A Fish Story

Jurassic Fish

When my lovely wife Marion went up north to Sauble Beach last Wednesday to spend some time with her sister Denise at Denise’s cottage, I stayed at home so I could attend ROM Song Circle on Friday night. Being a bachelor for a few days, I went to the grocery store to pick up some things I could heat up for evening meals. Our local grocery, Cousins, prepares lovely made-on-the-premises Italian dishes you can heat up and serve. I selected a small fettuccine with meat sauce, and when I went by the meat counter I noticed they also had some nice looking fresh haddock and cod fillets. My family doctor is always encouraging me to eat more fish and I thought, why not, and picked up a package of cod.

Now here’s the thing: Marion is a vegetarian. Not on principle, but because she can’t tolerate the taste of meat, or even its smell when it’s cooking. Triple that for fish. Except for when I eat out, I share the same vegetarian diet because there’s no point in making separate meals and, anyway, I enjoy vegetarian food. I figured that with three day’s buffer, any lingering fish smell should be gone by the time she returned from the cottage.

It had been some years since I cooked fish at home, so I was a little rusty on how to go about it, but I melted some butter in a non-stick pan and when it was hot I put on the fillets, uncoated, with a little salt and pepper. When I judged them to be about half cooked, I flipped them and put a little salt and pepper on the reverse side. I must say the fillets looked tasty and I’d steamed up some green peas to accompany them. It was a success, and I stuffed myself full.

Being solicitous of Marion’s high sensitivity to fish smell, I was very careful to do a thorough cleanup. I had left the kitchen window open while frying the cod, despite a brutal GTA heatwave, to allow as much odour to escape as possible. When finished I carefully washed everything by hand, especially the frying skillet. I poured the butter down the drain and scrubbed the pan thoroughly with dish detergent, then ran water down the sink for an extra long time.

Satisfied that I’d cleaned thoroughly, I settled in for an evening of video watching, which is somehow less lonely than reading a book when you’re by yourself. I’d got hooked on a grade B SF TV show from Netflix called Stranger Things. It wasn’t all that good but I don’t watch a lot of video and it was a change of pace for me. After binge-watching several episodes, I went into the kitchen to have a few nibbles of snacks before going to bed. I could detect a lingering fish smell, but assumed that was normal and that it would dissipate.

The next morning I walked into the kitchen to put on the kettle to make some coffee and I could still smell the fish. It was a faint smell, I thought, but my sense of smell has diminished somewhat with age so I figured if I could smell it Marion would smell it more intensely, so I opened the kitchen window again. The outdoor air was already warm and swarmy, reminiscent of the US deep south, but I left the window open for a couple of hours.

I turned my attention to the CDs I was reviewing for the Canadian roots magazine Penguin Eggs and the day passed quickly. When evening arrived I heated up the fettuccine in the microwave and enjoyed a light meal, but while I was cleaning up it seemed to me that the fish smell hadn’t gone away at all. I emailed my friend Mark about it. We often share our technical problems, though they’re usually computer related, but Mark is a good cook and suggested pouring some vinegar in the drain and maybe frying up some onion and garlic to mask the fish smell. The onion and garlic idea seemed especially good to me because Marion loves them as much as I do. I did a small fry-up and it seemed to work. I went back to binge-watching Stranger Things.

On Friday morning when I went into the kitchen the residual onion and garlic smell was faint, but the fish smell was stronger than ever. It was the hottest day of the summer so far with a humidex of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I left the window closed so the air conditioned air wouldn’t escape. I had thought that by now the fish smell would be gone and with Marion due to arrive home the next day I was feeling uneasy about the lingering odour of cod but couldn’t think of anything else to try.

I went to the ROM song circle Friday evening and, as always, it was a musical treat. Tony and Veronica were there with their fine singing voices and instrumental work. Dave played his resonator guitar and twelve-string. Brian and Hooley both played banjo. Ross, on bass, kept us on the beat, while Cedric played his electric guitar (at minimal volume), and Grant and I played our La Patrie classical six-strings. Judy helped out on vocals. Brian and Veronica swapped off on fiddle, and we sang a cartload of our favourite songs. A perfect musical evening.

I was in a mellow mood when I got home until I walked into the kitchen and its fish smell. Damn, I thought, Marion’s coming home in the morning. What else can I do? My mind seized on a thought: the drain. The smell has to be coming from the drain where I poured in the fish-frying butter. I went on a hunt through our seldom used household stuff and finally found a barely-remembered can of Drano. I wasn’t happy about using it, since I try to be “green,” but I was getting desperate. I poured in some Drano, covered with a cup of cold water, let it sit for half an hour, then rinsed the drain thoroughly. And despite the heat (and any stray burglers) I left the kitchen window wide open overnight.

