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How many ways to skin a cat?


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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How many ways to skin a cat?

13 Feb 2021 7:42AM   Views : 431 Unique : 290


With film, it was easy. If you want black and white pictures, use black and white film. If you want to modify the relative brightness of different parts of the subject, use a colour filter on the lens – a red filter to exaggerate the darkness of a blue sky, green to lighten foliage, blue to darken skin tones strongly. Digital processing allows you to fine-tune and finesse the rendition in a multitude of ways.

This blog was inspired by Robert51’s post a few days ago about his method of getting strong black and white pictures, involving two layers – a black and white layer, with the red and yellow sliders nudged to the right, and an exposure layer with the Gamma and exposure sliders pushed right. Then, play with the layers and sliders until you’re happy.

Now, for those who love layers (the more the merrier, did I hear someone say?) that’s great. For those who don’t have software that makes layers easy (or which doesn’t have them at all) other routes may be preferable… I’m going to explore the ones I know, and suggest that there’s a ‘did it work’ check to apply afterwards, whatever you’ve done.

There are built-in conversion paths in most editing software, with at least a few options: my copy of Elements 12 offers six presets, and sliders to adjust each of these for red, green and blue, and for contrast (note, though, that it’s possible to go ‘out of range’ with these and get a really vile result!) My favourite way to convert to monochrome is with the Silver Efex set of filters in Nik Efex, as there are a lot of options, all fine-tuneable in a couple of dozen different ways. My advice is to have a quick play with a good few of them, and decide which you like. It is good if somebody understands every possible variation and tweak, but for me, that would be wasted time when I could be taking pictures or editing them.


The absolutely basic route is to desaturate a colour image, but that will almost invariably lead to a thorough lack of contrast. Which brings me to my must-try suggestion, whatever process you’ve used. Open the Levels adjustment, and look at the histogram. Typically, this will stop well short of the sides of the graph, indicating that low contrast I mentioned: move the Shadows and highlights sliders inwards until they touch the points where the graph hits the x-axis. That could hardly be simpler…

There’s a twist, an extra step that is worth testing out. There’s also a midtones slider, and if you move it to the left, it brightens midtones: to the right, and it darkens them. I find this allows a very simple way to vary the mood of an image – it beefs up or tones down the middle range, and often adds a lot of impact.

I ought to mention the built-in monochrome modes that many cameras offer. If you get the exposure right, and use Levels in processing to sort out the tonal range, this can simplify things a lot! You loses the ability to finesse things (though if you are shooting RAW as well as JPG files, you can always resort to doing a conversion for varied effects), but you see how things look at once. (One of the common problems when taking monochrome pictures is a failure to understand that different colours may turn out exactly the same shade of grey…


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
13 Feb 2021 7:46AM
Top - from film, late 1969. Super Paxette 2BL and FP4. Middle, Nik Efex conversion. Bottom - straight out of camera black and white, Sony Alpha 900. No correction in Levels - it was just right. Below is a version with lighter midtones.

whatriveristhis Avatar
13 Feb 2021 8:12AM
"One of the common problems when taking monochrome pictures is a failure to understand that different colours may turn out exactly the same shade of grey…"

Nail hit squarely on head there, John. Understanding that B&W is very much about tonal values/contrasts is crucial.
Classic example– red postbox against green hedge. Even though red and green are complementary colours and directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, then depending on the light or the particular shade of green, the postbox might almost disappear when the image is converted to B&W and the tonal values are found to be the same.
whatriveristhis Avatar
13 Feb 2021 8:37AM
P.S. Correction: Not "Even though red and green are complementary colours..." but rather "Because red and green... " ( Complementary colours cancel out each other's hue when combined.)
chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.5k 682 England
13 Feb 2021 11:32AM
I read Roberts' post with interest, I am pants at B&W conversions but I am going to open a few layers....yes layers Wink and see what happens in comparison to the usual faffing about I do.
Thanks for the linky thing and thanks to Robert for sharing.
chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.5k 682 England
13 Feb 2021 11:45AM
This image is a B&W using Roberts' method from my Gallery post today , took me about a minute.


dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
13 Feb 2021 12:59PM
So that's a thumbs up, I think...
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
13 Feb 2021 1:44PM
Robert's method is interesting and it gives a strong result. It's interesting how many different ways there are to achieve conversions.
I don't always use Nik SilverEfex especially if I just want to adjust the tonal contrasts.
Affinity puts adjustments on their own layer automatically so that encourages good practice.
Digital conversions offer limitless variations which I like, but even in the darkroom there is pleny of choice to allow different results such as film type, processing and grade of printing paper.

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