Friday, May 27, 2016

How to Get KILLER B&W Conversions with ACDSee

One of the great mysteries of digital photography, to me, at least, is the popularity of special Black and White conversion software.  On the surface, it would seem to be one of the least needed categories of software, yet its popularity as a category is perennial, and many people have clear favorites and argue endlessly on various forum sites as to which particular B&W conversion software is better.

B&W conversion software is expensive for what it does, and what inexpensive conversion software that is out there frequently limits the user to a selection of filters that force the user to compromise their vision of what their B&W conversion should look like, in favor of quick and easy canned conversions.  And that software which DOES offer a high degree of customization is usually as expensive as the user's other editing software and does no more than what that other software already does anyway.

Regardless of the software used, really GOOD B&W conversions can be done with just about ANY Editing tool, Workflow tool, or DAM tool on the market.  All it really takes is about 5 minutes for an internet search on B&W conversions for your software, and reading 2 or 3 tutorials on the subject.  Of course you will need to practice, but with any competent specialty tool, you'll still need to practice anyway, unless you are content to mindlessly accept whatever a filter throws at you.

As a rule, blind acceptance of other people's judgement requires a LOT less work than thinking for yourself. If you are ready to think for yourself, you REALLY don't need B&W conversion software.  Chances are, you've already got all the tools you need, and the level of effort will be NO GREATER than using Special B&W conversion software.

This article is about doing B&W conversions with ACDSee Pro, and ACDSee Ultimate from within the Develop Tab. (i.e., Non destructive development.)  As opposed to the Destructive method found in the ACDSee Edit tab and in most editors like Photoshop, and Paintshop Pro.

I will not cover destructive B&W conversions in this article, mainly because I prefer non destructive methods, and it is what I use on a daily basis.

What Makes a Good candidate for a B&W Conversion?

Clearly, the first task in a good Black and White conversion is selecting a photo to convert!  In my experience, the best candidates for B&W conversion have the following characteristics:

  • The photos place an emphasis on lines, shapes and shadows.  I'm not talking about JUST actual lines and shapes, but lines of sight from subjects to something else, leading lines, etc.  The thing is, if you feel that the color inherent in the photo weakens or diminishes the lines, shapes, and shadows, it is a candidate for B&W conversion.
  • The photos already have a sense of 'texture' about them.  I don't want to leave the impression that this is just about feathers, or the bristles of a hair brush, But it could also be a sense of . . . 'granularity' between living subjects or living subjects and inanimate objects.  This granularity can be emotional or physical distance, but in all cases the photographer feels the sense of distance is weakened by the inclusion of color.  We could also be talking about repetitive patterns here.
  • Photos that take on an entirely different meaning or 'feel' when converted.  
That last point is a lot harder to explain than the first two.  Such a photo might not have either of the first two points, but you, as the photographer, suspect that there are hidden layers of  meaning and emotion buried in the image, and that a good B&W conversion might expose them.  I think the demonstration photo I've used for this tutorial is a good example of this.  In its color format, it is an interesting experiment in color and shapes.  But In black and white, I think it transforms into an illustration of hard work and sweat, with just a hint of mud.  A lot of that context is lost when you have the color competing for your attention.  It's not as pretty as a black and white photo when compared to color, but I think it is a bit more powerful as an image.

The Conversion Process

Consider this photo displayed, to the right (click on any photo to see a bigger version):

I have selected a 'done' tif file for my B&W conversion even though I intend to use the Development tab, which is normally viewed as 'The Raw Development Tab'.  Which it is.

But, the Development tab can be used on any non layered photo, not just raw.  It will perform bit mapped like edits on bit mapped files like tif and jpg photos.  The only difference is, instead of actually editing the photo itself, it saves the changes to the "sidecar" file and applies those changes to the photo whenever that 'developed' image is displayed in ACDSee.

This is a good thing for me, and I think, for you, in that experimental and extra editing like B&W conversions can frequently be completed without using any sort of destructive editing.  This is an additional reason to use ACDSee Pro or Ultimate rather than a B&W conversion utility, since I have never seen one that claims to be anything but a destructive editing process.

The Conversion Steps

This is how the image looks when I bring it into the ACDSee Develop Tab:

The first thing I do, is click on the Black & White Treatment tab in the General Control set.  All this does is desaturate the image color, nothing more.  Don't worry about losing your saturation information if you change your mind, being a non destructive editing process, your saturation information is saved and you can go back to the EXACT same level of color saturation as before.

But it does one extra thing, it changes the Color EQ control to the Advanced Black and White control.  Even though they look very similar, their purpose is very different.  I will explain the Advanced Black and White Control in just a bit.