Next morning–Saturday–I walked into the kitchen and, to my dismay, the smell, if anything, was stronger than before. I did the Drano thing again. I emailed Mark that I thought Marion would notice it right away when she got home.

Around 11 a.m. I heard the garage door open and I went to the door to help Marion carry her suitcase and bags into the house. The moment she walked in she said, “What’s that smell? Fish?” I confessed that, yes, I had cooked some cod and that I couldn’t seem to get rid of the smell. She took it fairly well, considering how much she detests fish odour, and we got her gear unpacked and put away. I apologized profusely and detailed all the steps I’d taken to try to freshen up the kitchen. She went to the kitchen to see what she might do about it.

“Gene,” she said, “What’s this?” I looked at the plastic bag in the corner of the counter that I can’t say I’d noticed before. “This is your fish packaging you goof! It’s gone rotten!”

So it had. I must have pushed it to one side while I was cooking and lost track of it. I had the honour of disposing of it, and it had a ghastly smell. Not just cod, but rotten cod.

After giving me a look that said, “you’re hopeless,” we began giggling. What else was there to do?

In the end she decided to keep me, with the proviso that I eat out  when I want fish.


Slide Rule (I)


Autumn 1959.

I’d never been truly inspired by a teacher until I entered high school (Lyndon, Illinois) and got Mr. Buikema for general science and algebra.

He was a newly minted teacher from Northern Illinois University at Dekalb. With his blond crewcut, dark horn-rim glasses, and enthusiasm for science and math, he epitomized the collegiate, scientific look of the late 50’s. Not to mention he was a fan of the Kingston Trio, my favourite music group, and he had built his own Heathkit amp which he connected to an AR-3 speaker (this was before stereo). I idolized him.

I liked science and enjoyed his lab, but what really excited me was his algebra class. I’d disliked arithmetic because it was so boring, but algebra — it was a new language, the beginnings of real mathematics. I was hooked. The symbolic notation and equations appealed to me from the start. Factoring seemed intuitive and beautiful. I loved story problems of the type “if Train A is going west at X miles per hour, and Train B is going east at Y miles per hour, etc., how far will each have traveled when they pass each other.”

One day while we were working on our algebra exercises, Mr. Buikema pulled a slide rule from his leather briefcase to do some grade calculations. I was smitten. I’d heard of slide rules but I’d never seen one up close, much less met anyone who knew how to use one. The slide rule, or “slipstick” as it was affectionately called, was the icon of science and engineering. Wernher van Braun, the German, then American, rocket scientist was photographed using one.

After class I asked Mr. Buikema if they were hard to learn, and he said if I picked up an inexpensive one, he’d teach me how to use it. The next week my Mom bought me a plastic 10-inch slide rule for $1.99 at Walgreens. It had the most-often used scales and while it lacked the precision of an engineer’s metal or laminated bamboo slide rule, it was more than adequate as a learning tool.

Mr. Buikema taught me how to do multiplication, division, squares and cubes. It was my first calculating machine, and I loved its elegance and what would be called, a half century later, its geekiness. To my delight I found I could use the slide rule effectively in solving physics problems, calculating forces on an inclined plane, and velocities of objects in motion.

I had joined the Space Age.

Retirement: The Great Divide

Lawn Chair & Shadow

[With this post I’m beginning a new series of what I’ve dubbed “cozy essays”]

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” — L.P. Harteley

The thing about retirement is that you realize your past is longer than your future. Inevitably you wonder how you got here, to this point, this day in the now. What shaped you? If you’re a writer, you reach the age where memoir and autobiography take on new appeal. To the philosopher, it presents a new line of thought and query. But how can any memoir or autobiography not be philosophical? Philosophy and memoir are intertwined.

Questions. For instance, what is friendship? I’ve never had a lot of close friends, other than my wife and son. I was close to my wife’s mom and dad, but they’ve both passed on. There are a number of people with whom I share interests in technology or photography but only one who is a close friend. I’ve only ever had one writing friend. My family doc says I should have at least seven social encounters a month. That’s a higher quota than I can manage.

I’m not a misanthrope. I often like being around other people and enjoy their company, but I’m not good at maintaining chitchat for extended periods of time. I don’t follow sports. I barely follow broadcast news. I’m not so much cynical as skeptical. News stories are shallow, often misleading.

Skepticism prevents me from embracing any kind of spiritual path, as I did when I was younger and naive. I agree with Aristotle that everything there is is contained in nature. I’m scientifically inclined. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs,” said Carl Sagan. And yet, my academic background is in the humanities and I take even my skepticism under advisement.

