Monthly Archives: November 2011

Shooting the Sun – Blobs and Stars

Shooting the Sun 

Caution: Never look directly into the sun, Never meter on the sun, Never point your camera directly at the sun, Never! 

HDR has opened up a lot of shooting possibilities; one of those is shooting in the direction of the sun and not having to settle for a silhouette. But what about shooting the sun itself? Well that is a little harder. 

The first problem is; the dynamic range of the sun to a shadow is beyond even what the human eye can do in one glance.  We would (BUT WE SHOULD’T) look at the sun and then our eyes would need to adjust for dark subject area.  The human eye is capable in one glance of seeing a Dynamic range of about 10,000:1 the sun would be about 100 times that. (For reference, a good LCD monitor DR is about 1,000:1, a print much less than that) The sun is too bright for even the human eye to see. 

And what would the sun look like, to our eyes, even if we did look at it. Would it be a perfect round white ball? Not really, since our eyes really can’t see something that bright a mid day sun would appear as a large diffuse white object in the sky with no clear delineation. 

As the sun is close to the horizon upon rising or setting, because of the atmosphere, diffusion and particles (water and dust) in the air, the brightness of the sun becomes much less, while the dynamic range may still be high the sun itself is closer to being viewable and we are able to capture more definition to the edges of that “Circle”. 

So are we able to “Shoot” the sun? Yes it would be possible to shoot it but we need to use some special means  such as using Neutral Density filters because even at our camera’s maximum  (f/22 ISO 100 1/8000) that may not  get us the “Ball” of the sun. But again is that what we truly want since that would not be “As the eye sees” In fact it may be actually odd 

 Sunsets themselves are not hard to do and can be an easy capture. Midday shots will be the tough ones.

What kind of sun do YOU want? 

We can capture the sun Midday one of two ways, as a large blob or with a star effect. And even though “blob” may not sound that good, it may be in images with a ceratin look, be the right choice. But it is a choice you need to make before shooting because your camera settings will depend on that choice. 

Now you may say; Well a Star effect really isn’t how we see the sun. True but it is how we visualize a bright object if even in our mind. After all, when we drew the sun as a kid we always drew those Points around it, we never just drew a circle. This is because it is an effect we can get when viewing any point source light that may not be as bright as the sun. sSuch as stars (which of course are just as bright as the sun just farther away, or even things like white Christmas light, street lights, headlights etc, when we view them at night 

To get a Star effect we can do it one of two ways; the easy way of buying a Star filter. They are available with 4, 6 and 8 points in many filter sizes. The nice part about these is you can use them with any aperture but the aperture may dictate how long the star points are. Or, we could do it the hard way, which of course, I always choose. We can do it with aperture. 

To get a star pattern on ANY point source light we need to use a very small or tight aperture. Now I wanted to show you some examples of that shooting the sun at different apertures. But of course today in “Sunny”Southern California, it is completely cloud covered. So I will instead use a point source light, a Halogen Lamp, since this effect will happen with any point source light. So for today we will call our hHalogen light Happy Mr. Sunshine. 

To givet a star pattern to a point source light we want to use the smallest aperture available on our lens which in most cases is f/22 (some telephotos go to f/32- f/35) 

Let’s look at the different effects that aperture have on this. Same light same Exposure, just changing Aperture 

Now let’s look at what the effect of exposure is on the star, as we go from underexposure to over exposure, the size of the star increases. We also see as we underexpose the overall scene enough we loose the star effect completely, another reason we may not want to get a “Perfect “exposure on the sun itself 


OK so now let’s go real world and a real example.

Shooting for a Star Effect

The effectiveness will depend entirely on atmospheric conditions the day you shoot. If it is a clear blue sky you will have much better definition, add and haze or light cloud cover and you may not get this effect at all.

I’m going to make it easy for you because I really don’t want you looking into the sun trying to figure this out. 