But let's go back to the desaturated image.  Note that it is a pretty bland conversion.  Straight desaturation doesn't take the tonality into consideration at all.  If a blue object and a red object reflect the same amount of light, they have roughly the same tone in a desaturated image.  Note that how the red frame of the wheelbarrow, and the blue box of the wheelbarrow seem very similar in tone even though the color version of the photo displays them very differently.

Clearly, we need to do something more to this photo for it to achieve what I think it is capable of.

There are three things I don't like about this photo. First, as stated before, the red and blue colors are displayed as almost identical shades of gray, turning the wheelbarrow into a very boring object.  Secondly, the image is too flat overall. And thirdly, the wheelbarrow simply doesn't stand out from the background to the point that it is the subject of the photo.

The Remaining Steps

Set the black and white point via Tone Curves.

Many people find this intimidating, but all this step does is define the point that says, "Beyond this point on the grayscale, everything should be pure black", or "pure white".

To be honest, there is no great secret in doing this.  It is entirely a guessing game on your part based on your tastes, judgement, and experience.  There is no rule of thumb and it will vary from photo to photo.

See the tone curve control.  Note that what I did was slide the black point a bit to the right, and the white point a bit to the left of the screen.  Just a bit,  What that did was actually narrow the distance from the blackest black to the whitest white.  The white line represents the black and white points

In other words, what I did was increase contrast a bit.  Could I have adjusted the contrast control instead?  Yes, but by being able to set the black point and white point separately, I was able to control the contrast to a much greater degree than I could with the contrast control which uses a predetermined algorithm to set the black and white points. 

I rather like how this increases the separation of the wheel barrow from the background. 
Remember, you can click on any photo to see it full sized.
In this case, I ignored the Midtone point, but I could have adjusted it as well.  Mid tones are represented by the yellow line.  If you change the mid tone, say to the left,  what occurs is that the distance from the mid point to the black point is shortened and the distance from the mid point to the white point is lengthened.  And where the yellow line intersects with the White line moves UP, forcing the lighter tones to brighten even more,  In this case, I think it flattens the image rather than forcing the wheel barrow to be the dominant object.  However I can see that maybe the dark tones could be moderated a bit.

The image is even flatter, and the brightness makes the scene a bit too 'happy' for my tastes.

Use Light EQ to Adjust Lighting Bands.

I won't go into great detail on this step since I have written an in depth article on Light EQ, HERE.  It is, without a doubt, one of the single most important tools found in ACDSee Pro or ACDSee Ultimate.

The Light EQ control divides the photo up into between 2 to 9 separate lighting bands with separate light and dark controls for each band.  I normally leave it set to 9 bands unless I have a strong reason to use less.

Now THIS image moderates the Too Somber tone with the Too Happy tone, and finds a good median I think. Note that if you look at the sliders, only the darkest areas are moderated.  However we still have no tonal separation between the red and blue sections of the photo.

Advanced Black and White Control

What the Advanced Black and White control does is allow you to adjust the tones in a photo based not on their relative brightness or on their black and white control points, but on the colors found in the photo.

When you slide a color control to the left of the screen, any object that contains that color gets darker, and when you slide that color control to the right of the screen, that color gets lighter.  Look at the wheelbarrow in the Pre color adjusted image and compare it to the completed photo below.  Then look at the position of the sliders on the screen print of the control on the right.

You will notice that by moving the Red slider to the right, I lightened the red in the photo considerably.  And by moving the Blue slider considerably to the left, I darkened the blue considerably.  

I could have done just that and met the goals I had for the photo.  But I don't think it would have been "Done" by any stretch of the imagination.

No object is ever just one color.  Most things are a mix of several colors, either from impurities in the color of the paint or dye, or from reflections from objects that are physically close to the object whose tonality you are trying to control.  By working through the other colors.and adjusting their sliders experimentally, you will learn exactly how the colors interact with each other.  And I recommend that you do this for many years until you are a grizzled B&W professional who simply can't learn anything else about this subject, or until you die, whichever comes first.

For this photo I found that adjusting the colors that were close to red and blue seemed to affect the photo's tonality for the better.  I particularly found that darkening Cyan added an extra bit of 'grittiness', from stains and water marks, that kept the blue from being perceived as some sort of 'circus color'.

That's pretty much it. Unfortunately, describing the process takes far longer than actually doing it.  As a result, I fear this article makes B&W conversion seem too difficult to do quickly and easily.  But in truth, I had produced this image in about 1.5 to 2 minutes.  Finding the perfect image to use as an example took FAR longer!

However, I DO think I've made my point that you don't need to buy expensive add-on tools to get good Black and White conversions.  In fact, I don't think any of the add-on tools could have done as well.  They might have come close, but they would have needed further tweaking, whereas using your native toolset allows you to get exactly what you want with usually less work and certainly taking no more time than when using an external tool.

Have fun!

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