Retirement is a unnerving mirror. You look in it and see fading flesh, aging eyes, dwindling energy. It reflects reality. But not all of it. It doesn’t reflect back your mind.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 8

Snow Bird

Plugins for Black and White

After exploring the techniques introduced in this series, you may think, yeah, they’re effective, but it’s a lot of work to get to a finished image. Aren’t there any shortcuts?

The happy answer is yes. Shortcuts can be found in the form of Photoshop actions and plugins, Gimp plugins, and in one of the most powerful black-and-white filters, Silver Efex Pro, by Nik Software, part of the Google Nik Collection. First let’s look at actions and plugins.

Adobe Photoshop has the ability to record and script techniques, saving them as Photoshop Actions. Several of these user-created actions are available for free on the internet, and some are offered commercially. Many Photoshop Actions will run in Photoshop Elements, though they can only be created in full Photoshop. There are also plugins available for Gimp, written in languages called Script-FU and Python-FU. Many of these actions and plugins are created to assist the colour photographer, but some can be adapted to B&W. You have to sift through them and try them out to see which ones are for you.

For convenience if you’re studying a Photoshop tutorial while trying to apply it to Gimp, a useful alternative for Gimp users is Gimpshop, a variant of Gimp that renames some of the menu items to correspond more closely with Photoshop.

For users of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and LightRoom, there is one “plugin” or filter program that is so good it’s in a class of its own. Let’s take a look at Silver Efex Pro. We’ll start in Photoshop with the image of a spider I shot in a window:



The colour in this shot adds very little to the image, plus there’s something in the brain that finds B&W creepier so I’ll invoke Silver Efex Pro from the menu with Filter > Nik Collection > Silver Efex Pro 2


What we see next is surprising the first time you invoke it because Silver Efex Pro transfers your image into a completely separate program that runs from within Photoshop:


This is a B&W photographer’s dream digital darkroom. In the centre is the image displayed initially as “Neutral.” On the left are over 30 presets, such as “High Contrast,” “High Structure,” “High Key,” “Low Key,” “Silhouette,” and one of my favourites, “Film Noir 1.” Every time you select a preset, the image changes to show you the effect, such as when I select “Dark Sepia.”


The right-hand side of Silver Efex Pro is where the controls are located and they’re extensive. In broad terms there are “Global Adjustments” such as Brightness, Contrast, and Structure, “Selective Adjustments” which features Nik’s splendid Control Points, “Color Filter” for channel mixing, “Film Types” which try to emulate classic B&W films such as Ilford Pan-F, Kodak Tri-X, and Ilford Delta 3200 Pro. You can add grain and control both the amount and the hardness or softness of the grain. Under “Finishing Adjustments” Silver Efex Pro offers different hues for toning and a superb vignetting tool. Using the tools you can create your own presets and save them as well.

When you click OK, Silver Efex Pro then performs its transformation and deposits it in Photoshop on a layer. Because of this you can either flatten the image or introduce some selective colour before flattening.

It’s hard to fully describe how much faster it is to create a B&W in Silver Efex Pro in contrast to doing everything manually in Photoshop. And because of the handy presets, it encourages you to view and study your image in several different interpretations before making a final selection.

For my final image I chose Film Noir 1, eliminated the border Silver Efex Pro had added, raised the Structure setting to give the spider sharper edges, and used a Control Point to eliminate the smudgy area of brightness in the lower left-hand corner:



This concludes the series on the craft of digital black and white photography. Thank you for visiting and I hope you’ve found some useful tips. You can contact me at gene@wilburn.ca.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 7


Vignetting for B&W

Vignetting a photograph simply means making the edges and corners of an image darker or lighter than the rest of the image. With subtle vignetting, the treatment subdues the background, leading the eye to the foreground. Heavy vignetting, especially dark vignetting, can create dramatic images.

Vignetting is nothing new and, in fact, many film cameras with less than superb optics, like the original Holga and most box cameras, vignette the corners of an image as part of the capture. I once owned a venerable Olympus XA 35mm compact camera whose signature look was darkened vignetted corners that looked terrific for street photography.

However, most of today’s digital cameras have excellent lenses that suffer very little optical vignetting, so to get the effect we must rely on post processing in an editor like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, LightRoom, or Gimp.

There are many ways to achieve vignetting, which is great because it allows you to choose which method works best for a particular image. And, of course, vignetting works for both B&W and colour photographs, but vignetting, especially dark vignetting, has a special place in B&W photography. If you visit an exhibit of modern black and white photographs you’ll often see images that are purposely dark with heavy vignetting to create bold visual statements.

So, let’s examine three ways to create dark vignetting, using layers and layer masks to control the effect.

Method 1: Traditional Light Vignetting

Many B&W images look better with a touch of vignetting to draw the eye to the centre of the photograph. There’s a fairly simple technique using layers and the Elliptical Marquee Tool (as it’s called in Photoshop). This technique is applied after the rest of the post processing, such as cropping, contrast adjustments, sharpening, etc., has already taken place. It’s the final stage of getting a photograph ready for sharing.

