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From Color To Black And White In A Few Steps – Plugins
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From Color To Black And White In A Few Steps – Plugins

by adminDecember 25, 2016

Learn Photography – B&W

From Color To Black and White

One of the reasons photographic purists usually refer to black and white prints as “monochrome” is that it’s a more precise descriptive term that also covers images produced in sepia and other tones. There is much more to black and white photography than simply an absence of color. Maybe we wouldn’t feel this way if the first photographs had been made in full color but that didn’t happen. Like many photographers, I grew up admiring the works of W. Eugene Smith and other photojournalists who photographed people at work, play, or just being themselves, all in glorious black and white.

© 2003, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved
© 2008, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

One of the advantages of working with monochromatic digital photographs is the original image can come from many sources. Some digital cameras have Black and White or Sepia modes for capturing images directly in monochrome but more often than not they capture these photographs in RGB. Yup, it’s a color file without any color! You can also capture your images in color, then use any of the software that I’ll introduce you to and convert that full color photograph into a monochromatic one. As a creative medium, traditionalists may still call it “monochrome” while digital imagers may prefer the computerese “grayscale,” but, to paraphrase Billy Joel, “It’s still black and white to me.”

One of my favorite ways to convert a color file into monochrome is to use Photoshop-compatible plug-ins. You can always use the Black and White New Adjustment Layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Black & White) in Adobe’s Photoshop and it’s a pretty good tool as far as it goes, but this story is about monochrome conversion plug-ins.

© 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved
© 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Monochrome Conversion


Nik Software’s (www.niksoftware.com) Silver Efex Pro is a Photoshop- and Aperture-compatible plug-in that offers emulations of 18 different black and white films from Agfa, Fuji, Ilford, and Kodak, along with a grain engine that mimics the traditional silver halide process. In the Film Types area on the right-hand side of the stunningly designed interface, you’ll also find controls for Sensitivity and Tonal Curve, allowing fine-tuning of the conversion.

The plug-in uses Nik Software’s patented and insanely cool U Point technology, borrowed from Nikon’s Capture NX software, that allows selective control of an image’s brightness, contrast, and structure, adding another level of control. By placing points on specific parts of the photo you can control how much of the effect is applied to only those areas. When making the final monochrome conversions, Silver Efex Pro uses algorithms to protect against creating unwanted artifacts. The plug-in costs $199.95, and works with 8- and 16-bit images, RGB, CMYK, and LAB color spaces, and is compatible with Photoshop’s Smart Filters feature.

You can work with Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro on two levels: You can use the one-click presets in the Style Browser (left-hand side) or you can manually shift gears by using the controls on the right-hand side. Here you’ll find access to control points, color filters, specific film responses, and a stylizing menu that lets you tone and vignette. Style Browser provides an overview of all of the available styles, with thumbnails showing each style’s effect on the image. The interface also has a digital loupe, to let you check out specific image details.
© 2003, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved


Power Retouche’s (www.powerretouche.com) Black & White Studio ($63) includes a pop-up Control menu, giving you access to three different interfaces: Film, Print, or Zones. Film lets you apply the light sensitivity of specific brands of films (Kodak’s Tri-X, T-Max, etc.) as well as types (panchromatic, orthochromatic) to make the conversion, or you can create your own sensitivity curves and save them for later use. There’s also a Perceptual Luminance option in the “Filmtype Presets” pop-up menu that does a pretty good job if none of the included Agfa, Ilford, or Kodak presets work for you. The Print controls put the darkroom back in digital darkroom by offering sliders for Multigrade (variable contrast), Exposure, Contrast, and some interesting ones such as Saturate Blacks and Black Soft Threshold. Zones may not be a direct implementation of Ansel Adams’ Zone System but it’s close enough, allowing you to assign three separate Zones to an image and apply separate contrast, brightness, and balance to each one. Power Retouche’s Black Definition plug-in ($32) makes a wonderful complement to Black & White Studio and lets you adjust black as if it were a color channel. Before you finish with an image, try Power Retouche’s Toned Photos plug-in ($32) to add sepia, van dyck, kallitype, silver gelatin, palladium, platinum, cyanotype, light cyanotype, or silver toning using presets or its controls to create your own. All three plug-ins work with 8-, 16-, 48-, and 64-bit RGB, Grayscale, Duotone, or CMYK image files.