For you initial exposure in your series of exposures for HDR, You first exposure should be f/22 1/400 ISO 100 (If your low ISO on your camera is ISO 200, use 1/800) you could use 1/800 for a tighter pattern if you would like. But a good rule of thumb is to have your sun exposure 3 – 4 stops lower than the Ambient light. This 3- 4 stops lower will work in the middle of the day as well as for sunsets when the sun becomes less bright because so does the ambient light. 

For those of you that want to know, the Ambient light during the day  would work out to f/16, 1/100, ISO 100 so the above f/22, 1/400 ISO 100 works out to 3 stops less exposure. 

For my example shoot I shot this series

 6 Images, 1 stop apart. I knew the sun exposure and just needed to get a reading of the shadow area which I spot read and got f/22 1/13 ISO 100. So I just had to work between those two in 1 stop increments. You need to shoot enough to cover the dynamics of the scene and 1 stop apart which is important in this case. We are going to have  a tough enough time processing this image in the first place we don’t want to have to worry about posterization  or banding around the sun due to too large of steps in between exposures on those areas. 

One word of note; Shooting under these condition are ripe for lens flare. So we can choose to try to minimize it or celebrate it. If you want to minimize it try changing your angle to the sun and also remove any filters form your lens as low quality ones can compound the problem. In this case lens hoods won’t do anything to help lens flare since what we normally would be shading (the sun) is included in the frame) 


Here are the exposures 

Now comes the tough part; Processing in Photomatix Pro 4.1. The biggest problem any HDR Processing programs have is areas of extreme contrast (This is why we get halos around edges of building to sky) and areas of white (It’s why we get gray clouds that should be white). So here we are throwing both problems at it at once. 

So we have to do some things that normally we may not normally do or want to do. Those of you that like Grunge or Painterly effects I will tell you right off that you will have a hard time with your normal work flow. Because as much as the normal settings for  Lighting Effects and strength are what give you the effect you like, they will do what they normally do and attempt to make everything a midtone and it will cause a lot of graying on your sun and the sky that surrounds it. 

Why this is a difficult process is because of two things, we want to try to keep a tight center for the sun and distinct star points. If we get that look right the overall image is dark. As we try to lighten the image we loose the tight center to the sun and its distinct points.   

In this case we use some extreme things that we normally would do; well I guess I should say, I never do. In this case I used the Surreal Lighting effect button, something that I normally never use. And I brought the strength back to 50. This kept our sun’s circle tight but didn’t cause the rest of the image to get super dark which even if we took out into Photoshop would be tough to correct for. 

There was a little haloing around the Hopper and a little graying of the area around the sun but noting I couldn’t fix in Post. 

Here are the compete settings for this image’ 

Strength 50
Saturation 70
Luminosity 0
Detail Contrast 0
Lighting Effect Surreal
Smooth Highlight 0
White point .250%
Black Point 0
Gamma 1.20 

You may want to try a little Highlights Smoothing in these cases moving the slider towards the middle to get the look you may want.

And that’s it for Photomatix Pro.

I then took the image into Photoshop and touched it up with a levels layer and some dodging and burning. I burned the edge of the Hopper with a Midtone Burn tool set to 10% to take care of some of the haloing and then dodge the highlights and burned the shadows a bit on the hopper body itself.

Then I sharpened the image just a bit using Nik Sharpner Pro 3.0 and I was done…well except for one more timy trick. 

 There still was a little graying in the rays of the sun, that I just wasn’t happy with. So I added another blank layer on the image and I grabbed a soft paint brush  set to 20% Opacity , 20% fill and then I sampled the blue sky next to the sun and just painted over the gray area till it became a little more blue. Not super necessary but it just bothered me a bit. 




This is the final image 


 As you notice the image contains a lot of sun flare and I even cloned out one in the grass area but I am fine with them in this instance. 





















Here are a few other examples of shooting the sun

In this one, I used f/8 and went for the blob look. I wanted the sun to look more oppresive in a harsh environment of the Salton Sea


































These two don’t show the difficulty of shooting mid-day but rather using the Star Effect on sunset suns




















I’ll leave you with one little bit of trivia. The number of points on your star effect tell you if you have a even or odd nuber of aperture blades in your lens and how many blades.

