The zeal of the ambivalent b&w conversion

As if there wasn’t enough to do and to explore in photography. You know the kind of thing: seven ways to do everything in Photoshop—and sometimes better to do none of them. I’ve been considering black and white conversion on some of my existing images, many of which I am reasonably happy with in colour and others that were heading for rejection. The intriguing and powerful Silver Efex Pro from Nik Software is partly to blame.

Here’s an example: two treatments of an image I made before the midsummer sun rose over Wasdale in the Lake District. When I started writing this I was thinking I preferred the black and white because of how it cuts through the coloured haze. On the other hand, I also think that coloured haze is splendidly atmospheric and that’s broadly how visualised it and why I wanted to photograph it. So, in the space of one short paragraph, I am back on the colour side of the fence.

What do you think?

Dawn colours without the colour

8 thoughts on “The zeal of the ambivalent b&w conversion”

  1. Hi David. Lovely photo which reminds me of our walk up to Easdale Tarn in March last year (HF holiday which you led).

    One vote here for the b & w version – I like the way you’ve brought out the tonal structure in the rocks & distant hills. And I just love dramatic b & w skies!

    I’m also a fan of SEP having discovered it back in April. Just wish it was integrated into Capture NX2 – oh well I’ll just have to put up with big TIFFs and buy some more backup storage!

    All the best


    1. Thanks Ken.

      Yes Easdale Tarn. Mostly frozen I seem to remember.

      Your vote for the b&w version registered. And SEP is a marvel perhaps a little too much so. Regarding integrating into NX2. Can’t speak from recent practice but I seem to remember that you can set an “open with” application in the prefs of NX. This can be SEP, which means that once you’ve finished your raw conversion and NX tweaks you can hand off a tiff to SEP. Kind of integrated. Personally I use Lightroom and have the Nik stuff as plug-ins but usually use those from within CS5 so I have more flexibility. It does all get expensive, though. NX is/was a clever piece of software but I think Nikon is neglecting it somewhat.


  2. Hmmmm….. tricky. I do like the black and white, but it has lost something (yes, colour, obviously!). Then again, the rocks are much better – clearer, more interesting – in the b&w. I’ve been toying with b&w too, but I’ve yet to produce more than a couple of images where I prefer the mono. I think this may be down to not being good at mono conversion (me, not you), which is in danger of being a self-fulfilling trait :-

    I do like this composition and I think both work well. At this instant, I’m going to come down slightly in favour of the mono for its clarity, but it’s marginal!


    1. Thanks for the input, Mike.

      The nice thing is that we don’t really have to choose between the two. I’ve decided to like them both. Although I can see that the extra drama in the B&W is likely to attract more attention including from me over time.

      I know what you mean about B&W. For me it’s a time/colour “inertia” issue. And something of a remembering to check what it would be like in B&W as well as think in mono more when out in the field or shooting commercially. I learnt and continue to keep up to date with most mainstream post-production techniques and software methods apps for B&W conversion so I can teach people how to do it in my evening classes and to ensure I have the tools and techniques available when I fancy a B&W conversion or I’ve pre-visualised as B&W. But I’ve not done enough of the latter. I am promising myself that I’ll set my camera’s LCD preview to show mono only for a couple of weeks/months so I can get into the zone.

  3. For me, no contest, it’s the BW hands down. Perhaps its just the effect of the small size, but I don’t think the colour really adds to the image here – less “subtle”, more “thin”.

    Regarding SEP; much as I like the software – and I really do – I keep reminding myself that there are other ways to do BW conversions, and sometimes they really can work out to be a better option to get a particular ‘look’ or feel out of an image. In particular Camera Raw with a bit of polish in Photoshop seems to produce a better documentary style image for my taste. For me, the trick as to which method to use remains as it always has been, pre-visualisation. With a plan for what I want out of it when I shoot, the software and settings pretty much choose themselves as long as you know the limits of each – just as paper, film, filters and dev would do in a wet darkroom. I think digital sometimes makes you feel spoilt for choice to the point of indecision, and for my money it’s better to master a few properly than try to have too many under your belt.

    1. Mark.

      Yes pre-visualisation and knowing and choosing one’s tools are indeed the key. And I think we can all be distracted by the “wonderful” possibilities and the too much choice. I like the way you talk about settings and software options choosing themselves although if the pre-visualisation is the key, as I agree it is, they don’t really: we do and they are the corollary. But I’d say that’s just me being a bit literal and that’s what you meant in any case.

      And yes, master a few techniques/tool well rather than have too many under our belts. In years gone by I was often jumping from NX, to Lightroom, to Aperture. I explored the all the Nik plugins, played with Topaz etc — and the only edge it has given me is that I can make a little money out of teaching them. But these days, for landscapes (my workflow is much more streamlined for commercial) it is raw conversion in Lightroom and then into PS for mostly global and selective curves adjustment. I’ve not done a great deal of B&W conversion in any software and I think that SEP, as I hinted in my reply to Ken, is too seductive and convenient for post-hoc “lets see how this works in B&W and wow look at that”. This brings us back to pre-visualisation in B&W, which, I think we agree, is more satisfying and often would produce better end results. Which brings me back to my resolution to do more of the latter.

      Thanks, Mark, for your useful and considered comment.


  4. Hi David,

    I like the b&w, I’d put it on my wall – it is the effect that I used to try and get with film. However, I also like the ethereal feel to the colour version – it takes me back to early mornings in Borrowdale when I was a child.

    1. Thank you, Steve. On balance I prefer the colour. But, when my walls are no longer being painted, I will probably make a large print of both and put them side-by-side.

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