Power Retouche’s Black & White Studio turns Photoshop into a digital darkroom for black and white using the light sensitivity of specific films for exact grayscale conversion and contrast editing. Multigrade, exposure stops, and color lens filters have been exactly copied in this handy digital darkroom tool.
© 2005, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Conversion And More…
Alien Skin Software’s (www.alienskin.com) Exposure 2 contains two plug-ins: Black and White Film emulates a dozen different film stocks and Color Film not only recreates a film’s distinctive look as a more or less one-click operation but manages saturation, color temperature, dynamic range, softness, sharpness, and grain at the same time. These presets are the starting point and can be tweaked to suit a particular photograph or applied to a batch using Photoshop Actions. Exposure can add grain to an image’s shadows, mid tones, or highlights and models the size, shape, and color of
real-world grain.

The plug-in’s presets include high-level contrast and highlight and shadow controls that can be applied with just a click. Additional features reproduce studio and darkroom effects such as cross-processing, split-toning, push processing, and glamour portrait softening. Exposure even includes presets for cross-processed Lomo-style image shots with your choice of four different manufacturers’ films! In addition to a before/after button, the preview window includes an optional split preview and combines unlimited undo/redo pan and zoom using Photoshop-style keyboard shortcuts. Exposure 2 costs $249.

Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 2 can be operated simply by selecting film presets from the Settings tab from what must be the most extensive library of film tonalities available anywhere on anybody’s software. Even the Kodak HIE infrared film used here has eight subsets, letting you add just the right amount of halation. But you would be remiss if you did not explore the Color, Tone, Focus, or Grain tabs and use the controls to refine the final effect and maybe add a dash of toning. Infrared fans should also take note of the separate “IR” tab that can be used to tweak your faux infrared shots to produce the most realistic emulation available.
© 2005, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

While it’s not specifically designed for monochrome conversions, Imagenomic’s (www.imagenomic.com) RealGrain Photoshop-compatible plug-in lets you perform conversions, but it does a lot more. This $99.95 Mac OS and Windows software offers methods for simulating grain pattern, color, and the tonal response of different kinds of black and white films to produce film-like image effects. RealGrain also simulates traditional toning effects such as sepia, platinum, and others, plus split-toning. The plug-in automatically adjusts grain size based on the image file’s physical dimensions and dynamically renders accurate color or black and white film grain patterns for varying file sizes.

Imagenomic’s RealGrain plug-in features versatile methods for simulating the grain patterns, colors, and tonal responses of different black and white or color (you can ignore that part, if you like) film types and lets you produce a truly film-like effect. For this portrait I applied the Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros preset, which is just one of the 20 film types from Fuji, Kodak, and Ilford that are available. Sorry, Agfa fans.
© 2008, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

RealGrain has a library for many color and monochrome films and lets you fine-tune hue, saturation, and brightness, as well as use master saturation and hue sliders to manipulate saturation and hue levels for all color ranges. You can also control color toning for shadows and highlights, as well as for single tonal effects or to adjust the tint in color images.

PixelGenius’ (www.pixelgenius.com) PhotoKit ($49.95) shows up in Photoshop’s File>Automate menu tree and is a photographer’s tool kit that includes 141 effects, offering digital versions of traditional analog photographic effects. These range from burning and dodging to digital toning to adding black edges to your images. The Color to B&W Set doesn’t just convert to grayscale but mimics the effect of shooting with a color contrast filter on your lens. Each effect has a full and one-half option and you can run it several times, applying it by using layer masks. Tip: Remember to turn off (click the eyeball icon) before running it again.