We’ll begin with an image that’s almost ready to go and we’ll add a duplicate layer to the image,



and as you can see, I’ve drawn an oval over the centre of the image and have set Feathering to 10 pixels. Feathering creates a smooth transition from the centre of the image to the vignetted area. Now we invert the oval selection (Select > Inverse in Photoshop) and use the Levels mid-range pointer to slightly darken the inverted selection. This gives us a fairly subtle result:


Sewing Machine

You need a light touch with this method or the oval area will be apparent and look artificial. You can also increase Feathering to 50 or 100 pixels to get a smoother transition between the vignette and the centre of the photo.

Method 2: Gradiant Tool

Another classic method of creating a vignette is with the Gradient Tool on a layer. To explore this method I’ll use this converted B&W shot of ornamental kale as the starting point:


The centre of the image showing the kale with raindrops has promise but the rest of the image makes it look cluttered. To fix this create a duplicate layer and then choose the gradient tool.


This is a non-intuitive tool to use until you get the hang of it. Check the attributes of the tool and select the circular pattern (second from the left in Photoshop), and make sure Reverse is clicked on. At this point, click the left mouse button on the centre of the image and drag a line to the right of the image, going even beyond the right edge of the photo. If you’ve done it right, you’ll now have something that looks like this:


It may look alarming, but it’s okay. You can see how the gradient goes from white to black in a fairly smooth transition between the tonal zones. Next, in the Layers Palette, change the overlay type from Normal to Overlay. The result will look like this:


This is much closer to what we want as a finished image, but in the process of darkening the corners and edges, we’ve created a hotspot in the middle of the image. To restore the hotspot, the bright portion of the image, to what we previously had, create a Layer Mask and use a black paintbrush to brush out the lightness, returning that part of the image to our starting point.


With a final bit of tweaking with Levels to darken the blacks we end up with an image that is more satisfying than our original starting point:


Method 3: Artsy

Let’s have some fun with method 3, which I call “Artsy.” We’ll start with an image that, while it has promise, needs help to bring it out. Lots of help. Drastic help.


The image is soft with a lot background distraction and needs a serious contrast boost, but it has the potential to make a good photo.

This time, instead of making a duplicate layer, create a Fill Layer which in Photoshop is done with Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color, and select Gray. What you now get is an opaque black layer over the entire image. In order to see what we’re doing, go to the Layer Palette and change Opacity: 100% to Opacity: 50%. This is fussy work and you may make plenty of mistakes along the way which you can correct by changing the colour of the Brush tool to white and painting over any stray areas. How much you want shown in the final image is entirely up to you. For this one I ended up with a less cluttered, more dramatic result:


This is getting close to what I was after, but it needs more contrast and some sharpening. When that’s complete my final image looks like this:


while not perfect, it has far more punch than the original. Obviously you wouldn’t want to do this much work for most of your B&W shots, but it’s another technique you can use when you need it. It can work really well for a shot like this:


Next time, in the final installment, we’ll look at actions and plugins that can make a lot of what we’ve covered in the tutorial easier and faster.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 6

Layer Masks

We covered Layers previously, now let’s dive into Layer Masks, one of the handiest tools in your digital darkroom toolkit.

Let’s start with this colour photo, a still life taken at Benares House Museum, Mississauga, Ontario.

Still Life

Now let’s convert it to black and white on a duplicate layer, but don’t yet flatten the layers. Click on the top B&W layer to make it active then click on the Layer Mask tool (as shown in Photoshop):


and click on the white Layer Mask on the B&W layer to make it active:


Almost there. Check the Background/Foreground Colour Setting to make sure that the foreground colour is set to black and the background colour is set to white.


Then select the Brush tool and we’re ready to work some magic on the Layer Mask:


Size the circumference of the brush ([ and ] in Photoshop) go to the image on the screen and paint a wavy line through the foreground onion:

You can see a record of this line on the layer mask:


What just happened? What we’ve done is remove the opacity where we brushed the onion, allowing the lower, colour layer, to show through. We’ve done this selectively rather than changing the opacity on the entire B&W layer and if we continue to paint the onion we can create a black and white image with an area of colour in it:
Because it’s a bit finicky to do the edges of the onion, you may have uncovered more colour than you intended (I did). To touch that up, go to the Foreground/Background Colour settings and click the curved arrows, reversing the black and white settings. Then with the foreground colour set to white, you can carefully erase your mistakes and return the opacity to the layer. A Black brush removes opacity; a White brush restores opacity. Hint: for fine work around the edges resize the brush to a tiny brush and increase the size of the image onscreen to 200%. This makes it easier to make a tidy edge.