If you have an even number of blades say 8 as  you will see eight points to the star. 16 points are actually produced but the over lap each other and look like 8. If you have 7 blades you will see 14 points because on odd numbers they don’t overlap. (Generally the more blades the better the lens, better bokeh)


Hope that helps,


Reader HDR Image of the Week – Miguel Palaviccini

This Weeks Feature image comes from Miguel Palaviccini

Miguel says:

This image was taken last year at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. I borrowed a  Nikon d300s (for it’s great high noise capabilities) from my research lab and a 18-105 VR lens from a friend. I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I set the camera to Continuous High mode and fired five exposures (1/25″ – 2/3″). While I wanted to shoot at ISO 200, I just couldn’t hand hold the camera for too long of an exposure, so I ended up shooting at f/5.6 and ISO 1600. I remember that it took a couple of times before I was happy with the images at the longer shutter speeds. Hand holding for 2/3″ seems like an eternity, especially when it’s the last of five exposures!
For the processing, I used Photomatix. Since this was one of my first attempts at using this software, I can’t really remember exactly what I did. I do remember making the image a little warmer (I liked the warm colors from the wood). There was no post processing (past Photomatix) done on the image.

Well Miguel, I certainly think this is a great image. First off the composition is very cool. You’ve got the rotary engine in the foreground and then it shows how it relates to the plane in the background. I bet you wish you could have  had a tighter aperture but as you said you did the best you could and hand held it.

I like how you did keep the colors warmer because that is what Museum lights look like. I don’t like when people neutralize all light as the same.

Processing is spot on especially in the fact that this was your first effort AND there was no post processing beyond Photomatix Pro. It tells me you really worked hard getting it right in Photomatix and you have  good color and full range of dynamics from highlights to shadow. Detail is very good on the image and even though it is ISO 1600 there is very little aparent noise.

Well done Miguel. It’s a great example of HDR Photography. 

Remember if you would like your image Featured or Critiqued on  The HDR Image follow the instructions here 

Image is Copyright Miguel Palavicinni do not copy, reproduce  or use without permission

Sharpening for Print and the Web – Home Brews and Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0

Ahh sharpening, more ways to do it than probably ways to do HDR. But let’s look at first why we sharpen and then the best ways to sharpen. 

Sharpening is totally “Output” dependant. In other words we apply sharpening depending on how we will display that image. If it’s going to be displayed on screen we need to know how big a screen and what resolution the actual image will be. If we are printing the image, we need to know how it is being printed (Inkjet/Giclee’ or true photographic print/continuous tone) and how big. Sharpening for one use will not be correct for another. If we applied the same sharpening that we use for a 20 x 30 Giclee’ print on a 600 x 400 image on our Facebook page, that Facebook image would be way over-sharpened and full of sharpening artifacts. 

One note before I continue on. If you have any aspiration of do Stock Photography, do not apply any sharpening to your images. You don’t know what the final use will be for that image and that should be left to the end user and their re-toucher/designer 

Sharpening for print

Sharpening for print is dependant on print size and how it will be viewed. Thisis why I work with a Master Tiff or PSD file and then make Print JPEG copies depending on the size print I am making or having made. You can, if you don’t want to go this extreme, just make one print file but make it for what you expect the average large size print to be. Say 16” X 24” I print up to 40” x 60” and would rather do each size independently but that’s me. 

Since sharpening is so size dependant, first we must look at that image correctly so that we can see in real time/ real size how our sharpening affects the image. So I will let you in on a little known or used property of Photoshop. “View> Print Size”. Now wait a minute you say, I’ve always known about that. You probably have. BUT did you know how to calibrate it or use it in practice? 

