A Darwinian Ramble


A Darwinian Ramble

By Gene Wilburn

I was always aware of evolution, in the vague sense that high school biology bestows, along with cell membranes, nuclei, zygotes, and stinky starfish dissection. It made a rough kind of sense and I was never a disbeliever, but I must admit my intellectual life received its biggest boost when I met Charles Darwin. Not literally, of course, but when you’ve read something someone has written, you do in fact meet them, in a virtual sense, and in that way my reading of Origin of Species granted me temporary access to one of the great minds of the Nineteenth Century.

Darwin’s prose style was honest and plain and his clear arguments persuasive. “Descent with modification”, or evolution, shaped life in all its enormity, complexity, and wonder, over time spans so long, with a past so distant, that the human mind can’t properly grasp the scale. Even today when the evidence pins the probable age of life on earth itself to over three billion years ago, that’s a meaningless number to us. After all, there are still extant cultures of hominid descendants who can’t count the number of pebbles in a bag because their native-language counting system goes “one, two, many.” Most of us are slightly more numerate than this, but beyond a small number set, we reach for a calculator. And so it is that we fail to fully appreciate the enormity of time.

Time. Deep time. In the same period as Darwin, Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes, and Lyell opened Darwin’s mind to the concept of deep time. Given enough time, the speciation Darwin observed, both natural and domestic, had long enough to split and join and migrate and split and join and migrate and split ad infinitum into the diversity of life that has become the hallmark of our planet. When you recall that this was the time period in which geological findings were contradicting the account of the world in Genesis, the concept of deep time was beginning to rock religious beliefs and hold them up for critical questioning. If the world was indeed as old as the evidence was indicating, it’s an astonishing change in world view from the 6000-year estimate provided by Bishop Ussher in the Sixteenth Century, based primarily on a literal reading of the genealogy of ancient Hebrew patriarchs.

Context is important. While I introduced myself to Charles Darwin’s chief opus and subsequently read the account of his travels which we popularly call Voyage of the Beagle, I was serving as head librarian in the research library of the Royal Ontario Museum where I was surrounded by volumes of archaeological field reports, geological works, palaeontological studies, books on natural history, and shelves of scientific journals. Better yet, I had become friendly with several of the life science and earth science curators who were happy to field my questions about the earth and the life upon it. As a bonus, some of the research staff held an annual Charles Darwin Birthday Lunch every February 12th at which one of the researchers would deliver a lecture on their own research and how it related to evolution. In this context, I picked up much additional knowledge of evolutionary theory and how it has evolved, expanded, and become more nuanced since Darwin’s day.

So what has this to do with my intellectual life? It changed everything. I read Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and started reading Stephen Jay Gould’s columns in Nature. Gould was one of my main influences and his works, collected occasionally into volumes of essays such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb stretched my appreciation for the complexity of dealing with such a broad topic as evolution. What these scientist-writers showed me again and again is how hypotheses must be modified when new, conclusive evidence comes along to change the original assumptions. I liked the idea of “evidence-based” knowledge — knowledge that is honest and, as far as possible, untinged by bias. Nobody can exist as a totally bias-free being, but most scientists try to limit their biases when dealing with evidence. Philosophically, this appealed to me. From Darwin I learned objectivity. From Gould, deep time. And from Dawkins, the concept that our entire world view can be inverted if we think of humans as the human genome’s way of reproducing itself.

But to a philosophical person, science is as limited by its materialistic outlook as it is strengthened by it. Before my “history of the planet and all its denizens over time” reading, I had already amassed a motley background of humanities studies with courses in literature, art, philosophy, history, and linguistics. My M.A. in English reflected more my interest in the English language itself, than in literature, though the literature was a great perk, showing the brilliant and beautiful ways the English language can be expressed in the hands of its best writers. From the humanities I derived a deep respect for what I’ll call the human psyche. I don’t like to use the word soul because of its religious and supernatural connotations. And if anyone asks, no, I’m not an “old soul.” I doubt such a thing exists.

But I do think there is a spirit in the psyche of humans that can, in the right circumstances, lead to a flowering of art, literature, and philosophy, as well as science. Ours has become an intensely philosophical age in the sense of ethics. What are the ethics of how we treat other people, especially minorities or factions that are different from our own norms and traditions? What is the morality of abortion? What obligation, if any, do the rich have toward the poor? Who should be entitled to low-cost or free medical care? Is “assisted suicide” more humane than aging into a shell of what one was? Is it okay to modify human genes? Or more generally, what is the good life, and how can we help more people on the planet achieve it? There are issues everywhere, to the point of psychological exhaustion that is sometimes reflected in political voting trends.

