One image, many iterations

Oaxaca Street Corner, original raw file

Original raw color file

On rainy Saturdays, I sometimes tour my vast archive Misfit Images. Saved on a labyrinth of external drives, these are shots from many years ago that for one reason or another just didn’t make the cut. It was a quieter time when technology was less advanced as was my knowledge of it. On occasion I revisit some of these lonely, unprocessedimages,and see if they look better to me with that special combination of age and more advanced Photoshop skills.

Back in 2006, I took a photo trip to Oaxaca, Mexico led by Magnum photographer Constantine Manos. The focus was street photography, and for this particular project, I found my language barrier to be an asset. I spent ten days poking around the streets near the Zocalo. Most often being chased by angry, camera-shy, Mexicans. This class was mainly about composition, we discussed almost no postproduction, so I worked on the images later when I returned to Massachusetts.

During the archive tour, I found the image in this example. A man on the corner waiting to cross the street in the late afternoon. A simple view of daily life, however, I managed to cut my subject’s feet off (off with his feet!), so I rejected the image and chose not to process it. But when I look at the image now, I see some potential for black and white, so I’m going to give it a go.

The first thing I did was pull the RAW image into Camera Raw. A friendly reminder, if you are going to do any postprocessing you always need to work on raw, 16-bit files. But we can chat about that issue over tea sometime. Then I pull up the histogram and review the overall tonal quality of the image. I’m looking for a somewhat balanced histogram, one that doesn’t have clipped or blown out highlights, and one that has a nice amount of middle grays. Our eyes are quite adept at seeing subtle gradations in tone, so the more information I have in the middle of the histogram, the more leeway I have later on to make edits. My histogram looked pretty good for the purpose of demonstration, so I made a slight exposure adjustment and moved on to the black and white conversion.

Black and white conversion

Initial black and white conversion

Initial black and white conversion

Anyone who thinks Ansel Adam’s images came straight out of the camera with all that tonal depth and shimmer, probably also thinks a Brownie is just a dessert. All photographers use a multitude of tools: from darkrooms to computers to paper to ink. The black and white conversion can be done in many ways with a variety of software. What I normally do is open my 16-bit image in Photoshop and create a black and white adjustment layer. All of our adjustments should be nondestructive and done on separate adjustments layers for easy editing later. The initial conversion at right isn’t that bad. At the top, you can see the original image was dominated by a red-orange wall, so in my conversion, I decide to make the the red-orange darker to add contrast. Not sure it that works, but it can be edited later.

Since black and white images really aren’t just black and white, but built on subtle shifts in gray, it helps to pay particular attention to the colors in your original image when making the black and white conversion. Contrast is one the key elements in good black and white images and the color in your original image is one of the best place to build contrast. One note of caution, be careful with your black and white conversions and back off if digital grain, haloing and banding rear their unsightly heads. You can make further adjustments with masks later on.

Version 1


Version 1: Darker sky and that’s one dark wall!

The next step is to strengthen the contrast. Again, there are many roads leading to the same rotary in Photoshop, but I find the simplest way is to create many levels adjustment layers with layer masks. My method is to create a levels adjustment layer, focus on a particular area in the image I want to target, perhaps the wall in the foreground, and move the sliders to agreeable positions. Then I add a layer mask and expose only the adjustment I want to keep. The image at right has some subtle changes. If you look closely, I’ve brought out more detail in the wall, darkened the sky and mountain, and made some tonal edits to the street. Our hombre on the corner needed some more highlights to make him stand out against the dark street, so lightened his backpack and his shoulders. All the while keeping a sharp eye on my histogram. The overall the corrections look good, but I think I want try some other adjustments.


Version 2

Version 2: Light wall, dark streets

Version 2: Light wall, dark streets

In this version I made some alternate tonal adjustments. I’m still not happy with the wall, so let’s go the other way and make it lighter. I still want to retain the detail, but I want to bring it more in line with the tonal quality of the original image and see what happens. While I like the darker sky, it’s starting to look a little overworked to me, so I lighten that up a bit. In this case, I edited the levels slightly, and used the layer opacity slider to make a more subtle change. The light building in the background was also a looking a bit unbalanced, so I toned down the midtones to make it a little bit darker, again, more like the original image. I left my tonal correction to the sidewalk as is, I like it a little bit lighter. The traffic light nows seems a little dull, but that’s an easy fix. One note about the adjustments, it’s helpful to name each layer and mask. Keep layers grouped together by version so you don’t end of editing layers you might want to retain for later.

Version 3

Version 3: The kitchen sink and the towel

Version 3: The kitchen sink and the dish towel

Photoshop can be the Land of Happy Accidents. An image that was once thought to be the runt of the photoshoot, can sometimes benefit from a black and white makeover. In this final and third version at right, I accidentally turned on all my adjustment layers, some with a variety of opacity. This gave me a composite of all edits, not sure I like it, it’s a bit overworked, but it shows how truly versatile black and white can be. What seem like minor edits can change the the way we perceive an image. This last version, really captures the time of day. The true test is in printing. But that’s a quiet talk for another time. Now I urge all of you to back away from the keyboard, set down the mouse, and get outside and take some pictures!!