Size Calibrating

This will take a measuring and a little calculating. Get a small tape measure or ruler and measure your monitor screen’s width Don’t just go by what the monitor says it is as in I have a 23” monitor that’s what it says on the box. That is the diagonal measurement, it was perpetrated by men, we always want things to seem larger than they are. So measure the width of the actual display area of your screen. In the case of my “22 inch “screen that measurement was `18.75”. Now find out what the horizontal resolution of your screen is set at. In Windows you can do that by right clicking on your desktop and go to properties. Macs…well you own a Mac so you should know everything (jealous laughter) 

My resolution is 1680 x 1050; the first number is the width resolution. Now take that number and divide it by your width measurement 1680/ 18.75 = 89.6 pixels per Inch

We can round that so we have a Screen Resolution or 90 ppi. Write that number down. (Well, write YOUR number down) 

Now open Photoshop. In your Preferences (Edit>Preferences) go to the Units and Ruler tab and under Screen Resolution put in that number (whatever yours works out to be) (don’t change the Print resolution number) 

You have now calibrated your monitor to be the correct size so that if you have an 8 x 10” image displayed at print size, you will see it actual size. Go ahead measure it if you don’t believe. 

Our next step is to size our image for the size print we will make. When we do this we will not be changing the actual file itself but rather just the document size. I know that sounds confusing but we won’t be altering the pixels at all, just how big the print will look on screen. 

We do this by going to Image> Image Size 

The first thing you need to do is UN-CHECK the box for “Resample Image” this will ensure that we don’t actually change the file. Then in the width and height areas put in the dimension for the print you want to make. In this case I choose to make a 30” x 20” print.  One item to take note of though is the Resolution, this number will change as you change Print sizes the only time you need to worry about it is if that number falls below 100. Most print labs need at least a number of 100 to make an acceptable print. 



Once you have you print size in, click OK. Now if you go up to View> Print Size, the size you see on screen is the actual size of the print that will be made. 

With this view we now can make an accurate judgment on how sharp the image needs to be. It may by itself be plenty sharp and you may need to do nothing. If that is the case do just that, nothing. The less you do to an image, the better off you usually are. But if you find the image lacks the detail you want, then we need to move on to sharpening. 

Sharpening –High Pass Sharpening -The Home Brew 

As I stated earlier there are as many ways to do sharpening as there are ways to do HDR. Photoshop itself has about 6 sharpening method built into its filter menu. Lightroom has its own sharpening area. For me I like an alternative method known as High Pass Sharpening. I feel it has the most power and control and I think. It just looks good. If you like the  built in sharpening then by all means use them, just make sure you view the images at the correct size as above to apply the right amount of sharpening. Smart Sharpening in Photoshop is probably the best built in 

Hi pass.

Start by duplicating your image in a layer. Layer > Duplicate layer. Now go up to Filter>Other>High Pass

Your image will turn all gray and this dialog box will pop up. 

Start with a Radius of 2.0 and work from there. What we are looking for is just the edges of object since that is what sharpening deals with the contrast of edges. Move the control back and forth till you just see the fine edges of object. If you select too much the sharpening will be applied to areas beyond the edges resulting in haloing. Once you have your edges. Click OK.

With that layer selected go up to the Layer Blend mode where the drop down now says “Normal” drop down this list and here we have quite a  few choices. The ones that are applicable are

  • Overlay
  • Soft Light
  • Hard Light
  • Vivid Light 

Changing the blend mode will change the amount and the look of our sharpening. If I have an image with a lot of small detail, I will use Overlay, if my objects are larger I will use Vivid. But it totally depends on your image. There is not just one right answer. You can also vary the opacity of that layer if the look is right but the power is just too strong. 

Play close attention to edges; look for telltale of over sharpening. haloing, white lines, color changes, color fringing. If it looks good, it is good 

You can flatten the image a then Save as a JPEG to keep or send as a Print file for that image and that size with it’s own unique name. I usually don’t flatten the image because that allows me to go back and make changes to that sharpen layer later on if I so choose and I save the image as Tiff or PSD 

That’s all there is to it. 

Geez isn’t there an easier method?

Once again Peter, I didn’t think I needed a science experiment just to print a stupid picture! Well once again this is where we use the smarts of the software makers to take care of our problems and Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 does just that. It does the calculating for you. 

Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 

Sharpener Pro 3.0

Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 is two sharpeners built into one. It is a RAW Pre-sharpener if we just wanted to sharpen an image not knowing what our final output would be and want to make up for some general softness to our image. But then there is the more adaptive and useful part, The Sharpener Pro 3.0 Output Sharpener. This takes what you want to do with your image into consideration and pretty much guides you through the process. Just answer some simple question in drop down boxes and it will do the thinking for you. 


The first thing it asks in the right Adjustment area is: What do you want to do with this image?

  • Display
  • Inkjet Print (Giclee type Photographic Print)
  • Continuous Tone print (photographic type print)
  • Halftone (Print Press)
  • Hybrid

 So you tell it what you want to do. I want to make a continuous tone print. Select that and now you are posed with other questions you answer

  • Viewing Distance
  • Yes viewing distance for a print can matter. The closer you view something the less sharpening it may need. If it is a print held in your hand or a print on the wall this can vary. (I found that the Auto setting worked well) 
  • Printer resolution: If you know this then enter that in, I know my print lab uses 250 ppi. If you don’t know , use 300 
  • Image Height and Width, Enter in the print size you want to make and it will apply enough sharpening for that size. This is a substitute for viewing at print size like we did for the High Pass Sharpening. It is also what the AUTO setting for viewing distance takes into consideration. 

Answer the questions and you are done. You do have the options to apply more or less sharpening in the section below. But for the almost all situations the software does a great job of applying sharpening for your image. 

Another cool thing is the ability to apply Selective sharpening. If you remember from our post about Bokeh, you don’t always want sharpening accross the entire image espcially parts that are supposed to be out of focus. The use of control points in Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 allows you to just apply sharpening to selective areas of an image










And that’s it; you can either do the work yourself or let software work for you. 

Here are some examples using 100% Crops to see the effects of Sharpening 

This is no sharpening (SOOC)












This is High Pass Sharpening





This is The Nik Sharpening



And yes there is a difference in the two sharp methods, mine was as my eye saw, the other was as the program saw fit. 


Sometimes as we sharpen an image it makes the noise in an image more apparent. In most cases if you find unacceptable noise in your image, you should De-Noise the image before sharpening. Then you know about how much to sharpen the image. Bear in mind it kind of a back and forth thing and you are trying to find a happy medium. The noise reduction reduces sharpness and the sharpening makes noise more visible so sometimes you need to find a compromise.

 Sharpening for the Web

So far we have discussed sharpening for print or large display on an LCD. Now let’s discuss sharpening for the web that actually is a two part process: Resizing an image (which reduces sharpness, and then sharpening that image. Even the process of re-sizing can affect how our image looks and its sharpness. 

What size?

The first thing we need to know is what size will our image be displayed on the web. The last thing you want to have happen is for either a website (Facebook, Google + etc) to resize our image. Nor do we want our web-browser itself to resize the image. They use the worst possible resize method (Nearest neighbor) and make our images look even worse than just resizing does.

 For this blog, I can post at 620 Pixels on the longest side, for my other portfolio blog, I can post at 900 on the longest side. But because I can have people click on my images here for a better look, I do them at 900 pixels on the longest side too, Sacrificing a little in the blog display to make them look better in the large image (If I am doing a vertical image I keep it to 700 Pixels because that fits better when people view without scrolling) 

Find the right size for your website/blog/social media and then resize to it.

 In Photoshop To resize your image go to Image>Image Resize  for the resize method choose Bi-cubic, Lightroom also use that method. Despite what you may have heard about web size images needing to be 72 ppi resolution, that number in the context of digital image has absolutely no bearing 

Once resized now look at the image, this time using “Actual Pixels” since this is how the image will actually be seen. There no longer is a “Document size” for web images. 











Unsharp Mask

If the image has lost more sharpness than desirable then you will need to sharpen. I feel the High Pas ssharpening is over kill for sharpening for the web. Instead, this time I use one of Photoshop’s stock filters: Unsharp mask. I start with settings of Amount 40, Radius 1.8 and Threshold 1, varying these as I see fit. 

















