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-   -   A tone story (http://www.railpictures.net/forums/showthread.php?t=11168)

rino54 11-08-2009 08:51 PM

A tone story

There were recent threads that talked about black and white (B&W) photography. In a recent one (http://forums.railpictures.net/showthread.php?t=11162), we came to talk about tones. This notion is a bit hard to understand with words only so I did this illustrated tutorial to give you a better idea. It may help anyone who is interested with B&W Photography. Please correct me and/or complete this post. Remember this is an introduction to the subject and this means it won't be very complex. I had to cut this message in two parts as I can't add more than 4 pics per post!


Most of human beings see the world in colour. Digital SLR too (what I am going to say is about digital but you can use it with film anyway). Some subjects are very strong in coulours but become flat in B&W. Here is a good example :


On the previous pictures, this is the green/red relationship that makes this picture strong. The reason is that they are complimentary colours (like orange against blue, etc). But when you process it in B&W ... it becomes a kind of "gray uniform" picture. This is the moment we have to talk about tones (or luminosity of the colours). Here is a visual exemple :


You can note that grays are close (it's even hard to do the difference). We can say they have the same tone. Let me show you something else. This time, I take one colour and change its luminosity :


We have more grays, like in a gradient : from dark grey (close to black) to light grey (close to white). This is this parameter - colour luminosity - that will help to detect good candidates for B&W pictures.

rino54 11-08-2009 08:52 PM

Some examples

I'm giving you a rule : "to be a good candidate for B&W processing, a picture has to have a high range of grey, from black to white". Ok this is a rule but don't worry, I'm not dogmatic! This rule is like the famous rule of third : a good trick to start but has to be broken after a while to be creative!

If you only have dark and light grays, you have a picture with a strong contrast (some say it's a "hard" picture). Some subjects are good candidte for a low contrast processing (a fog scene for example). In this case, the subject decides what contrast is the best to use.

Here is a first example :


The colour version is strong because the red from the locomotive and coaches are "jumping" over the background. Also you can immediatly notice the blue sky and the green beam on the river. But when process in B&W all these details disappear! The thing that comes out is the pattern and line made by the bridge. In B&W, elements of design (lines, forms, shapes, textures and patterns) are ehanced.


This one has different colour luminosities : dark from the photographer's shadow, medium darker from the forest in the background, medium from the grass, medium light from the sky and light from the train. This picture is a better candidate for a B&W processing!

All my examples are afterward works : the picture already exists, in colour, and I'm searching for good candidates to do a B&W process. But if you really like and "believe" in this medium, you should detect tones in the scene in front of you lens, you should "see in B&W". Some modern DSLR have some monochrome features that can be usefull visualize the tones.

Time to process in B&W

So you found the right candidate : right tones, right subject ... it's now tile to process it in B&W with your favourite software. There are plenty of them and I think this is useless to go in details. You have to know that many sources suggest to use the channel mixer instead of doing desturation. You should do some search on internet to discover what is the best for you.

Remember the first example, here is when desaturation compared with channel mixing :


You may have heard that B&W film photographers sometimes use some filters (red, green,...) It helps to change tones and/or contrasts. A red filter will darken green areas and make red one looking lighter. Modern post-processing softwares can simulate such filters. Here is an example from Adobe Lightroom (I made the green to go lighter) :


I stop now. I already said it: this is an introduction to the subject. There are plenty of good books around and I'm sure some will give usefull titles. You can also notice that I talked about technics and not "philosophy". For more than a year I'm trying to find what place has B&W in the 21st century and modern railroading. This is not the subject here but if some of you are interested, I can share my first thoughts about it in another post.

I wish this one will be usefull to some of you. If the answer is yes then I will have earn my day!


Dennis A. Livesey 11-08-2009 09:55 PM


Well said. I too learned from your tutorial. Thank you for posting!

JRMDC 11-09-2009 01:20 AM

One correction: in your channel mixing diagram, you are incorrect in showing a solid block lower left, as red and green are also opposites and are easily mixed apart

One comment, harsh but friendly: you don't really have any shots here that illustrate the topic well, and in particular you certainly do not have a shot here which generates some inspiration or even curiosity pushing someone to do BW. Also, the shots are rather weak in showing the differences. The first, the red shows, but the green weed is barely visible in the color so its disappearance in the BW is no big loss. The photographer shadow shots, I don't see miuch difference (personally, I suppose) between color and BW. And the last example, what is the point there? You are showing that you can make an image more uniform tonally, of less interest, by sliding the green slider?

You have a decent description of things but poor illustrations, in my view.

Also, I don't think you get to the heart of things. There are two reasons to do BW:

a) the original has weakly differentiated colors but strongly differentiated tonality (so do a basic BW conversion, suppress the color, and make the tonality the primary emphasis). This can be especially true with steam - black engine, white plume, grays elsewhere.

b) the original has strongly differentiated colors and weakly differentiated tonality, but you have reason for wanting BW or you see some potential (so do a channel mixed conversion, turn the color variation into interesting tonal variation).

I think you have started the write-up, but have not nearly finished one.

Critical commentary but offered in a spirit of friendship!

Chris Z 11-09-2009 01:55 AM

Let's see if I understand this better. By changing colors to contrast better, then when transforming to B&W, more contrast will result.

I played around tonight with my drab photo briefly to see if it was possible to salvage it. It looks promising, but looks like I need much more experience.

Chris Z.

Dennis A. Livesey 11-09-2009 02:01 AM


Originally Posted by Chris Z (Post 102858)
Let's see if I understand this better. By changing colors to contrast better, then when transforming to B&W, more contrast will result.

I played around tonight with my drab photo briefly to see if it was possible to salvage it. It looks promising, but looks like I need much more experience.

Chris Z.

That's the best yet.
It's getting so I can't tell anymore on this one.

Chris Z 11-09-2009 02:05 AM

Dennis, thanks for your support. I feel like you're my mentor on here now as well as others. This is really getting interesting now.

Chris Z.

rino54 11-09-2009 08:09 AM


My english is not my native langage so I think I didn't express myself well. With this litlle explaination, I tried to show how colours that were bright because of colours contrasts (complimentary for example) become grey on a B&W processing, without any constrast anymore. Also about the green slider, I was to show how you can modify the dark/light of a colour with a software, just like a filter does with a film.

Ummm not sure if I express myslef cleraly lol. Maybe I should stop doing complicated stuff in english lol.

In my conclusion also, I tried to say that this was not a talk about "philosophy", I meant about why doing B&W.

Sorry if my poor grammar made some of you misunderstand me. Janusz thanks for the comments, I think I have to continue my work in B&W.


Chris Z 11-09-2009 08:23 AM

Renaud, I understood what you were saying, or at least I think I did. Your explanation gave me some more understanding on how to pull contrast out in a photo. For me it's a good beginning since I've never done this before.

Thank you for that.

Chris Z.

JRMDC 11-09-2009 02:01 PM

It's not the english/grammar. It is clarity in exposition, which is probably harder than doing a 2nd language. :) Keep working at it, good stuff!

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