This past weekend, I was presenting at the annual BetterPhoto Conference and had the fortune of sitting in on a session by Lewis Kemper. Now Lewis is a very smart photographer and Photoshop whiz, but unfortunately he uses Lightroom instead of Aperture. However, he presented a quick and easy technique to make an image span the full tonal range, improving how many images (especially from cloudy days) look. It’s easy to do in Aperture, too!
Specifically, Lewis pointed out that it’s easier to make tonal adjustments to your image in black and white. In fact, if you make your image look good in black and white, it’ll most likely look good in color, too (the specific reason that I say “most likely” is a bit too long to cover in this blog post).
What’s going on behind the scenes is that our brain’s ability to see in black and white is very well developed and very high resolution: we gather a lot of information from luminance. Color vision isn’t as robust, many animals even lack color vision, and our color vision is quite low resolution compared to our black and white vision. By switching to black and white when adjusting our image, we’re able to ignore color and focus on tweaking what our higher-resolution luminance vision will perceive.
Without further delay, this technique, as you’ve probably realized, is:
- Convert your image to black and white by adding a Monochrome Mixer adjustment to your image, before doing any exposure adjustments. The default monochrome settings are fine for this technique
- Watching your histogram, use levels, exposure, brightness, and highlights/shadows to tweak your exposure. Especially for images on an overcast or stormy day, try to make your data span the whole histogram without a huge spike in either the black or white end (although if your subject is black or pure white, you will have a spike that you want to preserve). Use shadow/highlight to keep detail in the midrange.
- Uncheck the monochrome adjustment to restore your shot to color
Try making a new version for these adjustments and comparing it to the master. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!