See Derrick Story Webinar: A Fresh Look with Familiar Subjects in Black and White a bit of B&W, a bit of Nik Silver Efex Pro.
See Derrick Story Webinar: A Fresh Look with Familiar Subjects in Black and White a bit of B&W, a bit of Nik Silver Efex Pro.
Sadly I don’t have six grand burning a hole in my pocket. Even then I’m not sure a shiny new B&W-only Leica M Monochrom would be on my shopping list – certainly not ahead of a Nikon D800E and a couple of fancy lenses.
Much though I love my black and white, one of the things I love about digital photography is that you shoot in colour and can leave until afterwards the decision about how to separate the colours into black and white tones. Instead of experimenting in Lightroom or Photoshop and deciding at your leisure, you’d need to get it right in camera with a careful choice of glass filter.
Still, it’s an interesting idea, and I’m sure it produces fine pictures. Thanks to Leica’s wise use of DNG as their raw format, it’s already supported in the free copy of Lightroom that comes with the camera, as well as Silver Efex Pro.
From the North Korean leadership school of modesty, here’s the first review I’ve seen of my Advanced Digital Black and White Photography. It’s from last week’s Amateur Photographer and is short and sweet – the book’s “readable and inspiring”.
Like the first edition, it is an end-to-end treatment of the subject from camera to print. In between it covers every known method of doing black and white in Photoshop, but most of all it tells you which ones are now best forgotten, and why. The first edition was bang up to date when it was first published and so was the first book on B&W to feature Photoshop CS3′s B&W Adjustment Layer – as well as Lightroom and Aperture. That content is now updated, and there’s a lot more material on Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro.
Some lovely black and white images are at Adrian Davis’s site, or rather:
Actually, brown and white! I like color images too, but for personal, fine art work, I prefer monochrome with a slight warm tone. I print exclusively on Hahnemuhle Torchon, which is a highly textured surface. I like to think of, and refer to my prints as, “Neo-Vintage” as they looked slightly dated but use a modern, digital process. On many occasions I’ve been asked if my prints are Platinum on textured papers! I get a big kick when asked this question by the viewer!
The Guardian notes that Chris Killip’s retrospective is being held in Essen and asks “why is great British documentary photography overlooked at home?”
Surely, too, a group retrospective of the above-named pioneers of British photojournalism [Tony Ray-Jones, Graham Smith, Chris Steele-Perkins and Brian Griffin] is long overdue? My instinct is that this kind of work has long been out of fashion with our arbiters of culture in Britain. It is black-and-white, gritty, hard hitting and politically provocative – the photography critic, Gerry Badger, correctly described In Flagrante as “taken from the point of view that opposed everything Thatcher stood for”.
I’m not sure it’s true that we’ve lost our appetite for that kind of work – maybe some of it’s now under the “street photography” umbrella. But with the film, the economy grinding along the bottom, and the Argies getting one-eyed about the Falklands again (let’s see if they give the pampas back to the native peoples), it does seems the right time for a Thatcher-era retrospective.
Anyway, Killip is one of my long-time favourites, so much so that I still remember being blown away when I saw big prints of these two pictures, and he currently has a small web site. As well as some pictures which didn’t get in the retrospective, there is a slideshow of his series Seacoal.
Peter Hogan seems to be a black and white guy – at least, calling his site MonochromePhotography,com is a pretty strong clue. No doubt I enjoyed his site the more for its having a decent number of Lake District scenes, like this one from near Ashness Gate on Derwentwater.
I suspect the pictures are quite a lot better than they appear from the rather poorly-compressed soft versions on the site.
Today’s helping of black and white goodness is Elin Hoyland‘s reportage work, particularly her Brothers series which I think I first noticed in a magazine somewhere. If I remember – because her site doesn’t contain much info – it depicted two Norwegian brothers on a remote farm and I still find it an incredibly sad set of pictures:
As Harald said, they chopped wood, carried wood and burned wood. At least twice a day, they also fed wild birds in the twenty bird boxes that they monitored. Their days followed a predictable and comforting routine. In their free time they each listened to a radio or read the local paper. In the 1960s they had rented a TV for a one month trial but returned it after deciding that it took up too much time. Little changed from year to year, though Mathias once said that changes were happening the whole time and it would probably end up with them getting an inside toilet with running water.
Also see here wonderful sand-dune rally in Qatar.
Via Nik’s monthly newsletter I just came across Martin Bailey’s Podcast 297 : Silver Efex Pro 2 Walkthrough & New Features. Martin’s a Brit who has become Japanese and is based in Tokyo, and in the video I think he hits most of the right points about the software and delivered in a sensible tone (I think I detect a bit of a Scouse accent). I’d heard of him before but never really dug around his site or appreciated quite how much is there.
