Backyard Critters

Spring in the life of a suburban ecosystem

Eastern Grey Squirrel. Photo by the author

Somewhere in the universe, in a small corner of a beautiful spiral galaxy, a small rocky planet orbits a medium-size yellow star. The advanced primate life forms that have evolved on this planet call the star the “sun” and the planet the “earth,” (if they speak English) and somewhere on the earth, in a small corner of a metropolitan city area, lies the modest house in the suburbs I call “home.”

Home is located in an area called southern Ontario just north of another area called upper-state New York. The original habitat, in our geological era, is called Eastern Woodland, and is dominated by hardwood trees, such as oaks and maples, softwood trees like birch and poplar, lakes, and streams, and is the natural home to a host of non-human life forms I refer to as “critters.” These critters include mammals, birds, insects, arthropods, earthworms, fish, eels, and probably billions of bacteria in the soil.

The critters that interest me the most are the mammals and birds that visit our backyard. A typical spring day in early April starts with the birds.

Male Cardinal. Photo by author

Among the first critters that stir are the cardinals and the dark-eyed juncos. They like the pre-dawn and early light of the day and drop by to feed on the birdseed I scatter on the ground by the fence. The cardinals are not migratory and stay here all through the winter. The juncos, on the other hand, are migratory and our backyard is their winter/spring home. Soon they will be migrating north to their summer feeding and nesting grounds.

A little while later the grey squirrels (many of them coated in black fur) begin their descent from the creches in the trees where they spend the night huddled together. Frequently they hang from their back legs on the tree trunk and do a morning stretch with their forelegs as they greet the day. Then they descend to indulge in the peanuts I toss out between a maple tree and an oak tree.

Blue Jay. Photo by the author.

Once the scrum for peanuts begins, the squirrels are joined by the local blue jays, usually between 2 to 4 of them. The local jays are here year round, but many of their cousins migrate south in the winter and return in the spring. When that happens I sometimes see 8 or blue jays grabbing peanuts and flying off with them before the squirrels discover them.

Eastern Chipmunk. Photo by the author.

As the spring advances the Eastern chipmunks, a form of ground squirrel, come out of their winter semi-hibernation to join the race for peanuts. The “chippies” also love birdseed and will stuff their cheeks full of them to take down into their elaborate tunnels and seed hoards below the ground. The almost unbearable cuteness of the chipmunks captures everyone’s fancy.

Red-bellied Woodpecker. Photo by the author.

A red-bellied woodpecker leaves the birch tree it was examining and flies to the maple tree where it peers down to see if the peanut frenzy has died down. As soon as there’s an opening, it flies to the ground to feed on some birdseed. Then it flies off again to do woodpeckery things on tree trunks. Occasionally a hairy or downy woodpecker flies by too, but they generally eschew the peanuts and the birdseed. The same for the black-capped chickadees that often accompany them.

American Robin. Photo by the author.

For those of us who live in the north, the most iconic signs of spring take place when the robins, grackles, and red-wing blackbirds arrive. Grass is beginning to grow, flower plants poke their heads out, and snowdrops blossom while the robins run along the edges of the yard looking for early spring worms.

What’s interesting about both the robins and the red-wings is that the males arrive some 3–4 weeks before the females. This is probably to give the males time to establish their individual territories so when the females arrive they can get right down to the important business of mating and laying eggs.

Cottontail Rabbit. Photo by the author.

One of the shyer critters — a cottontail rabbit — emerges from under the bushes and it, too, nibbles on birdseed. The rabbits have to hide from predators like urban coyotes, not to mention hawks and owls. The cottontails develop a trust in me over time and don’t even flinch when I toss them a bit more food.

Cooper’s Hawk. Photo by the author.

Hawks aren’t daily visitors but they do fly in occasionally and we sometimes lose a squirrel or one of the songbirds to them. It’s not nice to watch, but it’s perfectly natural and they, too, need food to survive.

Soon other songbirds begin to migrate from the south and visit the yard. Cowbirds, white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, ruby-crown and golden-crown kinglets, various thrushes, and the occasional brown thrasher. Most are just passing through on their way farther north or out into farmland so it’s important to keep an eye out for them from the kitchen window.

Raccoon. Photo by the author.

Raccoons are among the largest of the mammals that visit us occasionally. They too live in the neighbourhood year round, though they’re mostly nocturnal. They’re intelligent and clever and can get into things with their dexterous paws. For this reason we now have supposedly raccoon-proof garbage bins, but the raccoons are already learning how to open them. Nearby Toronto is often called the “raccoon capital of the world,” and has an enormous population of these indomitable critters.

Northern Flicker. Photo by the author

As spring progresses, the flickers arrive. These beautifully coloured birds are members of the woodpecker family and although they’ll eat some birdseed, they prefer ants.

American Goldfinch. Photo by the author.

