How to Produce Compelling Black & White Images

HR BW IMG_5693

Cordillera Blanca – Huaraz, Peru

1/125s @ f/11 ISO 100 @ 105mm

I captured this image in Huaraz, Peru about two months ago with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame digital camera and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens. You’ll notice I shot this at the long end of my lens at 105mm. Traditional wisdom would suggest that I would have been better served by shooting at the short end of my lens at 24mm. An informal rule (or guideline) worth breaking in this particular case. The mountain range (in the South American Andes) was a long distance away, and I wanted the peaks in the right half of the frame to be my main focal point. Anecdotally I will tell you that my lens crapped out right after this shot, and I’ve been in Lima for month getting it repaired.

The camera settings were perfect for this shot. My shutter speed of 1/125s was slightly faster than my focal length of 105mm, eliminating handheld camera shake (Shutter Speed = 1/Focal Length or greater for handheld shots). I stopped my aperture down from f/4 to f/11 which gave me sufficient depth-of-field (the area where everything would be in sharp focus) at the given focusing distance. Finally, shooting at ISO 100 resulted in the highest possible image resolution with the least amount of digital noise. At an altitude of almost 12,000 feet the shooting conditions were ideal: a crisp, clear day; a dramatic, storm-laden sky, and just enough snow on the distant peaks to offer a pleasing contrast to the overall image.

I captured the original photo as a CameraRAW file in color. I initially processed and converted my RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). I adjusted the White Balance (WB), and worked with shadows and highlights. I then exported the image to Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 to complete my processing. In Photoshop I converted the color image to black & white, and tweaked the blacks (driving some shadow areas to complete black) and the whites (bringing some of the whites to complete white). I also worked with the overall contrast, and added just a tad bit of sharpening (almost all digital images can benefit from a little post-processing sharpening).

To me this black & white photo as an Ansel Adams feel about it. Adams pioneered many of the techniques I used to create this look in ACR and PSE11. Adams’ photography was all about mood and drama, and he enhanced those aspects through the judicious application of various (wet) darkroom techniques. Some of the techniques we take for granted today were: compositional cropping, the use of various filters, dodging (to lighten) and burning (to darken) specific areas of the image, and some early post-processing sharpening techniques. Each and every print Adams created was unique unto itself, he didn’t have the luxury of saving his altered print to a file.

WB BW IMG_2747

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveller

Lima, Peru


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