As you can imagine, the Layer Mask tool opens a large range of possibilities that are exciting for both colour and black and white photography.

Next let’s look at how we can use the Layer Mask for purely black and white work, starting with this image of the Port Credit, Ontario, lighthouse and bridge in the snow:


Converted to black and white, the image is a bit grey and brooding and doesn’t convey the lightness of a snowy day.


This image would look better as a higher-key image, so let’s work on a duplicate layer and lighten the image overall:


This has a better overall feel, but it’s lost a bit of contrast and the lighthouse light is now overexposed. So, with the aid of a Layer Mask on the background copy let’s restore some of the darkness under the bridge as well as taming the lighthouse light.


I also restored some of the darker shades to the lighthouse door and trim as well as the roof of the adjoining building before flattening the layers.

Note: for even more subtle effects, you can lower the opacity of the brush tool itself, which is normally at 100%. If you wish to restore just a bit more of the underlying image, try setting the brush to 50% or 25% or even lower.

This is a fairly subtle use of the Layer Mask but it demonstrates that you can use masking to do the equivalent of very exact burning and dodging. Experiment with the Layer Mask and Brush until you feel comfortable using them and you’ll have added a powerful, creative option to your post processing.

Next time, how to create vignetting on B&W photos.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 5



In Pt. 3 we looked at the Levels tool. Now let’s turn to Levels’ big sister: Curves. The Curves tool works well for colour photography but it is especially useful in B&W photography because it can be used to make fine adjustments to tonal values in an image. Where Levels offers three controls, black, white, and midtones, Curves offers up to fifteen adjustments points.

The Curves tool scares a lot of beginners because it’s not as intuitive as Levels but Curves are quite logical once you get the hang of them. Alas, there is no proper Curves tool in Photoshop Elements, though there is a Color Curves tool that is really little more than Levels presented another way. Photoshop and Gimp have a fully-featured Curves tool.

So, let’s take a starting image, a cell-phone shot I took in a coffee shop:


Converting this to B&W using Channel Mixer and using the Green filter preset, I get this for a starting point:


Because of the inherent contrast in the image, it’s already looking pretty decent, though it’s a bit dark. To tweak the image I turn to the Curves tool, which looks like this in Photoshop:


So, where’s the curve? All we see is a straight diagonal line going from bottom left (blacks) to top right (whites). The answer is that we start with this straight, diagonal line and pull and push on it with our mouse to see what effect it has on our image.

Starting then, on a duplicate background layer, let’s call up Curves and tweak the line around a little and deliberately overdo it to see what effects we can get.


I’ve placed two anchor points on the line to make the kind of S-shaped curve that would normally be just about right to add some zing to the image, but in this case the image is already contrasty and the adjustment makes it overly contrasty, unless you’re going for a silhouette image. The dark areas in the image were already quite dark and I’ve pulled them down into the blacks and have lost a lot of interesting detail.

To reset Curves back to its original state, click Option-Reset (on a Mac) or Alt-Reset (Windows). Now let’s do something wild and really distort the image:


This time we get an image that is distorted and nearly solarized. There may be times when this might be just the right kind of treatment for an artistic presentation, so keep in mind you can do experimental images using Curves.

Now, let’s Reset Curves, and try for a more conventional B&W image:


Notice I’ve used 5 anchor points to give Curves a boost to lighten up the midtones but keep the blacks a deep, rich black. The final image, then, with a little sharpening added, looks like this:


For practice, try adjusting an image (always on a layer) with first the Levels tool, then the Curves tool, to get a feel for the difference between them. The Levels tool is good for most images, but the Curves tool offers more sophistication and is especially useful for images that are hard to get just right.

For more detailed information on using the Curves tool, here are some excellent online articles you may wish to read.

Next time we’ll explore Photoshop’s secret weapon: Layer Masks.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 4


What Makes a Good Digital Black & White Image?

Let’s take a break from the technical side of B&W image processing to pursue the question of what makes a good digital B&W image, aside from its technical merits. The possibilities are endless, of course, but when you’re new to B&W it may be difficult at first to look at the world of colour and “see” the B&W potential in it. What kinds of things should you look for?

You can’t go wrong in looking at the world through the eyes of an artist or designer and noticing things like line, shape, form, texture, pattern and reflection. While these design elements are also important in colour photography, they take on an even more significant role in B&W because without any colour to catch the eye, they play a major role in defining the image. And while it’s true that these design elements frequently combine in the same image, as in a photo with both form and texture, looking for them and incorporating them in your images will give you a head start as a B&W photographer.


There are lines all around us: fence lines, country lanes, ribbons of highways, lines of mountains, canals and streams, tree lines, power lines, lines of buildings, and, without doubt, railway lines.