I remind myself that no age I’ve ever studied has had it easy. Even as many aristocrats enjoyed bounty, they relied on the work of terribly poor, overworked and often undernourished peasants to keep things running. And wars and uprisings could lay low even the aristocracy. The Twentieth Century, after the terrible world wars, seemed to offer the promise of bounty for all, via capitalist economies. In the Twenty-First Century we see a reversing trend, where wealthy plutocrats enjoy great bounty, and the working middle class is shrinking in North American and European countries. Authoritarian governments are becoming more numerous, and even in Britain, Europe, Canada, and the United States, there are populist stirrings among folk who are fatigued with issues and a sinking lifestyle and want to “punish” those in power by voting for autocratic candidates.

It is possible we might be headed for a more authoritarian age and will elect our way into a less democratic society. It is becoming an age of fear and anger among a large portion of the population. The main fear is change, along with a nostalgic longing for the 1950s when increasing prosperity was the norm, at least for large members of the white middle class. How we treated our minorities in the 50s is another matter.

The problem with this problem of resentment and fear is that you cannot go back in time, or as they say in Lit classes, “you can’t go home again.”

In one of the subsequent editions of Origin of Species Darwin introduced the Malthusian phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the thrust of evolution. In his later private writings he said he regretted using the phrase because it conveyed the wrong connotations. He wished instead he had said something like “survival of the most adaptable.” So much of modern life is about adapting to change. Those who adapt to the changes will be more likely to survive and, with luck, prosper. While nothing is guaranteed in life, staying nimble is a positive survival trait.

And so, I turn to Darwin for encouragement, even though it is stripped of religious and the supernatural:

There is grandeur in this view of life [natural history and evolution], with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We were not the first species on the planet, and we won’t be the last, but among those who truly embrace life in all its originality and variety, this is the time of humanity. Religion may offer people comfort, but philosophy asks the hard questions, such as what is our obligation to planet Earth itself? We have already driven many life forms to extinction, many just recently. Do we take a more caring role in our impact on the planet, or should we simply take, take, take until we, too, go extinct?

I have come to believe we need both science and the humanities to keep us on a rational course. We are from the earth and will each of us return to the earth. To a good evolutionist, such as I’ve become, that is it. So the intellectual question remains, if this is really it, how should one comport oneself, both socially and intellectually? The intellectual life is needed for perspective on questions like this and I think we must continue to learn and to educate, and, of course, adapt to the age in which we live. There is both power and positiveness in the human psyche. We have a brain unlike any other creature. Our obligation, it seems to me, is to use it.

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Had I an ear for foreign tongues, French would fizz through my synapses in an embrace of lilac and elegance. The wine would be good too. Anglo-Saxon would flood my veins with tribal bonds and hard sinews, and roast meat, when you could get it. Icelandic and Old Swedish would carry me home to lands of ice and sea and foam and goddenknowing — the home of my ancestors. The gods know I hate mead. It’s a good thing I’m stuck in English, the earthy, quirky, surprising language mashed together from an Anglo-Celtic-Danish-Norman-Latin-and-less-Greek parentage. Stir in an industrial revolution, an electronic revolution, not to mention a few wars and the threat of the BIG bomb, pop some guys to the moon and back, joystick a rover on Mars, and whaddaya get? English. Hey, kiddo. Ya still with me? English is the best ride in the linguistic universe. Death-defying, roller-coaster spelling. Split into pools of speakers around the world who all think it’s the others who have an accent. And from the fifth grade when the first time you tried to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and got it right and can still do it but damned if you can remember how to spell covfefe without looking it up — I mean it’s an adventure, this English. One lifetime devoted to it is scarcely enough. To thee, or not to thee, English is the Hamlet of languages.

— Gene Wilburn, 6 Jun 2017

Life on the Trumpoline

Life on the Trumpoline

By Gene Wilburn

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” ~ Monty Python

What irritates me the most about Donald Trump is that I have to think about him at all. I’m not a political person by nature and when it comes to governments I’m kind of a you-do-your-thing and I’ll-do-mine type. Try not to do anything too stupid, and I’ll do likewise. If too much negative stuff comes to my attention, I won’t vote for you next time. Up to now this has always been a more-or-less fair trade-off because the governments of the US, Canada, and the UK have been more-or-less sensible. They seemed able to get on with their business in fairly predictable, if muddling, fashion without needing my constant worry or scrutiny.