The Silver Efex video is well worth listening to, and he’s got a 15% off link if your credit card starts tingling.
People seemed to like the previous set of Silver Efex Pro re-enactment images, so with a bit more experience of the software, I thought I’d post another set of pictures with similar treatments.
This time they’re from a couple of events in October. The first ones come from a weekend when “my” regiment garrisoned the Tower of London. Even if for me the Tower is a building I used to pass every day on my walk to the office, it’s still quite a privilege to spend a couple of days photographing there, and for the re-enactors it’s about as sexy a gig as you can get. What made it especially poignant for these guys was that the regiment, the Tower Hamlets Trayned Bandes, is closely modelled on its 17th century predecessor which was raised in that part of London and guarded the Tower during the war. And it’s not every day you get to take weapons and gunpowder into a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Queen keeps her bling, is it?
The pictures were corrected in Lightroom 3 but finished in Silver Efex Pro 2. They were not sent directly to SFX though. While that would be the most obvious route, it would mean that SFX would return to Lightroom a flattened TIF file with all the toning, borders and local adjustments baked in. Instead I prefer to initially send pictures to Photoshop CS5 as smart objects, and then invoke SFX. This means SFX’s adjustments are applied as smart filters, so they remain editable and I can always go back to these files and fine tune the treatment. And this fine tuning is something I often do. The other difference from before is that I no longer seem to be using the Selective Colour slider in SFX to restore the colour but instead do it in Photoshop with a copy of the image layer with its Blending Mode set to Color. It’s a close choice, but I prefer the accuracy I can get by creating a mask with tools like Select > Selective Color, Quick Selection Magic Wand, or even just the Brush, Quick Mask and blur to hide my handiwork. You can see with this example how detailed some of the masks can become.
The other event was one Sunday at Knebworth House, an hour or so’s drive away, and was during the recording of an episode of a major ITV police drama series. We’ve been asked not to mention the programme name or the storyline, but a few hundred re-enactors had been hired as eye-candy and I was able to hang around and take pictures. Fascinating though it was to watch the filming (how many people does it take?), what I enjoyed most was the smoke they used to keep a consistent look throughout a long day and to provide atmosphere. In an ideal world, shouldn’t every photographer have 150 metres of smoke-pumping tubing?
*You’re talking roughly £160 for the Nik Silver Efex Pro software, and it does “only” do b&w. But it is a very well-designed program, powerful and easy to use. While I was also using Photoshop CS5 here, you can use it purely with Lightroom or just Photoshop Elements.
In a fascinating piece Why Would a Digital Camera Have a B&W-Only Sensor, Mike Johnson makes a case for such a camera. As he acknowledges, analogies often end up in arguments about the analogy, but I think the core is here:
Taking a color picture and converting it to B&W is trivial. What’s not trivial is learning how to see in B&W. To name one trivial effect, you stop being attracted to, and taking pictures of, pretty colors. Why? Because your camera can’t capture them. It ignores them. So you have to do so as well. Working with a camera that can convert color to B&W is not the same as working with a camera that cannot record color. The latter affects the way you see things when you’re out photographing. When you know that B&W is all the camera will do, then you start to ignore colors and see luminances, tonal relationships, surface, and structure. It’s a different way of seeing.
An analogous example is what happens to blind peoples’ hearing. It becomes more acute. When you “can’t see” color, your understanding of values becomes more acute.
Not everybody needs such a thing for their work. Only a small minority of people do. A small minority of those people are artists whose work might enrich the world.
I just don’t feel so confident that such a camera would be so beneficial in heightening the B&W sensibilities and bringing to the fore a few great artists in the medium. They already have the choice of Canon-DPP or Nikon-CaptureNX workflows – plus self-discipline – if they do want to deny themselves any possibility of ever seeing their pictures in colour, and I don’t see any sign of distinctive artists emerging through such self-imposed restrictions. But deep down I also still deny the concept or need to “learn to see in B&W”. It’s such cliché, so much that last week I noticed it being rolled out in at two “how to” articles online, and I’ve more-or-less forced to include it in each of my B&W books. I just don’t think you do need to learn to see, and it’s rather a matter of recognizing what looks good in B&W which can be done later in Lightroom or Photoshop. Much though I appreciate the virtue of manual labour, I don’t want to go back to lugging around two bodies or two (or three) film backs.
I’ve been experimenting a little with Silver Efex Pro 2 recently (in connection with the second edition of my Advanced Black and White book) and thought I’d post a series of re-enactment images, mostly taken over the last few months, that I took through SFX2 after initially processing them in Lightroom.
As you see, I added various tones and there’s a lot of use of control points, particularly with the selective colour option which I found very easy to limit to just faces. I also added fancy borders and was struck by how helpful the Vary Border button proved to be. I usually mistrust auto or lucky dip buttons, but here you do choose the basic border style but can then add a little bit of variation into the effect.