RR Tracks

Strong lines that recede in the distance to a vanishing point lend themselves to an eye-catching B&W interpretation.


Everything has some kind of shape and some shapes are iconic: the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the Flatiron building in NYC and elsewhere, the Washington Monument, the Arc in St. Louis, the CN Tower in Toronto. You’d recognize these even in silhouette. Shape is largely a two-dimensional element (becoming form when it becomes three dimensional). For shape to become a key element in a B&W photo, it should dominate the image, as in this photo of a windmill backlit by the sun:


The windmill shape contrasts sharply with the wispy shapes of the clouds above it.


Form, as mentioned, is shape in three dimensions and is frequently inseparable from texture. Form is around us everywhere and just needs isolating to allow it to become a dominant photo element. Buildings (aging and dilapidated barns, for instance, are a favourite subject for B&W), automobiles, plants, industrial structures, household objects, not to mention dogs, cats, and people. Keep alert to the possibilities of form in your own environment, even in your kitchen:


These hard-boiled eggs, for instance, have both shape and form, as well as soft lighting and I managed to take this shot before they were all eaten. There is so much shape and form in the kitchen that I like to store a camera on the kitchen shelf so I can grab it to take shots during food preparation:



Like form, texture is everywhere, ranging from smooth to rough to patterned. Texture can be a subtle part of structure, as in this close-up of dried hydrangea:


Or texture can be bold, as in this photo of a door detail on an old building:

Door Detail

Or even contrasting, as in the textures of sycamore bark:



Patterns, either man-made or found in the natural world, often make good studies in B&W. Repeating patterns are particularly appealing, as in the leaf patterns of this oak-leaf hydrangea:


Or the highly abstracted patterns of common fleabane:

Radial Display


Reflections are a staple of all photography. Many things reflect light and mirror things around it: windows, mirrors, shiny surfaces, and even raindrops:

Water Drops

Even a cup of coffee may become a candidate for a reflection photo in B&W:

A Time for Reflection

Summing Up

Photography is part art and part technique, but before you have good material to work with in post-processing, you need interesting subject matter. Hence, it is good practice to look for the classic art and design elements in the world around us. The better you get at this, the stronger your photos will be, which in turn will give you added incentive to process them in a way that has visual impact. This is particularly true of B&W photography because it doesn’t have colour as an element to lean on. The job of the B&W photographer is, in large part, to abstract these elements from the environment and present them in a fresh way.

To all these elements, there’s the added undefinable element of mood. This is something you bring out in post-processing, so next time we’ll get back to techniques that will help you showcase your favourite artistic- and design-oriented photographs in glorious black and white.

For Further Study

It helps your photography to look at the work of other photographers to appreciate their compositions and techniques. If you belong to a photo-posting site, check to see if they have any special interest groups related to B&W photography. If not, here’s a link to one of my favourite Flickr groups: The Joy of Black & White.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 3


Introduction to Layers

It’s layers that separate Photoshop pros from the novices. The idea of layers is simple: if you stack, say, a copy of your image on top of your original image, and both are transparent, you can look down through them and they look like a single image. If you change things on the top layer, it shows down through both images, but the underlying original image remains untouched. Often you will add even more stacks to the layers, each doing something else to the composite image. Then when you’re happy with the results, you flatten all the layers down to a new single-layer image.

This only hints at what layers are all about and, because a full study of layers would be a course on its own, I’ve posted some links at the end that you can follow to learn more about the flexibility and artistic potential of layers.

The best way I can introduce layers is to show how they can be used in a typical colour to black-and-white workflow. So let’s take as an example the following photo that I shot because I thought there was potential for a good B&W image in the curves and textures.

Lines & Curves

As a colour shot, this is pretty drab. It was taken on an overcast day with no sunshine to play on the lines, but in the B&W conversion we’ll use the Levels tool to bring more contrast to the image. In this procedure I’ll be using Photoshop Elements, v.14, as my editing tool.

Let’s start by creating our first layer. In Elements, click on the Expert tab, then click on Windows->Layers to bring up the Layers palette, then click on Layers->Duplicate Layer and you’ll get a layout like this:


We’re now looking through two layers and will do our B&W conversion on the top layer. To turn the image into a B&W using Elements 14, let’s call up the Enhance->Convert to Black and White tool, which corresponds to the Channel Mixer in Photoshop and Gimp, discussed in Pt. 2. Mix the Red, Green, and Blue channels together via the sliders until you get a nice range of mid-greys. If you click off the Eye icon on the top layer, you can see that the bottom layer is still in colour. This allows you to switch back and forth between the top “adjustment layer” and the base layer or “Background” as the program calls it.


Technically we now have a B&W image, but it has no pizazz, nothing at all that grabs the eye. Nonetheless, it has potential. So let’s go with it: Right-Click on the top layer and select Flatten Image. This, then is our starting point for B&W.

