When it comes to B&W conversions, there are so many approaches you can take. Silver Efex Pro is without a doubt my favorite tool for B&W conversions, and in this post I’ll show you how to make an advanced black and white conversion in silver efex pro.
This article is an expansion of just part of the video webinar on B&W Fashion Photography. That video is at the end of this post, and while it will cover some of the same info, it also has a lot of other tidbits. In other-words… enjoy both!
Bringing a Mood to Life
When I shot the photo below, I knew I’d covering it to black and white. Her dark hair, pale skin, and vintage dress made me think of a ghostly world. I found an old barn to photograph her against, and set up the shot.
I’ve already done some base retouching on this image in Adobe Lightroom Classic, which you can see in the video below. However there is some additional retouching that I’d like to do in Photoshop, where it’s a little easier to do. That means sending the photo to Photoshop not as a Smart Object, but as a rendered pixel file. This also means I’ll need to be sure to convert it to a Smart Object before going into the filter!
In Photoshop, I quickly removed some stray hairs with the healing brush, then converted to a Smart Object. Right click on the layer, and choose Convert to Smart Object. Now the photo is ready for Silver Efex Pro!
For this process, I chose to start with the preset 050 Dark Selenium, although the final result is nowhere near that. But, it provided an inspiring first step to take.
Brightening the Image
Because of the “ghostly” appearance of the subject, I really wanted her skin to be as bright as possible. There’s a Brightness slider of course (under the Global Adjustments), but it’s too heavy handed for this image. Toggling open the slider though reveals four sub-sliders, including Highlights, which allows me to adjust the brightness just in the highlights of the image. In the before and after below, notice the difference when dragging that slider way up. The midtowns and shadows are unaffected, but her pale skin is considerably brighter.
Watch Your Structure!
Structure, also found under the Global Adjustments, can be fantastic on natural material. But it can wreak havoc on skin! Actually negative structure can be a great way to reduce fine wrinkles in skin, but in this image, I’ve already done that in Adobe Lightroom. So in this case, and any time you’re working with a portrait, pay attention to the Structure slider. If it’s up, you’ll probably want to set it to zero, and add localized structure using the Selective Adjustments to areas you want it in.
Just to show you what happens, below is before and after of the photo without and with structure applied. Look closely at her skin, and see how the structure has done not-nice things to it! To make this really clear, I’ve disabled the Film Types effect (which I’ll leave off for now), because the grain added there makes this effect harder to notice.
A Short Lesson on the Zone System
Before proceeding, I want to point out a feature in Silver Efex Pro that can help to make extremely accurate and high quality black and white images — especially if you’re planning to print them. That’s the Ansel Adams Zone System. You can read all about it at here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_System to really understand it, but I’ll briefly explain that the zone system is made of 11 zones starting with 0 which is pure black, and 10 which is pure white. Skin tone generally falls around zones 5 to 7, and the only thing that belongs in zone 9 and 10 are pure white or near pure white with no texture.
You can highlight individual zones in Silver Efex Pro by rolling your mouse over the histogram and hovering over any zone number. This will put hash lines on the image in that zone. If you click on the number, those lines will stay put. This allows you to adjust the brightness of your photo while watching the zones in realtime. It’s incredibly powerful!
I just said that skin tone is generally in zones 5 to 7, but because I want this model’s skin to be super bright, I’ll let it go as high as zone 8 — but not into 9 or 10. Which means I’ll leave zones 9 and 10 enabled so I can keep an eye on the exposure as I try different effects.
It’s worth pointing out the if you start working with Control Points, whenever you view the mask on one, you’ll see the zone hash lines show up where they would be on the mask, not the photo itself. So you may need to toggle this off and on as you go, just to make things easier to see.
Darkening the Brightest Highlights
Following on the zone lesson, with zones 9 and 10 visible, we can see that her blouse and a little of her hand are overexposed.
I’ll fix this with a Control Point. By adding one to the image, and enabling the mask view, it’s easy to position it so it covers the exact area you want to affect — in this case, primarily her blouse, and minimally her skin under the blouse.
Adding Selective Structure
I discussed structure earlier, and now’s a good time to add it selectively. We don’t want it on her face, however the wood barn behind her could use a little boost. By adding a Control Point to one of the walls and cranking the structure way up, it’ll really bring out the detail in the wood, but won’t affect our model at all. And since there’s wood on either side of her, one Control Post on each side is a better approach than making one huge one, that is more likely to pick up things you don’t want it to. However that also means you will have two Control Points to adjust — unless you group them! Select the first point (1), shift-click on the second (or more!) to select those as well (2), click the Group button (3), and then you have a group (4) that once selected, can be controlled all at once (1).
Color Filters in B&W
Adding a color filter to a B&W photo has the effect of lightning that color in the image. Back in the days of B&W film photography, adding an orange filter to the camera would make skin lighter and smoother. You can learn a lot more about color filters and their expected effects on this web page https://www.photographymad.com/pages/view/using-coloured-filters-in-black-and-white-photography. Or in Silver Efex Pro, just start clicking filters to see what happens!
Here’s the same photo with the orange filter off and on. It’s subtle, but it does look nice!
Turn on the Film Look
We turned off the Film Types a while ago, so let’s get that back on. The film look left over from the preset is pretty dramatic, which you may or may not like at this point. Personally I like it, but it has darkened the image a bit. So with the zone system highlights back on at 9 and 10, I’ll adjust the Curves to brighten it back up — but not too bright!
Finish Your Photo
Finishing Adjustments include vignetting, edge burning, color toning, and borders. These are all creative effects to add at the end, if you feel like it enhances the image. I like the original border, added a little bottom-edge burning, and called it a day. And here you have your advanced black and white conversion portrait in silver efex pro!