Lately, though, my concentration has been constantly interrupted by the strangest event in US history: the election of a reality-TV host who makes daily Twitter postings to vent his spleen, who tells Americans the mainstream press is the enemy of the people, who threatens, and when he can, fires all who don’t agree with him. He’s the Man Who Would Be King. Like most naive watchers, I assumed the office of the presidency would reshape him into something more restrained and, with luck, something a little more dignified.

What I hadn’t realized was that he would bring to office with him a group of Neo-Antebellum types who, given their druthers, would strip the US of all the progress it’s made made over the past several decades in the way of civil rights for all citizens. Or to strip away affordable medical care from everyone.

These are not normal day-to-day Republicans. They are people who ran Breibert News to spread false news stories, whacky conspiracy theories, hatred for Islam, anti-science propaganda, and a worldview whose only real message is White Supremacy and unrestricted corporate license. People who seem itching to get into a big war against some foreign government or other. People who espouse a fiery brand of righteous fundamentalist Christianity that is mostly about hatred and intolerance, all under the rubric of “making America great again.” Actually, America was doing pretty well before these people popped up like toadstools after a rain.

The mainstream news analysts can describe all of this better than I can. What I think about are the many others like me (millions?) who find this all a bit much, and whose psyches are being disrupted by a daily assault on reason and sensibility.

If you’re old enough, you may remember as a teenager listening to AM radio at night when you could dial in a good rock station from far-away Oklahoma or California that would fade out for awhile and some other staticy station on the same frequency would drift in and it might be a preacher or a newscast or a country music station, then the rock station would fade back in and for awhile they’d both be at the same volume and your brain would kind of bifurcate and try to process both stations at once, trying to separate the wheat (rock music) from the chaff (everything else). We weren’t meant to live that way, but that’s what’s happening to us now.

This New World is especially hard on those of us who suffer from depression. People aren’t mean to live on edge all the time. We need buffer zones — places or practices to give our minds soft landing points during the day, be it meditation, cozy mysteries, food preparation, yoga, a walk in the park, extra naps, Tai Chi, or music and art. Thoreau described himself as a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms.” I practice relaxation exercises and watch our backyard squirrels and birds from the kitchen window. Things that slow me down and soothe my psyche.

One of my problem areas is Facebook. I love Facebook for sharing art, kibitzing with my many talented, bright friends, sharing interesting developments in science and technology, and just generally keeping in touch with the people and seeing what they’re up to. But since the US election campaign started, the political news stories have started to dominate the feeds and an element of darkness has come over Facebook, filled with fear and loathing and little of it in Las Vegas. With Trump in the White House, it’s become the Big Shop of Horrors.

One of the solutions, of course, is simply to unplug from Facebook, and, in fact, I have friends who take Facebook breaks. Some have never come back, more’s the pity. Without the politics, Facebook can maintain a warm community of caring folk. But that’s just it. They’re caring folk, and they care about what’s happening south of the border. We all do. The US is a great country, seemingly on the verge of institutional, or perhaps constitutional, collapse.

In dealing with Facebook, I’ve discovered an interesting technological phenomenon. Facebook has more impact on a tablet using the Facebook app than it does when accessed via a browser on a computer. Because you hold an iPad or equivalent up close to your face, Facebook is literally “in your face.” Images and memes have greater power when viewed this way. When it’s positive, it’s lovely. When it’s negative, it triggers anxiety faster than it does in a browser.

The only tip I can pass on is this: when Facebook gets too much, delete the app from your iPad and switch to a browser. It makes the ugly stuff a little easier to take somehow. In a twist on Marshall McLuhan, it’s a case of “the medium is the messenger.” Removing the tablet app is the satisfying equivalent of shooting the messenger. At times one has to take pleasure in small acts of defiance.

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. 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.

Classical Guitar

New Guitar

Against all probabilities, I decided, in my 68th year, to start learning classical guitar. I’ve played folk guitar for several decades, but I never really learned anything beyond picking patterns and chord changes because my playing was an accompaniment to singing.

Nonetheless, I love listening to classical guitar music. I love the instrument and I love the repertoire. Once, in 1977, I spent a little time with the instrument but dropped it because I was impatient and professionally busy.

Now that I’m retired I can concentrate on new learning with more patience and deliberation. I have the time to spend I didn’t have when I was younger.

At my age I don’t expect to become a really good player, but I think I can learn enough to enjoy playing and, perhaps, master some simpler pieces.

I’m even going to classical guitar camp this summer for four days of classes, some private lessons, and concerts in the evenings by the instructors.

Wish me well. (And don’t expect any recitals in the near future.)