words fail and the images help resolve the ambiguity – yet here are a few things, technically and otherwise, that I think I’ve learned:

  • There are limitations to what you can do with an image that is out of focus and most of the tools emphasize rather than reduce the out-of-focus condition. Yet still, if the composition and content of the image seem to matter, those tools that intentionally render the image with special effects (blur, softening, and grain, for example) may help you produce something that is creatively satisfying.
  • Digital cameras capture so much detail that even an under-exposed image may have embedded surprises hidden in the dark. One technique I use often is to over-adjust the image in Lightroom (setting exposure, contrast, highlights, and shadows to an upper or lower extreme) to get a look at what I might easily miss, then dial back the settings to something more subtle.
  • Composition and content rule. Spot removal helps eliminate distractions and shift a viewer’s focus to key elements of the image. And I’ve also seen how replacement of foreground elements (for example, removing a stray branch or stem of grass that seems to intrude on the frame) or blending colors in background elements to improve their consistency, both change the image to help direct the eye toward the intended subject. Changes like this also reduce the amount of information a viewer’s mind has to comprehend when looking at the image, something I think is especially appropriate for closeup or macro shots.
  • Knowing what options you will have in post-processing changes how you compose on a photo shoot. But that can be a double-edged sword and it’s a good idea to take the best image you can, regardless of what you might do with it later. It’s better, for me anyway, to think of post-processing as a way to enhance a vision or point-of-view on what I’m trying to convey, rather than assume I’ll be fixing things I did poorly while toting around the camera. This isn’t an argument against post-processing; it’s recognition that learning those techniques is as important as understanding the camera’s settings and buttons, and that the creative arc of photography extends through all the technology and tools you might use to produce your images.
  • The first gallery below includes my final versions of these seventeen images. The second gallery shows the before and after versions of each one, where hopefully you can see by comparison how I’ve used some of the ideas described above.

    More soon; thanks for reading and taking a look!



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