Lightroom will do these operations upon exporting (resize/sharpen) you just don’t have as much control with those choices left to presets) 

Or, once again you can use Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0, Choose display and vary the adaptive sharpening to your eye. 

Save the image as a new file making sure to rename it something other than the original file name, such as Mydog_web.jpg and save it with enough compression to bring the file size to about 100K or smaller for fast load times. Too large and the image will take too long to load, Too small and the image will now have compression artifacts which look even worse than an unsharp image.

 And there you have it. To recap 

For print images

  • Calibrate Photoshop for correct display size
  • View at the actual print size
  • Use eitherHigh Pass sharpening or Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 Output based sharpening 
  • Save a copy as a Print file based on the print size

For web Images

  • Resize the image properly and to the actual size it will be displayed on the website
  • Use Unsharp mask or Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 Output based sharpening
  • Save as a web copy


 Hope that helps



More Reader Takes on Processing Automobiles (Added Images)

  Ann P

  Ann Says “Here’s what I did…I like how you toned down the reflection, but I probably would never have thought of that if you didn’t say it, so I wanted to do it like I would usually do it.

(hope I don’t hurt anyone’s eyeballs!)
Nice job there Ann.

And this one comes from

 Stephen P













Stephen Says “My normal presets in Photomatix and LR left the image a little flat and dull for my liking.  So I applied a preset from Pretty Presets called “Golden Girl” which really helped bring out the color in the background and sand.  I further cleaned up the noisy sky with an adjustment brush lowering the clarity and sharpness (thanks to Miguel P for the suggestion). “

Pretty different than anything else we’ve seen Huh?

Which again shows us there are many different artistic styles when it comes to post Processing. And the real point is to follow your heart and not just try to copy someone else or do something just to please someone.

Derek C

Another entry comes from Derek C. Derek is new to HDR and likes to keep it real ( Me too Derek)

He used  Nik HDR Efex Pro and Lightroom 3 to process the images.

First a color version















And then a Black & White version after he read our post on B & W conversions












Really nice Derek, I especially like your black & White conversion. Just one thing to keep your eye on. I included, well a kid of trick question in this challenge that a couple people got. I left the images SOOC, straight out of the camera , and the sky has both noise and sensor spots in it because I wanted to see how people would handle it. Just keep an eye on things like that to give your image the final touch.

Great jobs Ann, Stephen and Derek and I appreciate you all taking the time to add to this series. Well done  everyone


Watch your angles there Skippy!

My blog post: Shooting Architectural Interiors was featured in the Nik Software November newsletter where it came to the attention of LA photographer John MacLean. John commented that while I did okay with the HDR, I screwed the pooch on the shoot itself. And I did. I broke one of the cardinal sins of Commercial Architecture shoots. Angular distortions. Or more particularly, Keeping parallel lines parallel.

Now on an art shoot we may want to celebrate and in fact even play off these distortions, but in a Commercial Architectural setting, they are a big no no. What do these angular distortions look like? Well you may see them as Keystoning -the top of the object appears wider than the bottom (or the reverse) or we may see curvature distortions from using too wide of a lens and placing the object too close to the edges of the lens that have the most distortion.

As John also pointed out, how I should have corrected this was either to shoot level (Lens absolutely level) Or I could have corrected the mistake using the Lens Distortion correction in Lightroom (I believe ACR does it as well).

What the first part means is when shooting interiors or exteriors of buildings for that matter, We need to keep the camera level and not point up or down at what we are shooting We also may need to shoot centered such as when shooting a door or window, moving off of center will cause the side closest to the camera to appear longer than the side most far away.