The minimalist interface of PixelGenius’ PhotoKit belies the power that hides behind the two pop-up menus. The first lets you select which set (B&W Toning, Burn Tone, Color Balance, Convert to B&W, Dodge Tone, Photo Effects, and Tone Correction) while the second lets you pick a specific effect within that set. PhotoKit is optimized for images between 8-18MB and is useful on larger sizes, but some of the effects don’t translate to smaller web-sized files.

The B&W Toning Set includes nine different toning effects that are applied to a new layer. The tones themselves vary from merely great to amazing, as is the case with the Platinum Tone effect. A simple dialog calls up the PhotoKit tool sets, but there is no real plug-in interface, no sliders, and no preview window. The process may be off-putting at first but you’ll get used to it as you begin to love what PhotoKit does for your images.

onOne Software’s (www.ononesoftware.com) PhotoTools 1 and PhotoTools 1 Professional are a collection of effects accessible through a single interface that provides a wide range of effects, corrections, and automation. The Standard and Professional Editions reproduce camera filters like neutral density, color correction, polarization, as well as darkroom and alternative processes like solarization, cyanotype, and palladium printing. PhotoTools Professional includes 10 presets for monochrome conversions but lets you stack effects on top of one another and control the order of each effect and how they blend together. The entire package includes 150 different effects that can be applied to color or monochrome images, which mean the combinations and permutations possible are almost infinite when one or more effects are combined and layered.

onOne Software’s PhotoTools 1 Professional includes 10 presets for monochrome conversions but lets you stack effects on top of one another and control the order of each effect and how they blend together, allowing you to produce thousands of possible black and white effects.
© 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Once you’ve created an effect, you can use PhotoTools’ batch-processing engine to apply that particular look to a folder of images and process the files using multiple output formats with different sizes, color spaces, and names. PhotoTools Professional is $259.95 and the Standard Edition is $159.95, and both accomplish much, much more than monochrome conversions. Author’s Note: onOne Software recently announced PhotoTools 2 Professional and Standard Editions that feature an expanded range of effects and an improved user interface, including a new effects library and additional new features. When it’s available, I’ll cover it in my Digital Innovations column.

Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro package combines B/W Conversion, B/W Conversion Dynamic Contrast, and B/W Conversion Tonal Enhancer into a single interface. You can use this filter to transform a color image into a black and white version, with control over the shadows, highlights, and relationships among the original colors and each method simulates the placement of a traditional black and white color filter in front of the lens.
© 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Nik Software also offers a family of monochrome conversion plug-ins as part of the Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 package, which is kind of an oxymoron when you think about it. Among the more than 30 special effect filters in the Full Monty version, you’ll find a B/W Conversion plug-in that transforms a color image into black and white, offering control over highlights, shadows, and the relationship of the original colors by using sliders to adjust color spectrum, brightness, and contrast. Nik’s B/W Conversion Tonal Enhancer filter provides specialized contrast control, allowing you to increase detail in the image file that simulates the traditional black and white darkroom technique of using contrast control filters when printing. Nik’s B/W Conversion Dynamic Contrast filter has a unique Contrast Enhancer adjustment that creates an exaggerated dynamic range. The three filters share the same basic interface and access to each one is through a pop-up menu in the upper right-hand corner. Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 3.0 filters are available in three filter collections, including Standard ($99.95), Select ($159.95), and Complete ($299.95). The B/W Conversion filters are included in the Select and Complete Editions.

PictoColor (www.pictocolor.com) has always been known for its affordable and easy-to-use color correction tools and iCorrect OneClick 1.5 not only works great but is a useful tool for converting color images into black and white or sepia tones. The iCorrect OneClick 1.5 is basically a color correction plug-in that automatically corrects white balance, exposure, and saturation. By clicking on any neutral color (black, white, or gray) in the image preview, you automatically correct the white balance, remove color cast, and correct tonal range. You can even fine-tune the exposure and recover extra detail by adjusting overall brightness a.k.a. luminance, shadows, and highlights or create more vivid-looking photos by boosting contrast and saturation. It’s available for Mac OS and Windows computers and costs less than $50.

