The Importance of Blacks and Whites in Image Adjustment

Fendler's bladderpodWhen I teach Lightroom or Photoshop, I make a big deal about setting blacks and checking whites. In fact, that is something I always do with every photo. I will never allow anyone to use one of my images from a RAW file without doing this. A JPEG file from camera is a processed file, so in a pinch, I will send a JPEG file when I have to quickly (which is one reason I shoot RAW + JPEG).

This is actually not a Lightroom, Photoshop or computer thing. This is about how photographs display and goes back to traditional black-and-white photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams talks quite a bit in his books such as The Print (which is still in print and a superb book for anyone processing images, even in the computer). He discusses how important it is to have a full range of tonality from black to white or a print will never look right. It will be gray and look much less attractive because it does not fully use the tonality available in the print. It then looks duller than it should. Adams talks about how important it is that most scenes and subjects need that full range, something a pure black and something a pure white, in order to look their best, though some scenes, such as a foggy day, will not and should not have that range.

Pronghorn in front of Large Array Radio Telescopes in New Mexico; first without proper blacks and whites (from camera), second with blacks set and whites checked:

BlacksWhites-02BlacksWhites-01In today's digital world, this is still important. There is a range of tonality and color available for any display, whether that is a print or an image on a monitor. If the image is not using that full range of display capability, it will never look its best both in tonality and color.

A RAW file is not set up to give you the best range of tonality and color from black to white. It is designed to be processed. In fact, most manufacturers automatically elevate the blacks to gray because a weakness of any digital camera and its sensor is the dark areas (this has to do with the physics of how a sensor works). If you don't then set blacks and check whites (as well as control mid tones), you are not getting the best from the original RAW file.

BlacksWhites-05BlacksWhites-04Notice that the contrast and color looks better simply by working with blacks and whites. Setting blacks and checking whites ensures that your image is using the full range of tonality and color. Blacks are more subjective and you often have a range of possibility for them. Whites tend to be very sensitive and you need to be careful about them. That is why I lke to use the terms setting for blacks and checking for whites.

All Adobe products make this very easy to do. You press the Alt or Option key as you set blacks and whites and the screen will show a threshold screen displaying exactly when and where blacks and whites occur in your image. This is the first thing I always do with an image. In Lightroom and Camera Raw, you use the Blacks slider in Basic for setting blacks and the Whites slider in Basic for checking whites. In Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, you use Levels and the black slider at the left for blacks, the white slider at the right for whites. And at the risk of being repetitive, you press Alt or Option as you do this so you get a threshold screen to look at. This next image shows the blacks threshold screen in action.

BlacksWhites-06Blacks will show up as pure black on the threshold screen. For some images, this may be small spots of black, for others, large areas of black. It really depends on the photo. If your image is full of color, you might not get a pure black, but you will get spots of color. Whites show up as pure white on the whites threshold screen. I usually just barely have a spot of white or color show up, and sometimes, I back off the adjustment slightly until the whites just disappear. Here is the image that was being adjusted in the Lightroom screen shot, before blacks and whites, and after blacks and whites have been adjusted. No other adjustments were made to this image.

BlacksWhites-08BlacksWhites-07The image may be too dark or too light at this point. This is when you adjust midtones to bring out detail there. I will often tweak dark and light areas with the Shadows and Highlights controls. Use Exposure and/or the Tone Curve in Lightroom/Camera Raw, or the middle slider in Levels or use Curves in Photoshop products. Especially watch for muddy, murky dark tones that digital cameras often struggle with – Shadows in Basic as well as Darks in Tone Curve work really well for this with Lightroom/Camera Raw.

All of the images here are from New Mexico shot this spring. Also, every image in all of my books, including my new photo e-book, Reports from the Wild, have blacks set and whites checked (though foggy or hazy days do not have blacks or pure whites).

 

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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17 Responses to The Importance of Blacks and Whites in Image Adjustment

  1. Tom Bancroft says:

    Thanks so much for highlighting this issue and giving us some wonderful pictures to see how you did it. I really appreciate it. The pictures really highlight how effective setting the black and white point can be.

  2. Aram Langhans says:

    Well said. That is the typical workflow I try to do, but sometimes get lost for some reason. It sure makes a difference when shooting RAW. I'll have to dig out my AA books and look at them again from a digital frame of reference.