On the other hand, the problem with Silver Efex Pro 2 mangling keywords remains (UPDATE October 2011′s update v2.002 resolves this problem). And note, it’s not Lightroom’s fault (“I don’t agree with Nik” as we Brits might say) since it can be reproduced without any Adobe software on the computer. That this remained unfixed was very annoying, but otherwise Silver Efex Pro is clearly growing on me.
As someone who has written a couple of books on digital black and white, I always enjoy seeing how others teach the subject. Sometimes one despairs, but occasionally you come across something that’s a cut above the rest and one of those is George Jardine’s excellent half-hour video on digital black and white conversion which is free on his site. If you’re vaguely interested in b&w, you should give half an hour of your time to watching it.
Why do I think it’s so good? Well, George does a great job in showing how digital B&W is not just about overall contrast but – critically – about what I as a B&W guy call “tonal separation” and what he as (I assume) a primarily-colour photographer calls “colour contrast”. It amounts to the same sensibility though, and it’s great to hear someone zeroing in on this key aspect.
I’ve never been one who photographs in colour and occasionally dabbles with black and white. It’s very much the other way round, and I often look at pictures I’ve left in colour and think they’re rather monochrome anyway. But I’ve never seen doing a lot of b&w work as a reason why I would want to buy Nik’s Silver Efex Pro (SEP) or any of the other dedicated black and white plug-ins that it has now overshadowed. It’s not that I felt SEP1 deficient in any way – quite the contrary. SEP1 was a very polished piece of software, produced good results quickly (even if I doubted the film simulations), and I could certainly see why people liked it so much. I simply felt its price was steep, and I’ve not feel any real need for it.
Nonetheless, I was looking forward to seeing Silver Efex Pro 2 and these seem to be the new features:
As before, it’s a very easy program to use – installing as a Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture plug-in. You then launch SEP2 from the host program (though you can drag a TIF or JPEG onto the program icon or desktop shortcut) and it is converted to black and white with a default treatment.
On the left are the presets, both built-in and any user-created, and I liked how they are shown as thumbnails or “visual presets”. It uses a lot of space, but that isn’t a problem with a dedicated app like SEP2, and it is much better than listing presets in text-only form or than Lightroom’s combination of list and rollover image. You can have too much of a good thing though – after a day or two I realised that the preset panel was leading me to work by clicking one preset after another, before doing anything else to the image. It was a very grave case of “presetitis”, at least as severe as anything Lightroom could inflict! I wasn’t just exploring alternative treatments but felt I was working by trial and error. I felt so much happier once I had hidden the presets from view!
I’d also apply that argument to the film recipes, of course. I’ll restrict my rant to asking what’s the creative value of someone who never used a particular film stock being led to believe in a recipe that doesn’t include variations such as development methods, enlarger and paper types?
One thing I didn’t notice at first was how the edge burning could be varied on each side. It was a bit like having 4 ND grad filters around the image and was a nice touch.
The selective colour adjustment allows you to preserve the colour in parts of the image. I used to enjoy painting on b&w prints and have occasionally done it in Photoshop, if not for a while, and I’m sure this feature will be popular. It seemed to work best for me when applying SEP2 to a Photoshop smart object – I could keep make multiple trips to SEP2 and the colour and the U-points remained editable. However, if I started from a regular layer or from Lightroom, the file would be saved as a simple TIF file, and any coloured patches would be lost if I re-opened that file in SEP2. The same happened if I added a tone and then re-edited. So smart objects would definitely be the way to go.
I did hit a big problem though – on Windows 7, SEP2 converts correctly-formatted keyword data to a garbled mess. I wasn’t the first to find it, but I’m glad to say it’s now fixed.
What’s happening is that SEP2 isn’t just preserving whatever metadata is already in the file – which is all one actually needs. Instead it rewrites it and then concatenates the keywords in an almost random fashion. At first I thought it only occurred with files sent from Lightroom, which might allow Nik to hide behind “it’s Adobe’s fault”, but I am told it had all worked properly in SEP1, and I could repeat the problem by adding keywords in other programs like Microsoft’s Expression Media 2. It’s not caused by anything radical such as hierarchical keywords (I don’t have a hierarchy), but seems to more of a generalised problem writing out IPTC-Core metadata and particularly the dc-subject field. I’m not sure if it gets any other metadata wrong – what it does to my keywords is bad enough!
So when the file comes back to Adobe Lightroom you have to correct its keywords. But what makes this bug so pernicious is how all the garbled permutations are added to Lightroom’s keyword lists. If you don’t want junk like “Barns Bracken Building” showing up as auto-suggestions, you have to go through purging your keywords of all the permutations SEP2 has created. Get the idea I’m unhappy?
