Easy Adobe Photoshop Elements Black and White Photography Tip For Prints that “Sing”

Darkroom-type burning and dodging technique step-by-step how-to

Adobe Photoshop Elements is all you need for darkroom-type control over your images. Here's  my quick and easy method for converting an image to black-and-white apply the digital equivalent to dodging and burning to bring out details and improve tonality.

If you're shooting in black and white (digital age variation: shooting in color with the intention of converting to black and white) traditional darkroom actions such as dodging and burning to bring out details in shadows and highlights (digital age variation: add dynamic range) can be done at the press of the button, with repeatable results. Here's my black and white photography tip for making prints that “sing” (digital age variation: "sing") and it will come in handy when you're shooting any kind of action photography in tough light situations.

Step 1: SOOC

To paraphrase Ansel Adams, the SOOC (straight out of camera) image is the score; the post-processed, final image is the performance. In this case, our score is a street shot, below, made in contrasty mid-day sunlight while I was field testing the Leica X2. Shadows fall on important details, obscuring the faces of the people in the image and especially the vendor, whose expression I really like and want to show more prominently, while sun-drenched areas have blown-out highlights. As Garry Winogrand said, it is the responsibility of the photographer to accurately describe the scene being photographed, and in this case, that means coaxing as much detail out of the outer reaches of the image's dynamic range. Thanks to Adobe Photoshop Elements, achieving this goal as never been easier.

Note: Any recent version of Adobe Photoshop Elements (Version 8 and up) lets you make all of the changes described in this article.


Straight Out Of Camera...and in need of help: When I took this picture on the streets of Manhattan, I knew the final result would be printed in black-and-white, so although the original is color, my first step is to convert it to monochrome.

Step 2: Layers and convert

The first order of business is to convert the image to black-and-white, and make layers, since different layers will do different purposes. I'm not worried about fixing the exposure yet, although clearly the image is a bit dark. I first copy and paste twice, then convert each layer. I leave the bottom layer—the color original—alone. It's there just in case I need to make another layer because it's better to copy from the original than from a copy.



Photoshop Elements'  “Convert to Black and White” menu offers several choices, the equivalent of applying the effects of different colored filters to the scene to change the relative tonalities of the different colors in the scene. I convert each layer differently to bring out different tonalities.

Step 3: The HDR layer

Now I'm going to deliberately over-use my favorite Photoshop Elements tool, the Shadows/Highlights tool, which is essentially single-image HDR. First, I brighten the shadows by moving the Lighten Shadows slider to the right. Then I add details to the overexposed areas of the image via the Darken Highlights.



Since the Lighten Shadows also causes the newly lightened shadow details to look unnaturally flat, I move the Midtone Contrast slider until I like what I see. This may darken the shadows again, so again I move the Lighten Shadows.



The result is an unnatural-looking, hyper-HDR image, because all of the changes to this layer are made globally. Don't worry, the end result will only use the good bits. Now it's time to work on the top layer, and then selectively erase down to selected areas of this HDR layer that will enhance the overall image.

Step 4: The top layer

Now I'll make global changes to the main image to give it the tonal depth the image needs but the HDR layer lacks. This is a pretty simple affair: I adjust the levels in the histogram, removing any blank space so that either end of the curve bumps up against the wall. I might slide the center slider to open up some of the shadows but I'm not too worried about this, because that will get taken care of in the next step.



Step 5: Selectively reveal the HDR layer

This is where dodging and burning really happens, and the only tool I now need is the eraser because the shadows have been dodged and highlights burned in the HDR layer. It's better to complete this step using a pen and tablet than a mouse; you'll have greater control. Some people may want to use the selection tool and feather their selection, as it offers more control, but I prefer the pen because it gives me the same kind of approximate look that I used to get when dodging and burning in the darkroom, and I like that. It's a matter of personal taste.

Select the top layer, and erase away the too-light and too-dark portions of the image in the areas where you want to reveal the underlying, edited and adjusted version. I used the most feathered of the eraser choices, and made the circle of coverage about the same size as the faces in the scene. I concentrated on lightening the faces and areas of the food cart and darkening the pavement while leaving the darkest areas of the image untouched. I also darkened the sunlight on the man's shoulders, as that was a distracting bright highlight.



Here's the top image with the underlying layers removed, to illustrate the areas I erased away and to show the feathering.

Step 6: Flatten layers

Just before flattening the layers for the final image, I decided to lighten the underlying layer and boost contrast to give the shadow detail more “pop.” I simply highlighted the middle layer and lightened and added contrast using the Brightness/Contrast tool. You can also do this by adjusting levels.

Step 7: Final image



With layers flattened, I'm happy with this image, and am ready to send it off to the lab for printing. The entire process took me less than five minutes, and my fingers didn't smell like Fixer when I was done!

Before I started, I made sure my monitor was calibrated and I applied my lab's printer profile so there are no unpleasant surprises when the print comes back. And then I uploaded the image to AdoramaPIX for printing. The result? It's hanging on my wall!

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