    Aram

  3. Hal Schmitt says:

    Rob, perfect discussion. What an amazing difference setting good white and black points and building a wider tonal range makes. Regardless of Process 2012, I find myself setting white and black points before anything else.

    -Hal

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks, Hal! I think you are absolutely right. I think it is interesting that Adobe's list of sliders in Basic for Lightroom is supposed to be a possible workflow. I think it is off because you should not be adjusting exposure until you have set blacks and checked whites.

      Rob

  4. Steve Kendall says:

    Rob - great information. I have been trying to do this on every image and it most cases it works great but in a few images I noticed when setting the whites it really blows the image out and seems to contrasty. I will use your other tips if that happens. Thanks again.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks, Steve. Whites can be very sensitive, which is why I love to use the term "check" whites. If you are using Lightroom or Camera Raw, you can use minus Highlights to help. But sometimes, you just have to back off the Whites.

      Rob

  5. Rich Bahl says:

    Ok Rob I get the idea. What are your thoughts on items like the Spydercube? I purchased one ages ago but haven't used it. I'm pretty sure there are others.

    I also need to figure out how to translate your Adobe instructions into Apples Aperture.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      The Spydercube is effective for people who need it, which tends to be portrait photographers and people shooting indoors with variable light. Otherwise, to me, it is more of extra gear to carry that I really don't need.

      One reason I have never liked Aperture is because Apple did not give any tools to see blacks and whites as you set them, which all Adobe products do. I don't know if that has changed with the most recent version.

      Rob

  6. Jeff Sinon says:

    Great post Rob.

    Ever since reading your Lightroom 2 book this has been one of the first steps performed on every image, before any other processing is done. Sometimes setting the blacks and whites is all the image needs.

  7. Steve Beckwith says:

    Excellent article Rob! I came across a Lightroom tutorial that explained this process and have been using it on almost all my landscapes. The order I do for a lot of my shots is take the highlight slider all the way to the left at -100, the shadows slider all the way to the right at +100, then I use the alt function you mentioned on the whites and blacks. So I do the highlights and shadows first, then the whites and blacks. Are you recommending that I do the whites and blacks first, then the highlights and shadows next? Or is the end results pretty much the same thing? I have been amazed at what just using these 4 sliders can do for an image! Thanks for the article, it's one of those quick and easy suggestions that will help a lot of people with their processing!

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      If that works for you, go for it. I tend to use Shadows and Highlights sliders only after setting blacks and checking whites because I feel that not all images need them and what an individual image needs is specific to it. On one image maybe I will only use Shadows in Tone Curve (because it handles them differently and over a wider tonal range) and on another, Shadows in Basic only. I am very cautious about Highlights. I think it can be very useful, but it can also dull an image.

  8. john forrant says:

    I have used this in past and it works great.Now for some reason it does not work on my PSE7. I can see it chnge the picture but does not show as thresholds. Any ideas?

  9. Great article Rob. I have been wondering how much editing of an image in post is considered appropriate. I'd love to know what your opinions are on color saturation and contrast as well, possibly with examples.

    Thanks

    Eric

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      I don't think there is an easy or simple answer to that. What I don't think is an answer is the so-called "purist" who says he/she does not adjust an image. Every image is an interpretation of the real world -- it cannot be anything else since the real world does not fit inside our cameras! The camera adjusts the image no matter what you do based on the limitations of the camera, its processing (and even RAW files have some processing done inside the camera), and on the design specifications of the camera based both on engineers usually in Japan and on marketing needs of the country (don't think for a moment that cameras don't have images recorded in such a way as to keep customers coming back). In addition, if you want to be true to nature, you often have to adjust an image because limitations of the camera do not allow the camera to capture a real view of nature without some help. My feeling on adjusting or processing an image is based more on traditional darkroom work of masters like Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith. Adams says a lot of very good and very appropriate things in his books, The Camera and Lens, The Negative and The Print. Also, I do not like the term "editing." That originally comes from the early days of Photoshop when computer folks (not photographers) were cutting and pasting pieces of photographs together, literally editing pixels. It is very interesting to note that Lightroom does not use the term "editing" for anything done inside of Lightroom, and that choice was made very deliberately. Editing implies something very different than adjusting or processing.

      Rob

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