Here are some examples…Of course I could not have shot at possibly worse time, The intense afternoon sun coming through my pergola and I had to Topaz the heck out of them just to make the shadows visible. But hopefully you’ll get the idea here. (I truly apologize for these shots but didn’t want to wait to shoot tomorrow since I am working on tomorrows post)

Here is a door shot low and not level (lens pointing up)











This one was shot from the side and not square to the door but was at least Lens level which isn’t always bad since we maintained parallel lines. But notice the perspective. How the right side seems smaller than the left side even though we know they are both the same height











This one was shot High, Lens pointing down and at too wide angle (Hey look, There’s me!) This is an example of how this may work if we were doing an art piece and wanted some whimsy to it, but would never work commercially











And the Momma Bear shot, Level and Square












If I was unable to shoot level due to circumstances, the best option then may be to use a tilt-shift lens to correct for the distortions. That’s an expensive option but one that may be looked into if you do a lot of architecture shoots. 

But as John suggested there is another means to fix this problem post shoot and that is by using the lens correction section of the develop module in Lightroom (and ACR). 

Here is the original image (brightened to show detail) with some guides pulled in to show all the lines that are off



So I opened the image in Lightroom and in the Develop Module, scrolled down to The Lens Correction area 

With this tool you can correct for horizontal and vertical shifts along with curvature problems with wide angle lenses. It’s a powerful and easy to use tool. 

Clicking on one of the controls brings up a grid pattern on your image and you can drag the control until you get your lines in order. Clicking the box for keeping the crop will crop the image as you align.













So here is our before and after of the shot  I used for the blog article


























Thanks to John for bringing this to my attention. 

To check out John’s excellent interior architectural work visit his website at He really does exquisite work. 

Hope that helps,


Your Photos in Living…Black & White – B & W Conversions

As much as we may love the color in our images, Black & White may be chosen as a very viable alternative in processing. Most of my images I do in both Color and Black & White versions. But many times people aren’t sure what the best methods or even how to convert your color image to black and white. So today we will cover what I think are the best methods and then also a couple Programs that can do all the work for you.

First we will look at some methods in programs you may already have

Here is the original image we will work with. I chose it because we have a lot of different colors from Blue to Yellow to Green to Brown and also White, Black and Gray itself. I believe the true test of a good black and white conversion is how well the brightness of a color transfers to the brightness of a tone. Sometimes we want to shift that for effect or pop but usually we want the tonal balance to remain from before to after the conversion. I’ll talk a little further about this later

Continue reading »

HDR in Living…Black & White

 As we saw in some of the readers versions of the Automotive Image, Black & White was chosen as a very viable alternative in processing. Most of my images I do in both Color and Black & White versions. But many times people aren’t sure what the best methods or even how to convert your color image to black and white So today we will cover what I think are the best methods and then also a couple Programs that can do all the work for you.

First we will look at some methods in programs you may already have

Here is the original image we will work with. I chose it because we have a lot of different colors from Blue to Yellow to Green to Brown and also White, Black and Gray itself. I believe the true test of a good black and white conversion is how well the brightness of a color transfers to the brightness of a tone. Sometimes we want to shift that for effect or pop but usually we want the tonal balance to remain from before to after the conversion. I’ll talk a little further about this later



In Photoshop there are three main methods I use to convert my images to Black and White. The Color Mixer (which sounds counter-intuitive), Gradient Maps and Convert to Grayscale. Some of you may mention what about just Desaturate? Actually that is the least desirable method which will leave you with a flat and lifeless image so I don’t even include that on my list.

The Color Mixer

This method can give you results similar to what we used to get when we used color filters on our cameras to shoot Black & White Film in the “Olden Days” We would add a Red Filter or Green or Blue (Most times it was red). To highlight certain color tones and make the more pronounced in our black & white image. So using this method is similar except that we have a lot more control over the final result. We can choose red, green or blue OR even mix those colors (Hence why it is called color mixer) in any combination we desire.

We enter this method by going to the menu in Photoshop Image> Adjustments> Color Mixer. This brings up this dialog box.


We can Select a channel and then click monotone and it will turn our image Black & White with that channel as 100%, we can then vary the amount of all the channels to get the look we want but it is best of the combinations of percents all add up to 100%.