Soon the goldfinches that live here year round change into their summer plumage and are frequent visitors to our birdbath. Around the time when insects can be seeing flying around tree buds, the warblers begin to arrive. Most of them pass through quickly, heading for more northern places to build nests.

Although mid-day is quiet on the critter front, various creatures come out again in the late afternoon for another feed. Mourning doves walk the perimeters of the yard in graceful motion, unhurriedly pecking at birdseed along the way. Eventually the squirrels head back up to their creches as the light begins to fade. Then the cardinals make a final round of feeding in the dusk, often joined by juncos and white-throated sparrows. The daylight comes to an end and the watchful humans eat their dinner, then retire to their snug to listen to music, read books, and reflect on the bounty of the day.

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

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. 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. 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.

Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 1



In the earliest periods of its history, photography was about black-and-white, or monochrome, images in the form of photographic prints, tintypes, and daguerrotypes. Later, colour films were developed–both colour transparency and colour negative films–and colour and black-and-white film coexisted side by side, as they still do in specialty camera stores. At the time digital photography arrived, most serious film photographers owned at least two camera bodies: one for colour film and one for black and white. Today there’s no longer any need for an extra camera body because beautiful black and white images can be crafted from digital colour images.

Despite the understandable popularity of colour images, black-and-white (B&W) photography still thrives as an art form. B&W photography is a parallel but different medium to colour photography and it offers a different kind of artistic experience. Rather than relying on beautiful and/or striking colours, it relies on strong subjects, interesting contrast and lighting, texture and form, and a silvery essence to set the mood.

Traditionally, B&W images have been crafted in the photographer’s darkroom, with an amber or red safelight and trays filled with developer, stop bath, and fixer. With the advent digital photography, this has been replaced by the digital darkroom: photo editors allow you to recreate the craft of B&W photography in the comfort of a well-lit room with no chemical smells.

What we will do in this series of tutorials on digital B&W photography is explore the craft of creating beautiful monochrome images to post in your online galleries or to hang as finished prints on your wall.

Autumn Melancholy

The requirements for this tutorial are simple: a digital camera to take photos with, and a good photo editor to turn them into compelling B&W images. The camera can be your cell phone, a compact point-and-shoot, a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera, a DSLR or, maybe if you’re hobbyist, one of each. You don’t need a fancy digital camera to get started.

One thing you do need is a strong photo editor. While there are many easy-to-use, lightweight editors around, like Apple’s Photos for the Mac, and Google’s Picassa, you’ll need to use a more sophisticated editor to get the best results in producing B&W images. Aperture, which Apple has discontinued, is still a good medium-level image editor, as is Adobe’s LightRoom. On the iPad and Android tablets you can do good work in apps such as Snapseed.

For best results, however, you may want to use an editor that allows you to work on layers. These editors range from the top-of-the-line Adobe Photoshop CS, and its remarkably capable yet inexpensive cousin, Photoshop Elements, to the excellent, free, editor, GIMP, available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and BSD. The advantage of Photoshop and Elements is that there are a number of commercial plug-ins for black and white that can be used with these products, like the amazing Silver Effects Pro, from Nik Software (now owned by Google). The advantage of GIMP is not only that it’s free, but that it’s a sophisticated editor offering layers as well as other advanced tools. In this set of tutorials I will be using Photoshop CS for my examples, with references to corresponding features in GIMP.

Your Instructor

My name is Gene Wilburn and I’ve been captivated by photography since the age of 12, which was now over 50 years ago. I grew up developing film and making black-and-white prints and, although I shoot a lot of colour, I’ve always had a special fondness and affection for black and white. When I was growing up I devoured the technical photo books by Ansel Adams and was influenced by the writings of the great photography teacher David Vestal. I am, and have always been, an amateur photographer, delighting in photography for the sheer joy of it.

When I discovered digital photography, in 2002, I was hooked immediately, though I still shot film for several years after. Above all, I fell for Photoshop, for the images it would allow me to craft in both colour and black and white. What I hope to do is pass on some of the techniques and tricks I’ve learned along the way in the hope that you’ll find black and white photography as interesting and fun as I do.

For the most part, the tutorials will not be overly technical. I’m a believer in the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) approach to photo editing and will stick to the basics, with a few twists.

If you find these tutorials helpful, or have a question about technique you can’t find the answer to, drop me a note at or post in the comments section following each tutorial and I’ll do my best to reply.


Gene with PEN and Lumix Lens

Returning to Port

Purple Monarda

I feel I’ve been at sea, drifting on the currents and tides and going where the wind blows me. The past six months have been filled with reading and the study of math, but very little writing, with the exception of my personal journal.

What I’ve been lacking are projects, other than working in the garden. I’ve not worked up any photo projects or writing projects for some time. There are times in your life when you just aren’t ready to undertake any and this has been one of those times for me.