Nik Support do acknowledge the bug and say they are working on it, though I’ve not enough experience of them to say if they will release an update. I presume so. Until it is fixed, would that stop me buying the program? Probably not. The bug is horrid and had already polluted my keywords pretty widely before I realised what was happening, so it took a while to sort everything out. But I would be more worried had I encountered lots of minor bugs and general instability rather than one major boo-boo like this. (Update Aug 14th – 4 months later and it’s still not fixed)
Have I changed my mind about Silver Efex? Again, no. It remains a very pleasant app to use, just one that costs more than I’m likely to pay for something I don’t really need (though that didn’t stop me ordering a Lee Big Stopper recently). No, overall, I liked Silver Efex Pro 2 and I would perhaps consider getting it – at least as part of the Nik suite. But I don’t do colour, do I?
Other reviews (by those who use SEP2) :
I plan to try out Silver Efex Pro 2 shortly and we’ll see if it changes my old view of it (good software but overpriced), but for now see Bret Edge’s short tutorial showing how he used Silver Efex Pro 2 for a black and white picture:
The great thing about Silver Efex Pro 2 (and all the Nik plug-ins, for that matter) is that it affords tremendous creative control to those of us who aren’t and never will be Adobe Certified Experts. I like anything that allows me to spend more time outside making images and less time chained to my desk.
That’s OK, but you really don’t have to be an ACE to do great black and white quickly with Lightroom or Photoshop…..
There are some lovely impressionistic black and white images on Jonathan Luckhurst’s site, many looking like they’ve been printed (in the darkroom) through cloth or a mesh to provide a timeless, dreamy effect. From the crowds, one can only guess many were taken in India but place is deliberately obscure:
To do this my images must be anonymous. Anonymous in location and anonymous in human identity. I am extremely selective about what I photograph, avoiding landmarks and visual clues as to where the image was taken. As much as possible I show the human form as a distant figure or as a dark silhouette; cultural and racial identities such as skin colour, dress and manner become invisible. This is crucial.
There’s an interesting comparison of doing black and white in Capture One 6, Silver Efex 1, and Lightroom 3 by Mike at The Intuitive Lens. It’s a two parter with Capture One vs Silver Efex and then both vs Lightroom. I’m not sure it proves much, if anything, other than one if one tries to do so one can produce similar results in different products! Leaving settings at default is a little odd, and there’s no real attempt to use the b&w conversion process to separate neighbouring colours into distinct tones – eg those in the left woman’s blouse or between the brown briefcase in the foreground and the middle person’s red sweater. Why didn’t he use Lightroom’s targeted adjustment tool, for example? I’d argue that it alone produces better b&w images because you’re keeping your eyes on the image. But it is an interesting exercise.
My view tends to be that there are no jacks of all trades and skilled hands can squeeze the same “objective quality” out of each app. So my emphasis is less on pixel-peeping and more on the process of getting to the best expression of the picture.
That’s why I put a lot of emphasis on the benefits of using the targeted adjustment tool – the little nipple in the top left corner of LR’s B&W panel or in Photoshop’s B&W adjustment layer – as I find that it your keeps your eyes completely on the picture and its changing appearance. By comparison, dragging sliders is inherently a very mechanical process, while presets usually trade on the blind faith that their authors have accurately calibrated the spectral response of film X (and factored in lens filters and developer agitation…).
Picking one of David Eisenlord’s pictures from Iceland seems appropriate right now – though we may soon be heartily sick of being downwind of the land of fire and ice. I could equally well have picked something from his wild places of the west of Ireland.
The images are hand coated platinum/palladium or gum over platinum and for me have a lovely a timeless quality – a memory of when we could still fly to Iceland, or anywhere.
bsimple‘s miminalist web site contains some wonderfully-imaginative “conceptual” photography. It only says that “all images on this website are assembled & printed in a traditional darkroom” and seems to belong to Misha Gordin, a US-based Latvian, who explained his work in this (surprisingly-readable) artist’s statement:
… in my opinion, conceptual photography is a higher form of artistic expression that places photography on the level of painting, poetry, music and sculpture. It employs the special talent of intuitive vision. By translating the personal concepts into the language of photography, it reflects the possible answers to major questions of being: birth, death and life. Creating an idea and transforming it into reality is an essential process of conceptual photography .
Today’s conventional approach, with a few exceptions, completely dominates Art Photography. But introduction of digital photography will change this balance. The ease of producing altered realities will bring a new wave of talented artists who will use it to express their special world of visions, with all its meanings, symbols and mystery.
That was written back in 1999, but I wonder how far that balance has indeed changed. Don’t we now appreciate the artistry of the highly-manipulated darkroom print much more than ever before, and dismiss the “altered realities” of highly-manipulated digital images as “just Photoshop”?