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Now that we’ve poked around ACD System’s most capable software – having worked out a decent Photo Studio Ultimate workflow, as well as ways to make migration as easy as it can be – I think it may be time to actually use it.
After all, photography is the whole point, right? And, as much as we may sometimes dislike this fact, post-processing is very much part of it. So, this time, no ratings, no color labels, keywords, or metadata. No presets, either. In fact, we’ll only be touching on a small part of the Photo Studio package. Mainly the Develop mode, or however much of it we might need for a black and white portrait of an immensely charming lady. This is refreshing.
An important disclaimer: As has been stated on numerous occasions (so many times, in fact, that you may have learned this paragraph by heart) the license for this copy of ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate has been provided by ACD Systems. Having said that, the article has not been dictated by the company in the slightest, not even the task itself. My words are always my own, so take that for what it’s worth.
The curious and geeky among you may wonder about the context behind this unusually-composed photograph, and I will gladly satisfy said curiosity and geekiness. The lady’s name is Ona (or Anna, if you will). She is a 94-year-old ex-partisan and exile survivor from my hometown, known better here by her codename, Acacia. Along with that, she is an immensely lovely old woman with a brilliantly sharp mind and memory.
I find her beautiful, most of all because, after being betrayed by her loved one, stabbed, shot, imprisoned and tortured, there is little bitterness to be found in her words. This portrait was taken as we met for the second time when I took her on a promised trip to a nearby forest.
The best part of this process we call taking portraits is everything that happens before the click and after the camera is cozy in its bag again. This is the part to savor, not the visual proof, the byproduct of simple human interaction. Whether you like the given portrait or find it exceedingly average, the experience is beyond all that. It was a lovely evening, and lovely company to be in.
Unlike a different portrait of Acacia keen-eyed readers may have noticed in one of my previous articles, this one’s not an already-perfectly-black-and-white Ilford HP5 Plus negative. Instead, it’s a Fujifilm X-Pro2 RAW file, taken with the XF 23mm f/1.4 R lens, then converted to DNG. And, upon close examination, this is a lovely, natural-looking image. ACDSee Photo Studio is handling it very well.
But none of it matters. Not the camera, or the lens, or the aperture (f/2) and ISO (that’s at base 200). Not the image sensor, the size of it, or the resolution. Before we even start talking about tones and their curves, here’s a secret about portraits, whether black and white or of gentle color – it’s about the light. Really, if there was one thing for you to take from this article, repeat after me— it is all about the light.
Even when it’s as unassuming, as undramatic and soft as it was on that warm May evening, this is where you start your post-processing. Beforehand. It’s the crucial first step.
Get the light right, and you’ll have the most fun, and the simplest time at the computer bringing about the final touches. Photo Studio will help you here and make the task easy. Get the light wrong, and no effects, no HDRs, clarity sliders, and dynamic ranges will save the image.
With the romantic bit out of the way, let’s get to it.
Bump the Contrast to high. Using the Tone Curves, deepen the shadows further, and bring out the highlights until they are almost white. Use the Sharpness slider liberally to emphasize the wrinkles. Something missing? Finish up with a dash of vignetting. Skin as bright as the sky, shadows as deep as … something else vaguely poetic. All the experience reflecting in the now-shocking creases on her face.
This is everything we are not going to do.
Not to say that there is something wrong with high-contrast black and white photography, but thinking every portrait of an older person needs to be accompanied by a healthy (read – senseless) dose of clarity/contrast is a cliché I will gladly call out. Acacia is soft in her expression. The light is soft. Her feather-light hair is soft. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s not bring drama where there is only calm. Let’s not try to change what seems to come naturally from all this softness. Let’s, instead, start with color.
Strange as it may sound, converting a digital image file to black and white means working with color. In fact, from a certain point, it’s almost no different than working with a color image. Especially when post-processing with portraits, understanding skin tones and what colors lie there is extremely important (a lot of red), because that, along with the light, will dictate a large part of the adjustments to be made. And, as ever is the case when working with color…
Setting the White Balance (to taste) is mandatory, and is the natural first step. Now, Fujifilm is usually so very, very accurate when it comes to color temperature. It doesn’t really do the “warm glow” thing and sticks to a more neutral tone overall. Some might even call it cool (in both a color temperature and the “it rocks” sense of the word)
My White Balance adjustment is subtle and verging on unnecessary. A bump of just around 500 degrees towards the warm side (from 5000K to 5500K). I may come back to this setting at some point, but before diving into gray tones, I tend to give myself a technically good starting point, a decently-exposed, decently-toned image. This small adjustment seems to have done the trick for now.
Speaking of technical things, I also tend to fix any visibly-irritating distortion, vignetting, and image straightness at the very start, when necessary.
NOTE: Jumping ahead a bit, I will show you what I mean about white balance and black and white photography. Notice how adjusting this one setting that is seemingly unrelated to black and white conversion (from around 2450K degrees to our chosen 5500K) changes the overall look of the image.
