Contrast Control

I’ve always been a contrasty black & white worker. In the chemical darkroom my allies were high contrast printing papers because I love deep blacks, crisp highlights and gutsy mid-tones. I used dodging and burning techniques extensively to achieve the tonal balance required for my style.

My taste for dramatic black & white imagery is as strong as ever but obviously I achieve the effects I want differently in the digital world. A technique I favour is doing two Raw conversions and then merging the two images together with the help of the Eraser Tool and layers. The technique is basic and simple but very effective and works in other editing softwares with layers and an eraser tool.

For more delicate dodging and burning you can use a Fill layer filled with 50% Gray, but for more grit and contrast this two Raw conversion method works well.

1. Do one Raw conversion

I did my first mono conversion in ACR making sure the sky was suitably moody. In the HSL/Grayscale tab, I clicked on Convert to Grayscale and back in the Basic menu I set -1.00 on the Exposure scale and set the Contrast and Brightness sliders to +50 Finally, I went mad with the Blacks slider moving it to +76. Click Open Image to confirm and save.

2. Now the other Raw conversion

Next, I did another conversion of the same file but this time making sure that the mid-tones and shadows came out well. In the Basic tab menu, I played with the sliders ending up with the Exposure at +1.25, Fill Light at 10, Blacks at 5, Brightness at +58 and Contrast at +30. Obviously, the settings you need depends on the image. Click Open Image to confirm.

3. Bring the two images together

With both images open, with the Move Tool click on the dark image and drag it onto the lighter image while holding down the Shift key to ensure perfect registration. This automatically puts the dark image onto a new layer above the lighter image. Close the darker image and do a Save As on the image file with two layers to leave the originals untouched.

4. Erase away the top layer

Select the Eraser Tool (shortcut key E), make sure that the Brush mode is active and adjust the Opacity down from 100% to 5% – a low value opacity is more subtle. Select a soft-edged brush (adjusting the brush size to suit different areas) and start erasing away the darker image. Just take your time and use the History palette if it goes wrong.

5. Final step: Tidy up the image

I like the rather imprecise nature of the technique and the results can be reminiscent of dodging and burning in the chemical darkroom. Once you have enough highlight and mid-tone detail showing, click on the Background layer and call up the Curves menu. A gentle S-curve just enhances contrast a little more. Flatten the image and save as normal.

Taken from the September 2010 issue of Advanced Photographer magazine