Aperture – better black & white

I love black and white. There's something about black and white photography that resonates very deeply within me.
Aperture 3 (and 2 for that matter) has a specialized adjustment brick for creating black and white images. It's called... Black & White. Pretty self-explanatory. Not only does this brick desaturate the image completely, but it also allows individual adjustments of the three main colour channels - red, blue and green.

I always found this tool to be a little limiting for my taste and usually turned to the amazing Silver Efex Pro plugin from Nik Software when I wanted to create black and white images. I still love that plugin but I'm finding myself using it a bit less these days than I used to. The reason? I've found ways to use Aperture's built-in tools to create very satisfying black and white images.

Scrap the B&W brick

Instead of using the B&W brick, I now use the Saturation slider in the Enhance brick. What's the difference? By itself not much. The difference comes when you start playing around with tinting. Not the splash-of-colour-on-my-otherwise-monochrome-image kind of tinting (please), but the mild tritone, duotone kind of effect.

The order of things

In Aperture the order of the adjustment bricks isn't random: it's an actual processing flow. This is very important to understand. It's also not user defined - you can't change the order of those bricks like you would change layers in Photoshop for instance.

So when you add the B&W brick it appears in a very specific place on the adjustment pane: after Enhance and after Curves. What this means if that no matter what you do to the Enhance Saturation slider or any RGB channel curve, it's not going to affect the tone of the image (it will only affect the brightness of individual channels). This is normal: the brick sits above what comes before, so that black and white effect overrides everything before it.

So what do you do if you want to add a tone? You add a Colour Monochrome adjustment. This brick adds a colour overlay on top of your image for which you can control the intensity. Sounds fine right? Not really. The problem with this brick is that 1) you have very little control and 2) it does odd things with levels.

B&W method

Here's a picture of my son (no school today? Ok, photo shoot!).

Now, with the B&W brick added:

So far, so good. Now let's add Colour Monochrome:

I've applied a more intense setting than I normally would to demonstrate the effect. Notice how the curve of the picture has changed? the shadows on the cheek, eyebrow and nose? Doesn't look very natural does it? But if this is the tone I want then I have to live with it.

Enhance method

Now let's do it differently. Instead of adding the B&W brick, let's bring the Saturation slider on the Enhance brick way down:

Looks pretty much the same as the first black and white version. But now instead of adding the Colour Monochrome brick, I'm going to add a new RGB Curves adjustment and play with the red and blue channels:

Because Curves come AFTER Enhance this affects the tone of the desaturated image. The added benefit is the amount of toning control we get on shadows, midtones and highlights; if you like split-toning this is the way to go.

The other benefit is that we're not affecting the overall curve of the image, just its tone. There are no levels differences other than colour between the straight desaturated image and this new tone adjusted version no matter how much we push. In fact what I like to do instead of messing around with very small curve adjustments is go all out, like this:

Then, to bring it down I add a Saturation Quick Brush, select Apply to entire photo on its HUD and use the intensity slider to get me where I want to be (usually pretty mild):

This makes it a lot easier to dose the effect without affecting the tone all over again.

Here's a split image of the two methods. Note that the intensity slider on the Colour Monochrome brick was set to match the saturation of the background in the Enhance method. And notice how it affects the skin tone  and overall brightness as well:

A slight tweak

This one is pretty subtle but I sometimes like using the Black Tint wheel of the Enhance brick to blot out those blacks and get a slightly vintage feel:


The ability to play with these things is what keeps me with Aperture (and the DAM, and the UI). The new additions in Aperture 3 are extremely powerful and allow for some very complex global as well as local adjustments.
I'm always astounded by the versatility of this application's toolset. Now, give me a film grain generator and I might just never make another black and white TIFF file...