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The Power of Black & White -- For Color Photographers

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

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
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.