The Power of Black & White -- For Color Photographers

Updated: Feb 15

In May 2009 I took my first high-end DSLR, a Canon 1Ds Mark III that was just a year old, on a 10-day shoot in the Maze District of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The camera performed superbly and the scenery was amazing, but my photos were rather disappointing. They just didn’t have the snap of the 4x5 film I’d shot for 15 years before switching to digital. I did some basic edits on the best, filed them away, and didn’t look closely at them again until yesterday.

Suddenly the problem with my Maze images seemed blindingly obvious. They simply didn’t have the level of global and local contrast I’d taken for granted with 4x5 film. Fortunately, the solution was simple. If some of your images are disappointing, but you don’t quite know why, try the techniques I’ll describe next and see if they help.

First, some background. By design, untouched RAW files are boring, as you can see in figure 1, an image of Delicate Arch at sunset.

Figure 1. The original RAW file, with all adjustments zeroed.

RAW files emerge from the camera with inherently low contrast and low color saturation. Such images are said to be “flat.” The first step toward improving this image was to add global contrast. I applied the Strong Contrast preset in Lightroom CC’s Tone Curve panel to produce the image in figure 2. (As an aside, I also checked Enable Profile Corrections in the Profile tab of the Lens Corrections panel. This reduced the vignetting that made the corners darker than the center.) The image is better, but there’s still room for improvement.

Figure 2. The RAW file after applying the Strong Contrast preset in the Tone Curve panel.

Most good landscape photographs have a little bit of pure black. Black anchors the tonal scale and gives the eye a reference point that makes the highlights seem brighter by comparison. Lightroom’s Basic panel includes both a Shadows slider and a Blacks slider. Although the two sliders are related, they don’t do the same thing. The Shadows slider controls the near-black tones. Typically you’ll move it to the right to lighten the shadows. The Blacks slider controls the black point: which pixels in the image will be rendered as pure black.

The simple but unsophisticated way to set the black point is to drag the Blacks slider back and forth until the image is visually pleasing. Or you can get fancy by dragging the slider all the way to the right, then pressing and holding the Alt key. Now drag the slider slowly back to the left. The screen will turn completely white. As you continue dragging, small flecks of color will begin to appear. These represent the first areas where one of the three channels (red, green, or blue) has become clipped, which means that channel has a value of zero. Continue dragging until the first flecks of pure black appear, and stop. Release the Alt key. You’ve set the black point.

The most precise approach is to press and hold Shift, then double-click on the Blacks slider. In essence, you’re telling Lightroom to find the darkest pixel in the image and make it pure black, then create smooth transitions upwards through the tonal scale. That’s the approach I took to create figure 3.

Figure 3. The RAW file after holding down Shift and double-clicking on the Blacks slider to set the black point.

You can do the same thing to set a white point: hold down Shift and double-click the Whites slider. Although that may improve the image still further, as you can see in figure 4, it can also go too far, either producing an image that looks over-exposed everywhere, or producing one that has large areas of near-white tone.You may be able to see the detail in those delicate highlights on your high-end monitor, but commercial printers in particular may struggle to keep those areas from becoming blank white. I prefer to err on the side of caution and pull the Whites slider back to the left until the right edge of the histogram terminates a little bit before the right edge of the graph, rather than exactly at the bottom right corner of the graph.

Figure 4. The RAW file after holding down Shift and double-clicking on the Whites slider to set the white point.

There’s certainly more that could be done with this image. You could use the Highlights slider to darken the sky slightly and the Shadows slider to open up the darkest shadows a bit. Adding 10 or 15 points of Clarity would bring out the texture of the rock. Notice, however, that I haven’t added any Saturation or Vibrance. In my view, simply adding global contrast with the Tone Curve panel and setting appropriate white and black points has produced all the saturation the image needs. Next time you’re stuck on an image, give this approach a try. It may be all you need to make a good image much better.

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