Black and white photography made easy: tips for pro-quality results from start to finish

Black and white photography made easy: tips for pro-quality results from start to finish

Finessing with the Levels, Curves and Dodge and Burn tools

In our final part in this series we’ll look at how you can use Photoshop effects like Levels, Curves and the Dodge and Burn tools to fine tune your black and white photo editing process.

Black and White Photography: the best way to use Levels, Curves, Dodge and the Burn tools

Master Photoshop Levels and Curves

While the individual colour adjustments will give you control over the final tones of your black-and-white photos, 
they aren’t the only way that you can control them in your final image.

Once you have converted your images, you can also use either Levels or Curves Adjustment Layers to fine-tune the contrast and tones in your black and white photography. Curves Adjustment Layers aren’t available in Elements, so you’ll have to use Levels.

Using Curves
This adjustment allows you to make more subtle changes to your images than Levels, as you can lighten or darken specific parts of the histogram, rather than the three fixed points available in Levels.

You can click any point along the diagonal line in the adjustment window, and drag it down to darken these tones, or up to lighten them. You can also click on a point along this line to lock it in position.

Because the range of adjustments using Curves is almost unlimited, it can be difficult to use at first. You’ll find it’s much easier to start off by using the preset adjustments available in the drop-down menu within the adjustment window.

These presets offer a range of options for the most common adjustments used, such as ‘S’ curves to increase the contrast, and lightening or darkening the image.

Using Curves to boost your black and white photography

Increase contrast
One of the most common adjustments you’ll need to make to your black-and-white images is to increase the contrast. While the preset options are useful, they often don’t give the exact effect that you need for your images. In these situations you can still use one of the preset options as a starting point, then simply drag the curve to suit your own shot.

To increase the contrast in an image, select the Medium Contrast option from the drop-down menu. This will apply a subtle ‘S’ curve. To darken the shadows, click and drag the point towards the bottom left of the curve further down. To lighten the highlights, you simply click and drag the point towards the top of the curve higher.

Selective adjustment
Localised changes in tone, density and contrast have been used almost since the birth of photography to add impact to black-and-white shots.

But unlike the days of the master printer producing prints individually, you 
can now apply selective adjustments quickly and easily to your images.

The easiest way to do this on large areas of an image, such as the sky, is to use a Layer Mask on a Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer. You simply make your adjustment to suit the area, ignoring any effect on the rest of the image.

Then, using a black brush set to around 25% opacity, paint onto the Layer Mask that corresponds to the area that you want to leave unaffected by the adjustment.


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Using the Levels sliders

Using the Levels sliders to adjust highlights

These are controlled by the white triangle to the right of the histogram. The most common adjustment is to drag this to the left until it just meets the end of the graph. Drag it further left and you will lose detail in the highlights.

Using the Levels sliders to adjust shadows

These are controlled by the black triangle to the left of the histogram. Dragging this to the right darkens the shadows, but it’s a good idea to drag it slightly inside the end of the histogram to make your images look punchier.

Using the Levels sliders to adjust midtones

Along with the highlight and shadows controls, Levels also allows you to darken or lighten the midtones using the grey triangle in the middle of the histogram. To darken the midtones, drag to the right. Drag to the left to lighten.

What can go wrong?
While the Curves adjustment gives you more control than Levels, it’s also easy to take adjustments too far. If you drag any section of the curve so that the line gets close to horizontal, these tones will look flat and unnatural in your image.

Top Tip
Elements 9 or later has a limited curves control, known as Color Curves. Go to Enhance>Adjust Color>Adjust Color Curves. Instead of adjusting any point, it only has sliders for Highlights, Midtone Brightness, Midtone Contrast and Shadows.


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Master the Dodge and Burn tools

Master the Dodge and Burn tools in your black and white photography

The Dodge and Burn tools refer to two traditional darkroom techniques, in which areas were given more exposure to darken the image (burning), or less exposure to make them lighter (dodging).

The effect is similar to using selective Levels or Curves adjustments, but you simply ‘paint’ the effect onto your image rather than using Layer Masks.

It’s good practice to create a duplicate of your Background layer, and do your dodging and burning on this new layer.

This allows you to easily assess any adjustments you’ve made by switching between the layers, and also get back to your original image if your first attempts go wrong.

The most common mistake when using these tools is applying too much of the effect in one adjustment, so the darkening or lightening is obvious and uneven in the final image.

To avoid this, set the Exposure to a low amount between 3% and 5%, and slowly build up the effect. The other way to ensure the effect is subtle is to use a soft-edged brush when using the Dodge and Burn tools.

Dodge tool
The Dodge tool is used to lighten areas of your image. You can choose whether you lighten the highlights, midtones or shadows. Lightening the highlights will increase the contrast between these and the shadows, while lightening the shadows will reduce the contrast.

Burn tool
This has the opposite effect to the Dodge tool. Again, you can choose whether the tool affects highlights, midtones or shadows. Darkening the shadows will increase the contrast in these areas, and darkening the highlights will reduce the contrast.

How to dodge and burn

How to dodge and burn: step 1

1 Choose the tool
Once you have created a duplicate Background layer you will need to select Dodge or Burn from the Tools palette.

How to dodge and burn: step 2

2 Adjust the highlights
Choose Highlights and you can darken the highlights to reduce contrast, or lighten them to increase it.

How to dodge and burn: step 3

3 Adjust the shadows
Choose Shadows and you can darken areas of shadow to add more contrast, or lighten them for less.


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