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Post Processing Black and Whites

In this post Hawaii photographer Natalie Norton shares how she does her post processing on her black and white conversions.

Please ignore EVERYTHING in the images above other than the tones. I’d be much obliged.



I got an email recently from a reader (of my personal blog) named Cindy. She shared a few beautifully composed images she’d taken of her lovely twins. (All of this is posted with her permission, fyi).

Mad props to her just for keeping twin toddlers ALIVE let alone finding the time to photograph them so beautifully but I digress. . .

So ANYHOO, like I mentioned the composition of the images was lovely. I was not however in love with the processing . . . so I told her so. . . does that make me mean and awful. . . maybe, but I hope not, as that was not my intent. Anyway, I requested she send me the original files so I could process them differently and help her see what a difference “proper” processing (I say “proper” because clearly processing is highly subjective) can make. Cindy made the same mistake that many photographers make. . . We’ll call it the SEPIA SPLURGE. . . an image isn’t quite what you want it to be as far as tonality is concerned so you just whack it with a sepia action in post processing and call it a day.

In my opinion straight sepia was born and died in the 90’s. Sepia can make images look drab and dated and not in the vintage kind of way. . . in the kind of way that shouts 1999!!! AGAIN. . . I DIGRESS. Sheesh. Oh one more digression. . . if your interested in understanding the ACTUAL history of sepia tone, as it was not in fact literally born in the 90’s, click HERE, it’s quite interesting.

So here is Cindy’s original shot.

black and white post processing

There is NOTHING WRONG with this image. Truly. The moment she captured is genuine and sweet, the composition employs the rule of thirds and it also very balanced. It is a great shot as is. But now-a-days us digi-brains can’t resist our daily fix of post processing now can we? I sure can’t. So, here’s how Cindy ran her post processing:


Again there’s nothing wrong with this if you’re a sepia lover.

Some of you are loving it, which is totally and completely fine. That’s why cars are painted different colors! I for one am so glad i don’t have to drive a car that’s fire engine red . . . or hang a 20×30 sepia toned image in the middle of my living room for that matter! YAY! But if those are 2 life goals of yours. . . GO FOR IT! The sky’s the limit and you have my complete support. Truly.

Once I got my mitts on Cindy’s images I first had to choose my favorite which was a process in and of itself because I’m telling you this girl has composition down pat. From there I took the exposure up by a tiny tiny bit to light up the DARLING little girl’s face and then converted the original to plain old grayscale. . . black and white. You can do this in any and every editing software imaginable!

post processing black and white photography

Ok, so it’s nice, but it’s lacking some of that warmth from before. It’s a little bit too hard given the tenderness of the subject, no? Well, I say yes and since I’m the queen of the universe we’ll go with that. Final answer. So where was I. . . warmth, yes. So what do you do next? Well you convert your black and white image in to sepia, that’s what. And here’s what you get:

black and white post production

Uh oh, is it just me or are we pretty much right back to where we began with the Sepia Splurge? This is where your editing software comes into play. More and more recent versions of photo editing software are allowing you to play with the levels of the commands you run on your images. In Photoshop this is called OPACITY. In other editing software like newer versions of iphoto you can adjust how heavy the effect is as well. Any Picassa users like to pipe up and let us know if the newer versions allow for this as well?? (SIDE NOTE: I love Picassa. I used it EXCLUSIVELY as my ONLY editing software for nearly a year before I had a brief jaunt with Apple’s Aperture and then moved on to Photoshop CS3 back in March of this year. Picassa = magic. . . free, glorious, magic).

Back to the image. It looks pretty much like what we began with. So what we need to do is adjust the strength of the sepia we just applied. We need to tone it down until we find the amount of warmth and tone that looks best to us. I pulled mine down to 50% , and here’s the final result.

post production sepia

Here you can see the difference between the 3 modes of processing:

post production b&w

Above: Left= straight sepia as Cindy sent it to me. Center= basic black and white. Right= blend of both (remember black and white must always be UNDER the Sepia for this to work properly).

I have to close by mentioning again that post processing is very subjective. It all comes down to what you like (or what you’re client likes). I like this . . . well VERSION of sepia because it allows for the creaminess the sepia lends to my subject’s skin without giving my images SO MUCH TONE.

Natalie Norton is a wedding and portrait photographer who lives on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Visit her popular blog Pics and Kicks (www.natalienortonphoto.com) for more tutorials and samples of her work.

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Natalie Norton
Natalie Norton

is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

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