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.)

End of Ringer

After watching through six episodes of Ringer I’ve decided to give it up. This doesn’t make me very happy because I really like Sarah Michelle Gellar, the star of the series, and I hoped to get into this new drama and enjoy it.

It’s not that it doesn’t have an intriguing premise: Gellar plays twins who couldn’t be more different. One twin takes the place of the other and the plots are filled with twists, turns, and cliff hangers.

The problem, for me, is that the series is unrelentingly dark. There is little humor, no camaraderie, no bonding, and no very compelling characters. The dialog is unexciting.

In short, the show doesn’t live up to its promise. For Gellar’s sake I hope the series is successful, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not on the air next year.

Back to Film

Nikon F100

When I gave up film to go 100% digital, I thought that was it. It’s not that I didn’t like film. It’s more I was on a simplification kick and with digital being so good now I thought I wouldn’t miss film.

I did rather wonder why my photography had fallen off and I couldn’t work up any passion for it. I attributed it to the usual causes: aging, depression, other things on my mind, whatever. I didn’t clue into what was the matter until I bought a new film scanner, an Epson V700.

I got the scanner to scan the hundreds and hundreds of photos from the 1980s and 90s that have never been scanned. Color negative film, mostly.

But as soon as I did some test scans, something heady happened. Suddenly I was enthusiastic about photography again. And with the ability to scan everything from 35mm to large format, the film bug caught me and I started asking around if anyone had a used TLR medium-format camera available.

Both my friend Nancy and my friend Jan offered me a TLR. The first one I tried had a stuck shutter and, alas, couldn’t be used. The second one, a Yashicamat 124 is on its way to me from being repaired in the U.S.

Then I got to thinking about 35mm and how I missed having a film SLR around. Another friend, Guy, mentioned he’d seen a nice Nikon F100 up for auction on eBay by Henry’s. I bid on it, and won it, and took it out for a test spin with some Ilford HP5 Plus film.

Development of the film was tricky. I’d given away or sold all my photo processing gear so I used a donated stainless-steel tank and reels. I picked up some HC-110 developer and some rapid fixer and did my best to load the film onto an SS reel. The last time I used SS reels was over 40 years ago, and I’d been using Paterson nylon reels ever since so it was a challenge.

Then as I was ready to start, I discovered there wasn’t a thermometer in the house I could use to measure the temperature of the developer. So I guessed, as best I could, at 20C. Film loaded, I developed it, fixed it, and washed it. I could see that the film had been slightly mis-spooled and there was a small area where it looped back on itself and didn’t receive any development. Worse, the film was badly fogged. Evidently the SS tank leaks light.

I could see just enough on the strip to see that the frames had been exposed consistently by the F100 and that spacing was good. I took one frame, a reflection of a tree in a puddle, and zonked out the contrast in Photoshop to produce a textured abstract. It was the only semi-salvagable frame on the entire roll.

So now I’ve ordered a new Paterson three-reel tank and three Paterson reels so I can have a comfortable, light-tight tank and set of reels. They no longer carry them in the store. I had to special order the tank.

I might be off to a hard start, but I’m delighted to be back to film. Not film exclusively, of course. I like digital photography very much, but I missed the craft of film photography and am glad to have returned to it.

Here’s the salvaged frame:

Abstract in Sepia

Feeling Gruntled

Canadian Thanksgiving

The other day a group of us were seated in Second Cup, conversing about this and that, and one of them said to another member of the group, “You were looking disgruntled this morning.”

That raised the question, if you can be disgruntled, can you be gruntled? Someone had an iPad along and looked up the word and, sure enough, you CAN be gruntled. It evidently means satisfied, or put in a good humor, especially by food and company. So I can rightly say after Canadian Thanksgiving Dinner that I felt gruntled.

But wait. The word isn’t quite what it seems. Gruntled is evidently a back formation of disgruntled. Meaning that historically people felt there should be a matched pair — hence gruntled came as a late back formation. The first recorded usage of the word is 1929. The “dis” in “disgruntled” is not like the “dis” in “dismayed.” It means “completely”, i.e. “completely gruntled.”

So, contrary to the way it sounds, the modern gruntled is a neologism.

Be that as it may, I hope you’re feeling as gruntled as I am.