[UPDATED EXAMPLE as of 12-01-2012]
I thought we’d take a look at a useful “hybrid workflow” that combines two popular photo styling techniques. We’ll create perfect Black and White HDR photos using a combination of HDR Efex Pro 2, and the brand new Perfect Black and White (Perfect B&W) Photoshop and Lightroom plugin from onOne Software. Perfect B&W is part of the new Perfect Photo Suite 7 release.
To Create Black and White HDR Photos, Start with HDR!
While there are no absolutes in the world of photo retouching and photographic styling, for this technique you’ll want to create an HDR Exposure first, and then apply the Black & White treatment after you’ve got the dynamic range to work with. This will give you more latitude when working with the contrast and details in the final image.
We’ll start in HDR Efex Pro 2. In Photoshop CS6, choose File > Automate > Merge to HDR Efex Pro 2, then select the series of bracketed exposures you’ll need. For this example I chose a scene with a wide range of colors and light-to-dark tones. The most important steps here are to set the overall exposure using the slider beneath the preview, and removing ghosts using a combination of the thumbnails at top and the . I’ll be covering the entire HDR Efex Pro 2 workflow in detail in the near future, including multiple styles, but for now you can have a look at the settings I used below. The thumbnails at the top let you choose a baseline image for the overall exposure and “ghost source”, similar to Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.
(Click inline images to see larger, higher quality versions.)
Next we need to create a baseline HDR look for the photo using a Preset. You might be tempted to choose one of the “Surreal” presets that creates a a very strong “HDR look”, but don’t do it! I have yet to find a situation where the best preset option is not found amongst the more subtle options in the Realistic or Landscape Group. You might also be tempted to use one of the Black and White Presets from HDR Efex, but don’t do that either. We can achieve more control over the final image using both plugins together!
For this shot I chose the Deep 2 preset from the Realistic grouping, to create a strong contrast and a modest vignette effect, which we can then customize with the various tone and finishing controls in HDR Efex Pro 2. Keep in mind you can skip the vignette step at this stage of the process and add it at the end of the Perfect B&W process, but there is a very useful “split neutral density” effect that’s new to HDR Efex Pro 2 (described below) that you won’t be able to come back to after applying the black and white styling.
HDR Tone Compression & Tonality
Once your preset is chosen it’s time to handle the Tone Compression and HDR Method settings, which help create the overall look of the exposure and the edge details in your photo, respectively. Note that the settings you see initially, are part of the preset you have chosen. You can modify either group of settings first, but here I’ll start with the Tone Compression. The higher the Tone Compression value, the more stark the difference will be between the brighter and darker tones, but this option does more than set contrast, it varies the contrast by applying different amounts in different parts of the frame.
It’s best used to create a “contrast style” that draws your eye to the most interesting parts of the image. As you drag the slider left or right you will see the brighter and darker parts of the shot “shift” in different ways. Here I reduced it from the default preset value of 50%. This had the effect of creating “glow spots” in the creek, without hurting the color reflections of same.
Next we need to set the HDR method by creating a combination of Depth, Detail and Drama. Most often I’ll use other the Normal or Strong Depth setting, combined with the Realistic Detail setting, and either the Natural or Deep Drama settings. Depth does what the name implies, while the Detail creates the “HDR Look” by boosting local contrast. However, for some shots even the “Accentuated” (middle) setting can be too much in my opinion. Drama seems to be a combination of the prior two settings in practice but it’s mostly a case of experimenting as the results will vary by image.
By boosting the Method Strength, you’re increasing the combination of effects we created with the Depth, Detail and Drama settings (as a whole). Here I reduced it a bit to smooth out the water details (i.e. I don’t want to counter-act the effect of the long exposure).
Under the Tonality settings, you can further tweak the overall Exposure, as well as control the highlight and shadow details with a good deal of precision. The process is similar to what you see in Lightroom’s Process 2012 Basic panel settings, Structure in this case being more or less equivalent to the Clarity setting. Here I reduced the default Blacks value and increased the Contrast slightly to make the rocky slope on the far bank look more realistic, while using Whites and Highlights to control the brightest details without clipping them. The Structure value was reduced a bit to smooth out parts of the flowing water.
For the most part it’s best to handle color transitions in the raw pipeline, but here all I did was warm up the Color Temperature a bit to accentuate the fall colors, and increase the Saturation setting slightly to bring out the reds a bit more.
One of my favorite features in HDR Efex Pro 2 is the Finishing panel and the Graduated Neutral Density settings. While not as good as the real thing (on the end of your camera lens), these settings are great for balancing lighter and darker areas of the frame and balancing contrast overall. I also applied a small amount of vignetting with a preset, to draw the eye into the frame more. When you’re done with HDR Efex Pro, click OK to render the image into Photoshop, so you can move on to the next step in the process.
Once your HDR shot is processed we can continue on to create our perfect Black and White HDR photo. Choose File > Automate > Perfect BW 1. After a few seconds your image will open into Perfect B&W. Tools and Presets are located down the left side, control settings down the right side of the window and zoom options at the top.
For this workflow we’ll be quick about it. As with the HDR process we’ll start with a Preset (keep in mind that presets are just starting points most of the time; your work is only half done… if you take this approach, the dilemma about “to use plugins or not” goes away and the software becomes just another tool to achieve your vision). Take some time to search through the Perfect B&W presets as there are many which have only subtle differences. Ironically, even though there’s not much sky in this shot, the settings used to create “Dramatic Sky” worked pretty well here, so I started with that.
Tone and Color Response Settings
From here we can use the Tone controls and Color Response controls to tweak the exposure and contrast, and the color tone of the photograph respectively. For this shot I made only minor adjustments to Brightness and Contrast (since those were largely handled in HDR Efex Pro 2), while using the Whites and Highlights setting to liven up the brightest tones a bit. Note that the Detail control works very much like the afore-mentioned Structure control, so most likely you won’t need to change the value very much. The Color Response settings are quite powerful and act as virtual “lens filters” in a way, allowing you to control which colors have the most influence over contrast. Here I used the Yellow, Green, and Blue sliders to set the look as those are the most common colors in the shot.
Next the on-off switches on the right side of the control panels indicated that the only additional settings active for this preset were located in the Toner and Vignette panel. So I opened those and made some final tweaks. I turned off the film grain because I’m not going for a “film look”, and I added a bit of Glow using the Multiply mode to take the edge off the bright / reflective bare trees in the background.
When you’re finished, click Apply and your Perfect B&W effects will be added to your original HDR file as a separate layer!