So, the key to this is that you should always work on an adjustment layer which can either be a copy of the base image or, in recent versions of Photoshop and Elements, a specialized Layer Adjustment Tool. Elements (as well as Photoshop) has such a tool for Levels, so in Elements click on Layers->Adjustment Layers->Levels.


Notice that it’s put a new kind of layer on top of the base layer and labelled it Levels.

In terms of post-processing, it’s at this point that art joins technique. Where we go from here is a matter of taste and preference and no two photographers will come up with exactly the same finished image. Let’s consider what we have to work with.

The dark shadows under the curved steps at the top of the photo are completely black, without detail, so there’s no worry about preserving subtle detail. Overall the middle greys are too light and dull. The highlights need to be a little brighter. The image has nice lines and interesting texture. What we need to do is bring out these, and that’s what we’ll do with the Levels tool.


Look at the histogram of the Levels tool, especially where the markers lie under Input Levels. There’s a black marker at the far left, a middle grey marker in the middle, and a light grey marker under the highlights.

Play with these three sliders, and really lean into them. Slide the black marker far to the right, then Reset and move the highlight marker far to the left. Observe what this does to the image, greatly exaggerating the effects. Slide the middle marker to the left and then the right. Somewhere in all this there are combinations of adjusting the markers that will make the image jump out at you. You just have to find them. Some images require a lot of adjustment and some just need a touch of this and that to bring it to life. This is what I came up with for my interpretation:


Notice that I brought the highlight marker into the area where the histogram ends on the right, that I adjusted the middle marker to the right to bring down the middle grey tones and that I boosted the blacks a bit by bringing in the black slider slightly into the middle. One of the side effects of this is that it adds much more contrast to the B&W image:


Notice that after getting the image most of the way to what I wanted, I flattened the layers and have a single-layer image again. This is just about good enough to post on the web or print off, but there’s another step I like to include before calling it done. One of the things experienced B&W photo printers do in the chemical darkroom is to slightly darken the edges and the corners of the image, with burning-in techniques, because this subtly draws your eye to the centre of the photo. You can still do it that way with the Burn tool in Photoshop and Gimp, but Elements doesn’t include the Dodge and Burn tools so we’ll recreate this effect by adding a slight vignetting with a built-in filter called Correct Camera Distortion:


One of the tools in this filter is the Vignette slider.


First duplicate the Background layer, then invoke the Correct Camera Distortion filter, and, looking carefully at the image, slide the Vignette slider slightly to the left. For the purposes of learning what the tool can do, move it far to the left. Find your visual sweet spot, then click the Eye of the adjustment layer off and on so you can confirm how much vignetting you’ve added to the image. Again, there is no right or wrong, but you will often see beautiful B&W images that have heavy vignetting added. Whether you want to be subtle or obvious is up to you, and it depends on the image.

My final interpretation of the image, with obvious vignetting, is this:


Now that you’ve been along for a walkthrough of this image from colour to basic B&W to final B&W using Levels and vignetting, you’re ready to start practicing on images of your own. Although working on layers may seem complex at first, once you develop the knack for it, it doesn’t take long at all, and the more experience you gain with layers, the more you’ll be prepared to tackle advanced layer procedures.

In Pt. 4 we’ll take a short breather from the technical side and look at the types of images that make natural studies in B&W. In the meantime, if you find yourself interested in layers (and I hope you do), here are some sites, and some books, to help you on your way:

Good luck, and we’ll be revisiting layers again.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 2

Monotone Menu - Oly E-PL2

In-Camera B&W

So. Let’s get started. The simplest way to get into B&W is to set your digital camera’s shooting mode to BW, Monochrome, Monotone, or whatever it may be called on your particular camera model. The above menu is from a Olympus E-PL2 and after it’s set my images are all greyscale rather than colour. You can take these images into a photo editor, play with the brightness and contrast sliders, and usually get a decent B&W image. This works, and a friend of mine who uses this mode quite frequently for his street shots does good work shooting this way.

If you’re new to B&W shooting, I recommend playing around with this mode and shooting some pictures with the in-camera B&W setting. One thing it does is teach you what the monochrome world looks like because you can see colour translated to monochrome on your LCD viewer. This is a good stepping stone for more sophisticated B&W shooting because you begin to develop a sense of tonality–a key feature in B&W photography.

If it’s this easy, why doesn’t everyone simply do it this way? Although it is the simplest way to do B&W, it’s not the optimal way. I prefer shooting in colour then converting to B&W in a photo editor for the reason that you carry more potential image information in a colour shot than in one where the camera’s computer has already decided what tones to present in monochrome and has cast aside other possibilities. When I’m creating a B&W photo, I want to make decisions based on all the information available. To see all the B&W tonal possibilities that exist in an image, you need a colour RGB (Red-Green-Blue) image.