If you want to preview what each channel will look like at 100% before you actually use the channel mixer, On your layer palette, switch to the Channels Tab and then click on each  channel ( Red, Green, Blue) and see how they each look. That may give you a better starting point.



For this method we have

Pro: very diverse amount of looks to an image that can be used to add a lot of drama

Con: May not remain true to tone transfer from color to black and white

 Here are some examples of our image using Channel Mixers and Each Channel’s look











































Now I didn’t mix any of the channels because I wanted you to see the effect that each color channel has on the outcome of the conversion.

In reality I would have mixed diifent amounts of each channel and got a result something like this















 Gradient Maps


The next method uses what are called Gradient Maps. Basically what that is is a Gradient from Black to White and it “Maps” certain tones to certain levels of brightness or luminosity of a color. A Color that has a Luminosity closer to 100% will be mapped as white, one with luminosity close to 50% will be mapped as Mid Gray and so on.

Notice how the tone of yellow and blue seem to be about the same, one isn’t a pale pastel and the other a deep dark color but look at how differently they actually relate in B & W























We get to the Gradient Map by clicking Image>Adjustments > Gradient Map. This is what the Gradient Map dialog box looks like. If the colors of the gradient are not Black and White, Click on the gradient and it will bring up a box where you can choose your gradient. Gradients themselves can be highly modified. But let’s keep it simple for now. This lesson may be getting out of hand already















Here is what our image looks like with a straight Black to White Gradient map applied


















I like this method, for the most part gets the tonal part right though not perfect and can add a little drama to the image.


Convert to Grayscale

Finally we get too my favorite conversion method: Convert to Grayscale. This also happens to be the favorite method of friend, fellow photographer and Black & White Guru; Cort Anderson.  Check out Cort’s latest piece on Black & White in the Nov/Dec issue of Photo Technique Magazine

It’s the only method that truly keeps the luminosity of any color the same when it is made a gray tone. And it’s the simplest process. You do it by going to Image>Mode> Grayscale. Now you could just leave it at that but I like to then make the conversion back to RGB because not all adjustments or filters are available to grayscale images so I go Image>Mode> RGB.

Here is the image with Grayscale conversion














 Finishing the Image

Just like Cort suggests, I like to finish off all my black and white conversions with a Curves Adjustment layer we just may differ on how we do it or the look we want. I want to establish a clear Black Point and a White Point so using the shadow and the highlight eyedropper in curves, I will click on an area that should be pure black and an area that should be pure white with the highlight dropper to establish those ends. Then I may make a midrange adjustment to change the contrast. Then I will finish off as I usually do with some Dodging and burning to get everything how I want it.

This is what I would probably get for a final image















Give me a Break!

Peter, you’re killing me here. It shouldn’t have to be this much work and I shouldn’t have to know this much just to get a decent Black & White image. Well everything good takes work and knowledge. But I and the software manufacturers will let you off the hook.

If you are looking for some simple and quick solutions, the software manufacturers have you in mind

Lightroom 3

If you are a Lightroom 3 user there are presets in the develop Module for many different styles of Black and White. The nice thing is, through the use of virtual copies, you can always go back and change what you did and try another effect and maintain a Color and Black & White virtual copy witho9ut actually using up more disc space

If that doesn’t suit your needs or you don’t have Lightroom, I have two other solutions

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

From Nik Software comes the highly acclaimed Silver Efex Pro 2. Nik comes with 36 Factory presets for all types of Black & White conversions including Sepia and other color toning. If that’s not enough the adjustments are endless.

Here is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2’s “Neutral” preset














 Topaz Labs BW Effects 

Another possibility for you is Topaz Labs BW Effects. Again, couldn’t be easier, stroll through the presets till you find what works for you AND your image, no muss, no fuss 

This is their Classic Preset














 Okay, I know that was a lot. But Black & White can be a blast and add a ton of drama to your already dramatic HDR Image. Properly printed these can be some of the most outstanding images in your collection. So give it a try. It may seem long-winded but in the end is really not that difficult to do especially if you take advantage of some of the software tools out there.

Hope that helps,