The impact of warmer or cooler color introduced with WB adjustment depends on how dark/light and prevalent certain color ranges are. As you tweak Tone Curves and lightness/darkness of individual color ranges using Color EQ/Advanced Black & White tools, the effect of the WB adjustment will become more noticeable. But it’s a complex process and quite difficult to accurately predict.
There are three ways to do black and white conversions with ACDSee Photo Studio Develop mode.
The first one involves adjusting the Saturation slider (General tab) to -100. The second involves desaturating each individual color range using the Color EQ tool. Obviously, neither way is particularly practical. Unsurprisingly, the third option proves to make the most sense – simply change the Treatment setting from Color to Black & White at the very top of the General tab, above the Exposure slider.
All three options render the exact same initial conversion, so using the most convenient (and most easily reversed) method is, well – you get the idea. Using the Treatment method will disable the Saturation adjustment slider and replace the Color EQ tool with the Advanced Black & White tool.
I have likely noticed that the initial conversion is fairly low-contrast. For me, that’s good. I like to start off with a flat look and work from there (and I already love how soft and beautifully toned the hair is). For the general contrast of the image, I tend to use the Tone Curves. The contrast slider is fine for adjusting general contrast by just a smidge but is too imprecise when a more pronounced or more controlled adjustment is needed.
Tone Curves is an exceedingly powerful tool, of course, and I keep coming back to it again and again during post-processing, just to make tiny adjustments. When using the Tone Curve, I don’t pay too much attention to areas that I know are of mostly one specific color, like trees and grass. Even if these areas are a little off, I’ll be adjusting them later on using the color tools.
What matters to me is the general look, the shadows, and the highlights. Here, a mild adjustment of the shadows is enough.
To keep the image subtle and calm, I’ve left the highlights as they were and only really pulled the shadows down a touch. Nothing too drastic, just enough to emphasize that soft light. Note how the bright tones of Acacia’s face and hair remain almost identical, but the deeper shadows have corrected the sense of flatness to a degree.
We are not quite done yet, but this is now closer to what I envisioned.
I think it’s possible to do a decent black and white conversion using just the Tone Curves, or alternatively just the color adjustments. At least if the first step is done well – remember my point about the light? But, when used together, these tools work at their best.
Switching to the Luminance tab of the Color EQ tool allows us to adjust the brightness of each individual color channel. In other words, I can adjust how dark or bright my reds, blues, greens, and other colors, each separately. This means two things; you have a very high degree of control, and also unlimited ways to mess something up. I’d say we should avoid the latter.
My issue with this image lies mostly in the grassy area. You see, there are at least two things that I can do to emphasize Acacia’s face. I can go down the “clarity and contrast everything” route and just keep working those Tone Curves further. Alternatively, (this is clearly my preferred choice) I can de-emphasize the area that surrounds the main visual element, to make her stand out a bit more.
In other words, I’ll just pull down the grass tones to make them slightly darker using the Advanced Black & White adjustments. As I’ve mentioned before, this tool allows control over the luminance of individual color ranges. The Advanced Black & White tab allows grab-and-pull action on the image itself if you’re ever unsure what colors are in that area. In this particular case, I know it’s mostly green and yellow.
Again, this is a subtle adjustment, but it has helped make Acacia’s face stand out more. As ever, there’s plenty of room to push further. But, knowing I’d be making some more adjustments afterward, I didn’t. Keep in mind I’m doing this all to personal taste.
One might proceed to adjust the tonality of skin, for example. But I’ve found it to be to my liking already, so why tweak something just for the sake of it? And if you’re curious about the Purple and Magenta colors, that’s for the hair and sweater. We are now nearly done!
The last adjustments (not counting any going back and forth with the tools that have already been used) are made using the Light EQ tool. What this tool does is give you precise control over shadows and highlights, the same way Color EQ/Advanced Black & White allows precise control over colors.
Light EQ is actually not that different from Tone Curves but can be a little easier to use and it doesn’t seem like such a global adjustment. I use it when I only need to make small changes like save a highlight here and there, or bring out a shadow or two. A subtler operation is easier with Light EQ than with Tone Curves.
My goal here was to make sure all the shadows and highlights of Acacia’s face were in order and not too harsh. But because I knew I’d be printing this on a fairly textured paper (PermaJet Portfolio Rag), I also knew I had to bring it all up a notch.
Notice how the last step, the Light EQ tool, is also perhaps the most prominent. I could have done pretty much the same with the Tone Curves, but Light EQ has made it easier. I also find the Standard mode the most user-friendly, while still offering plenty of control.
After setting the Tone Bands to 9 from the default 5, I could make the adjustments with enough precision. The image is nowhere near as flat as it was when we started off, but the fundamentals are very much the same.
Once the overall look of the portraits is as I envisioned, it’s time to take care of the little things, like sharpness, noise reduction, and such.
Over the years, I’ve found that when it comes to photography the less you tweak the better. The simpler tools you use, the more you learn to focus on the image itself rather than effects and wow-factors. I believe this article is a supporting example of such a point of view and I hope you’ve picked up some tips for black and white conversion using ACDSee’s Photo Studio Ultimate.
Disclaimer: ACD Systems is a paid partner of dPS
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