Lately, though, the writing urge has returned and, with the spring flowers, the urge to take photos. I just finished an article for Small Print and I’m looking at some of my dormant writing projects to see if I want to resurrect any of them. I’ve also been taking the guitar out of its case more often, building a new set of calluses for playing.

The highlight of the spring was a family visit I made to Arkansas to see my brothers Jim, Howard, and John, and my sister Lori. They were all looking good and we laughed and overate with abandon.

Next time I’ll talk a little more about Small Print magazine and my role in it. For now I’ll just say, it feels like the ship has come into port and I’ve been granted shore leave.


Rainbow Drops

My friend and fellow camera enthusiast Ron Herron has published his first novel, Reichold Street, which “introduces a group of young, urban friends in the 1960s, and follows them from youthful neighborhood intrigue to family dysfunction, murder, suicide and madness. It explores the relationships that unite, divide and sustain these young friends, and their families, all the way to the searing tragedy and redemption of war.” The book is available in both print and ebook formats. I look forward to reading it.

I’ve been exploring the artistic/interpretive side of photography for the last while. In particular I’m using iPhone apps to create special effects and abstracts, as seen in my Abstracts set on Flickr. Standard photography has been in hiatus while I await the delivery of an Olympus OM-D, which should happen in the next week or two. Sometimes I need a new piece of gear to whet my appetite for photography.

I’ve been working on some essays for a collection I hope to pull together in the next year or so. My current essay has the tentative title, “On Becoming a Squirrel Whisperer.” I confess that work has been proceeding slowly, partly due to spending so much time reading on the Internet each day. It’s challenging to keep up with the science and technology stories that interest me. One aid is my Sci/Tech Daily Twitter newspaper that is issued twice a day.

For some odd reason I’ve been out of touch with my musical side. I never listen to music while I’m working or reading, and it’s been months since I took one of my instruments out of the closet. I’m hoping this is not some kind of brain problem caused by aging or the use of antidepressants. One positive sign is that I took out my six-string a couple of nights ago and enjoyed trying out some new (to me) songs. I’m hoping my interest in music will return.

Healthwise, not much to complain about. My ticker seems to be doing fine and aside from broken sleep patterns and a somewhat gimpy hip, both signs of aging, I’ve been feeling healthy. We’ve been enjoying a fine spring in Ontario and it’s a pleasure to go for walks.

One correction: in my posting, The Problem with Streaming Video, I complained about the lack of subtitles or captions. I’ve since discovered that Netflix has English subtitles for many of its videos. Getting captioning to display on the Apple TV is not intuitive, so here’s how to do it: Got to Settings, Audio & Video, Closed Captioning. Click it on and enjoy.

Latest tech acquisition: an iPad 3. A very satisfying purchase.

Goodbye to Film (Again)

Goodbye to Film

The last time I intended to go all digital, I hedged my bets and kept a Bessa T rangefinder and a few M-mount lenses for the Bessa. I also borrowed a Yashicamat 124 from my friend Jan and a Canon Rebel 2000 from my friend Suzanne. Feeling the film itch again, I bought a used Nikon F100 and replaced my development tanks and reels. I was ready to go.

That was over a year ago and I realized that in that time I had not shot a single roll of film. Clearly something was wrong with this picture.

It’s not film per se, or film cameras that held me back. I still think film black-and-white is special and I enjoy the handling and build of film cameras. The problem lay with me.

The problem is not that I like digital, but that I love digital.

I’ve become a Flickr hound and like to post something new each day. I also like to go out for a photo walk, come back home, and dump the images to my Mac. I really enjoy post processing. Although I’m not a Photoshop expert, I’m very comfortable with Photoshop and Bridge and look forward to organizing the images then selecting ones to work on for posting on Flickr.

On the other hand, I no longer felt like going through the effort of developing film then scanning negatives before I got to a starting point. Call it laziness, or simply call it practicality — bowing to the inevitable.

Another factor for leaving film again is that I now do a lot of my shooting with an iPhone 4. Because it’s also my phone, I always have it with me and the photo apps available for the iPhone camera make it great fun to shoot with. The iPhone made it less likely that I’d venture forth with a film cam.

Then, the biggest factor of all: I read that Olympus was going to release an m-4/3 camera styled on the Olympus OM film cameras. The Olympus OM-D. I loved my OM-1s when I was a film shooter and once I saw what the camera would look like, I decided to clear by closet of film gear.

I sold the Bessa T and most of the lenses for it. I sold the F100. I sold my unused developing tank and reels. I even sold my remaining Rodinal and HC-110. I returned my borrowed cameras. A clean slate.

So. I have a black-body Olympus OM-D with the 12-50mm weatherproof lens on order. The order includes a trade-in on my faithful Lumix G2, a nice camera in its own right. Because I own a few Olympus and Lumix m-4/3 lenses, along with my remaining vintage lenses, I’m well kitted out for when the OM-D arrives.

So once again, goodbye film. A blessing to all those who still use it and keep it alive. I’ll watch for your work on Flickr.