PictoColor’s iCorrect OneClick 1.5 is a color correction plug-in that automatically corrects white balance, exposure, and saturation, but is also a useful tool for converting color images into black and white or sepia-toned photographs.
© 2007, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Curiously or not, depending on your plug-in IQ, Adobe Camera Raw, is a plug-in. Long part of both Adobe’s Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, the latest version of the plug-in also opens JPEG and TIFF files and the HSL/Grayscale tab includes a “Convert to Grayscale” checkbox for monochrome conversion. So when making decisions about which monochrome plug-in to use, don’t overlook one that you may already own.

All of the plug-ins that appear in this story are products that I use daily or have tested with Adobe’s Photoshop CS3 so I can attest to their functionality and usability. A list of CS4-compatible plug-ins can be found on Adobe’s website (www.adobe.com/products/plugins/photoshop).

Adobe Camera Raw, part of both Photoshop and Elements, and capable of reading TIFF and JPEG as well as raw files, contains a monochrome conversion feature that may not be as extensive as some of the other plug-ins but does a good job, as can be seen in these side-by-side screen shots.
© 2008, Mary Farace, All Rights Reserved

A Plug-In Primer
Plug-ins are software but they are not applications and must cling, remora-like, to a host application like Photoshop in order to survive. Clouding the digital waters is the fact that some of these products are available as a plug-in and an application, but a plug-in doesn’t have to be an application. Life was never simple in the chemical-based traditional darkroom and it isn’t for the digital darkroom either. Curious readers should pick up a copy of my long out-of-print book Plug-in Smart to read about the imaging plug-in’s origins in a Forward written by Ed Bomke, the programmer who created the very first plug-in for a program called, interestingly enough, Digital Darkroom.

Although Adobe defined the standard, you don’t need Photoshop to use plug-ins. Fully compatible plug-ins can be used with other image-editing programs, including Ulead Systems’ PhotoImpact and Corel’s Painter, PHOTO-PAINT, and Paint Shop Pro. But not all plug-ins work with Photoshop Elements and some monochrome conversion plug-ins, such as Exposure, are not compatible with Apple’s Aperture. Some companies offer Aperture-compatible plug-ins but they must be specifically designed to work with the program. Nik Software recently announced its Complete Collection for Aperture, bringing all of the company’s digital imaging plug-ins, including Silver Efex Pro (featured later), to Apple’s photo-editing and management software. The bundle costs $299.95, making it a bargain for Aperture users.
Companies have extended their technology to work with Lightroom, but its plug-in architecture is dissimilar to Photoshop. Adobe differentiates between plug-ins and external editors, and Lightroom 2 has the ability to define as many external editors as you want. According to Adobe, “onOne (Software) has offered editors for Lightroom as well as PictureCode’s Noise Ninja and the lens correction tool (ePaperPress’) PTLens.” onOne’s PhotoFrame works with Lightroom and by the time you read this so will Genuine Fractals, FocalPoint, and PhotoTools. Imagenomic’s Portraiture 2 with Lightroom via free automation techniques should be available by the time you read this.

The bottom line, according to Adobe, is that “image-processing plug-ins are best utilized through Photoshop…using Smart Objects to maintain access to the raw or nondestructive workflow.” When working with any of the plug-ins mentioned here it’s important to remember one of Farace’s Laws of Digital Imaging, that monochrome conversion, like all effects, is subject dependent. One effect may look great for portraits while another may work best with landscapes, so you may need more than one plug-in. Many, if not all, of the plug-ins are available in trial or demo versions, so be sure to visit the companies’ websites and download any that interest you.

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