What on earth do B&W convertors have to do with detail in colour images?

A bit of a different edge to this Exposure Leeds post but, with nowhere else to post it – I thought I’d give you guys the benefit of a different take on an old trick.

In the digital era many of us are continually trying to achieve an ever sharper image and, rightly or wrongly, techniques have arisen that allow us to achieve this artificially.

One that has been around as long as Photoshop has had layers is to take a image, duplicate the layer, apply the filter ‘High Pass’ (usually around 3-5 pixels) and then set this layer to either ‘overlay’ or ‘soft light’ and then tweak the percentages accordingly.

This kept me happy for a while; at least until, with one of the more recent editions, ‘smart sharpen’ arrived. Now, this is a new filter that, apparently, avoided the need to duplicate layers and was a little more selective about how the effect was applied. But one of the things I found was, more often than not, I would simply be disproportionately increasing noise and not gaining a better effect than the high pass method.

And then, last September I found a new way of going about things.

I’d not been too happy with Photoshop’s conversion to mono and had considered getting Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro – but was a little unsure about whether it would give me value for the price tag. It was about this time I became aware of Topaz Labs and their B&W Effects software.

Now, I’m not going to say it’s better than Nik’s offering – but at around a quarter of the price I was happy to give it a go. And one of the interesting things it did for me was showed me an alternate way to sharpen and adjust the brightness levels within an image.

In this sample the left hand image is 'as shot' (with minor balancing tweaks) and the image on the right has my detail enhancements...

My technique is as follows:

  • Load the image into Photoshop; having done the basic tweaks I do to all my photos in Adobe Camera Raw.
  • Duplicate the layer and open the B&W effects filter.
  • Apply the settings I find most attractive (which usually includes a slight increase in sharpness – more below)
  • Change the layer settings so this layer is applied to the one below using luminosity.

To my eye this allows me to increase both the sharpness and apparent image detail – without resorting to craziness that looks like the worst examples of extreme HDR.

To be fair to Photoshop; you can do similar things using a combination of B&W conversion, the HDR convertor (don’t set above ‘stun’) and smart sharpen – and again using luminosity rather than soft light. I’ll often also reduce the percentage opacity on the layer. But, to be honest, it’s faster and more plyable using the Topaz so I now turn to that more often than not.

And here's a straightforward black and white conversion - enhancing details and giving more depth to the sky.

How do you use B&W Effects?
Well, for my preference I love the ‘adaptive exposure’ control – which applies what Topaz refer to as localised contrast. What I see it as doing is applying HDR-like contrast to an image but, unlike all the other tools I’ve used, allows you to do it with a level of control that keeps it within limits I find to be a benefit to the image. Alongside this you have a ‘Detail’ slider (and another for ‘Detail Boost’) and sliders to ‘protect’ both highlights and shadows. Alongside these you have normal exposure controls, a colour filter, colour level control and a curves tool.

For absolute clarity – it’s not perfect (what is?) – I’ve often found myself reaching for my favoured noise reduction software to counterbalance the impact of all this adjusting.

So, having the combination of a preferred method for B&W conversion and an interesting and, to me, appealing way to enhance the detail in my colour image I have to say I’m sold on this great little tool. If you need any further proof – almost all the images I’ve edited since September have benefited from some Topaz magic.

Full disclosure – Topaz Labs provided me with a licence for their software in return for writing about what I thought of it. This is the extent of the company’s involvement in the preparation of the article; the comments and thoughts are entirely my own.

©All images shot and edited by Jon Eland in Bridlington (East Riding of Yorkshire). All rights reserved.

  1. Russ 16th February 2012
  2. Jon Eland 16th February 2012

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