Making a Black-and-White Photograph "Sing"

I’ve received a few questions about what “tricks” I’m using for my black-and-white images. Well, I’d say that I don’t use any tricks, just the tools of the trade. Let me show you…

Here is a typical image straight out of the camera. It’s quite good already — it shows an interesting face with a very intense gaze, it’s sharp and well exposed.

But naturally there is room for improvement. In Camera Raw I cropped to a 3:4 ratio, increased the exposure some, darkened slightly and increased the contrast a good bit.

Now the face is much more dominant, and the eyes, mustache and beard are more vibrant. I could leave the image in color, but it begs to be converted to black and white. But before doing that, I inspected the whole area at 200% magnification and removed any dust, skin blemishes, etc. That small triangle of background in the upper-left corner bothered me too, so I filled it with pixels from the turban.

The next step was to look at the three individual channels. I liked the green one much more than red or blue one, so after experimenting some, I settled on -20, +170, -50.

There — the clash of the skin and turban colors is gone, but the image lacks contrast. I added a contrast layer and it did wonders to the face, but made the turban too bright. I counteracted that by adding a mask and limiting the contrast increase to the face only.

Now the eyes, forehead and especially the right quarter of the face became too dark, so I added a lightening layer and a mask that revealed the effect only in the desired areas.

The right eye is still too dark, which I corrected with a lightening layer.

The most noticeable problems have been addressed now, but the turban, the mustache and the background in the lower-right corner are still too bright. I counteracted that with a darkening layer.

Now, that’s already very good! In fact, this is the first version that I printed and showed around. I even glued it on my wall and stared at it for a few days. After getting over my initial excitement, I started noticing further possibilities for improvement.

First I darkened the brightest areas of the turban, shirt and collar as they were drawing attention away from the face.

Then I darkened the edges and corners of the image a good bit.

The light area of the background on the left-hand side and by the much brighter background on the right-hand side bothered me immediately, so made them very dark, almost without any detail.

And that’s where I am right now. Admittedly the last three changes were quite subtle, but in my mind, they are the ones that make the image really “sing.”

I’ve been staring at the version above for a while now and I can’t think of any further improvements. I’ll look at it again tomorrow, and if then too I don’t see anything that bothers me, I’ll make a second print.

That print might reveal further problems and lead to even more adjustment layers, but for now I’m satisfied.

By the way, here is what my layer stack looks like right now:

UPDATE: It is now one day later. This morning I didn’t see any problems on screen, so I made a 10×15 cm print on cheap glossy paper. When it came out, I immediately saw three areas that just had to be improved. I lightened the white collar on the right-hand side, then lightened the whole image a tiny bit. Finally I spotted the very dark area in the middle of the chin, which, although perfectly natural, was too obvious and distracting.

I’m making another small print right now, and if that one holds for a day, it will be time for an A4-size print on pearl paper.