All that I am about to say is personal. I am not claiming it is good, bad, ugly or worse, but it is what I personally do with Adobe Lightroom (LR) to produce most of my B&W images. I am an instinctive image maker and rarely think in or remember the numbers, so I’ve found it quite challenging to deconstruct and explain what I do, but here goes!
Example images coming up further down the article. Please note that these have been exported from Lightroom and do not quite match here what I see in Lightroom. You’ll get the idea what I am trying to say, however.
There are of course many post-processing software solutions, but I chose LR because it is very widely used, well supported and in my view, very intuitive to use. This is coming from someone who transitioned from a darkroom background and who finds Photoshop awful from an interface point of view. PS feels computer orientated, rather than photo orientated to me, although I’m not sure that will make any sense to you!
I’m sure a lot of what I am about to say can be translated into Capture One Pro speak, DxO, Iridium or others, but I am not the person to attempt this, because I have zero experience with any of them. Some platforms clearly have advantages, especially for particular cameras (like C1 or Iridium for Fuji X-Trans sensors), but Lightroom does a good enough job for me with all the cameras I use, so I have stuck with it. Being consistent and keeping things simple definitely helps achieve good results. In the darkroom, I stuck to only a couple of papers (Ilford MG Warmtone and the Adox version of the discontinued Agfa Multigrade) for the same reason.
My Lightroom learning process began with reading a book to help introduce its major functions and I went from there. Like most people, once you know the basic controls it’s a question of relying on your eye and just experimenting until making changes becomes instinctive. This is what impressed me most about LR. In many respects it does mimic the functionality of a darkroom, but with vastly more options available should you wish to use them. For me, a successful post-processing platform has to allow me to translate what I want to see into a simple, intuitive, flexible actions to make those changes.
OK, now for a bold statement: I think one of the key advantages to working in Lightroom (or similar), over Photoshop (or similar) is that the former does not allow pixel level manipulation, special masks and many other tools that allow the images to be worked on ‘under the hood’. I genuinely believe that if you get too far into the pixels, you are likely to end up with a less, rather than more, convincing B&W image. Crude changes are inherently organic, because they are not perfect. This is not to say that you cannot be reasonably precise and specific in LR, because you can (especially compared to in a darkroom, assuming you are not using contrast masks and the like). It’s just that the eye has an uncanny ability to spot ‘fishy’ images, where things just don’t look right. LR and its kind inherently limit you in the changes you can make and I often find pixel level manipulations upset my eyeballs more than bold dodging and burning in the darkroom. Just look at some of Salgado’s images, printed by Phillippe Bachellier. He uses pot ferri on highlights quite a bit, but he is not shy of really adding and subtracting density with his hands. You can clearly see what he has done in some cases, but oddly this does not bother me in the same way as pixel tweaking. Go figure! Again, this is very personal and I am not knocking those who do a lot of work at the pixel level, but for my eyes, I aim for more soul and less perfection. I feel that Lightroom allows us to leave the mark of our own hands on the image so to speak. Does that make any sense at all?
What about dedicated film emulation software, such as Nik Silver Efex Pro, Alien Skin, DxO Filmpack etc? Firstly, I think most of these programs are fantastic. Secondly, I use them infrequently. This may seem a strange pair of comments, but I find them more opaque and less controllable than LR. The results can often be fantastic, but when applying film types, you are really just applying a bunch of presets, including changes to colour channel mixing, curves and grain. Lots of changes are made at once and IMHO this does not help you learn about B&W. Yes, there have been huge improvements over the last few generations, so you can do more general image adjustment, work in density ‘zones’ and mix and use filters etc. The problem, however, is that I feel they don’t allow me to feel what I am doing unless I break down the presets in which case I am half way back to working in LR anyway.
The other problem is that to export a file into most of these programs you have to generate a TIFF, which takes up more space on your hard drive and if you decide to do more work once the file is back in LR, you are now working on a large TIFF that is disconnected from the original DNG. I do use and value such software, however, and I will explain at the end of the article where they fit into my work. If you are looking for quick results, however, and are prepared to just select the presets that look best to your eyes, without worrying about why, then they are second to none. If you have no desire to ever work in LR or any other powerful platform like it, but love B&W, these film emulation programs are now powerful enough to be your whole editing platform. Here I think they probably offer most bang for the buck, but for so many adjustments, I feel LR works bette for me.
My preference is for DxO Filmpack, which I feel gives more organic grain and looks a bit more faithful to film IMHO than Silver Efex. However, if working with a very low contrast file, Silver Efex’s Tri-X preset will give more snap and contrast than the Filmpack one, for example. Both can be adjusted, but they really are quite different and will look better or worse depending on your likes and the file you start with of course.
Here is my typical workflow:
I rarely use anything more than mild sharpening and possibly a medium curves preset (depends on the files I see in camera. If I know they are a bit flat, I add the medium contrast curve on import. If not, I leave it ‘off’). I prefer to look at the basic file and not introduce too much before I see it. Because I am almost exclusively working in B&W, I personally feel no need for special profiles etc. I just import, convert to DNG as part of the import and take it from there. My second reason for keeping it simple is that I find that each file almost always needs its own bespoke treatment for the best results. It therefore makes more sense to add only some basic (mild) sharpening and a little contrast to the curve and start with a ‘neutral’ beginning. I guess this is rather like wanting to see a grade 2 or 2.5 test straight test print before introducing new variables.
Once I have imported all the files, I then scan through them and get an overall feel for the body of images. IMHO this is not the best time to start marking them up with stars because you have no overview yet. I like to know what I have in overall terms before thoughts develop on where individual images might fit in.
Once I have had a scan through, I start working on an appealing image. I could claim to do this for sensible reasons, but the truth is I am impatient and want to see my first B&W! Just as in the darkroom, I feel like a kid all over again. Unlike with colour work, until there is a B&W conversion, we are not really even at the negative stage. I like to jump straight in and pull out the fist quick’n dirty B&W image. To me, this is like pulling the first stretch of rollfilm off the spiral and holding it up to the light to get a sense of what you have. It will always be magic and I will never be able to curb the desire to see ‘the first one’. I usually spend no more than two minutes on the first image and then repeat the process with two or three more different files. What this does is help me to understand some of the technical qualities of the images and I will usually select a range of images that represent a broad sample, particularly where there are big changes in lighting or shooting conditions. I rarely keep these ‘developed’ files, because they are done quickly and imperfectly.
At this point I have already scanned through all the images and have an overview. I have done some quick mock-ups from a sample of files and so I am ready to make an informed first edit. If I only have a small number of images, there may be no need for subsequent edits. If I have hundreds, I will normally refine the edit until I have 50% to 100% more than the total required for the portfolio or intended output. After all, not all images will make the prints I hope for. The final edit is only ever done from a good range of ‘best as I can make them’ files.
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