RGB Images

To better understand B&W, let’s start with colour and the way it gets recorded on your digital camera’s sensor. The sensor is a flat chip and on it reside millions of photosensitive sites (megapixels) that respond to the Red, Green, or Blue of the light spectrum. Recalling your knowledge of Art 101, you know that red, green, and blue are the primary colours from which you can mix the entire colour spectrum.


The sensor site, or pixel, doesn’t actually capture the colour; it records a 1 or a 0 to indicate which colour it “sees” and then the camera’s image processing engine (call it the computer in your camera) either translates the digital information into an RGB colour image in the form of a Jpeg or packages the unprocessed information into a file called a Raw file, and records it on your SD or CF card. Raw files have extension names such as .NEF, .CR2, .ORF, .ARW, etc., depending on which brand of camera you are using.

We’ll talk about Raw files later in the series, but for now, let’s stick with Jpeg. For the reasons above, a Jpeg image is also called an RGB image and in Photoshop you can actually load the Red, Green, and Blue channels of the image separately. Let’s start with the following image which was taken with a smartphone camera in front of my local grocery store:

Tractor & Pumpkins

In Photoshop we can examine the individual channels by clicking Channels in the Layer palette in the upper right-hand corner:


RGB Green

When I click off the “eyes” on the Red and Blue channels, we see a greyscale image of the information of the Green channel. What you get is a very wide range of greys. When your camera converts to monochrome in-camera, it’s often the Green channel of information you’re getting most of the information from. The green channel is usually the most useful, most dependable, and offers the best image quality of the three channels, other factors being equal.


RGB Red When I click off the Green channel and click on the Red channel, we see a different world of tonality altogether. What a difference!


The red channel has subtracted tonal value from the orange/red pumpkins and made them ghostlike. It’s always worth a look at the Red channel, even though there’s not much to work with in this case. The Red channel tends to be a little noiser (grainier) than the Green channel, but it’s pretty useable, all in all.

RGB Blue

RGB Blue is the bad boy of the channels. It tends to be the noisiest channel (though not bad at all on recent camera sensors) and is generally avoided as the sole basis for a B&W image unless it has some special merit. Let’s look at  it.


Whoa! Look at that! The Blue channel intensifies the red/orange of the pumpkins and gives them a dark tonality. What I see here grabs me and makes me want to have at least some of that brooding blue channel in my image. The next question: is there a way to mix them so you can use as much of each channel as you’d like? Of course. The answer is a tool called the Channel Mixer (a tool also available in Gimp):


Once I click on the “Monochrome” checkbox, notice that the default starting point in Photoshop is 40% Red, 40% Green, and 20% Blue, a generally good balance.


We already know from looking at the channels that the Red channel isn’t much use to us, and that the Blue channel has the interesting tonality. I’m going to remix the channels to 0% Red, 30% Green, and 70% Blue (it’s best if the values equal 100%), so that it looks like this:


If you’re an experienced B&W film photographer you’re probably saying to yourself, this sounds like coloured filters to me. You’re quite right. If you know how to use yellow, orange, red, green, and blue filters for B&W film, you’ll find these trusty old friends hidden behind the Custom tab.


Note: there is a strong element of play involved here. There are no right or wrong answers in B&W photography and B&W is much more pliant than colour. My interpretation of a B&W photo will almost certainly not be yours. B&W is, by it’s very nature, an abstraction of what you see in colour. Whether you go for a dark, brooding look, or an unusual white-pumpkin look, try out the options and have some fun playing with tonal values. The more you do of this, the more you’ll begin to sense what you like best in terms of B&W tonality. As I said, I like the dark tone of the pumpkins in the blue channel and here’s what my personal final image looks like:


Notice I went for a dark look with silvery highlights. The final image has also had a subtle bit of vignetting applied and has been sharpened, all things we’ll cover in subsequent parts of the tutorial.

To sum up Pt. 2, then

  • You can shoot B&W directly in your camera, and you should try it out for the experience.
  • If you shoot in colour, it brings more tonal information into the image which can sometimes be just what you’re looking for.
  • On your own, on colour images, try out the Channel Mixer or the equivalent control in your photo editor to customize the tonality of a converted B&W image.

Next up: Pt. 3 will be where the fun really begins as we delve into how to use Layers, how to use Levels and Curves, and how to Burn and Dodge (darkroom terms of making selected areas of an image darker or brighter).

Until then, check out B&W images on your favourite photo sites (e.g. Flickr) and begin to study them to see what types of image tonality you respond to. And just try stuff out. If it turns out badly, put it in the trashbin and try something else. B&W photography is a voyage of discovery.