Friday, March 24, 2017

Photoshop Tutorial: Replicating the 'Ansel Adams' contrast

Some time ago I posted an article on sharpening techniques. One of the Photoshop tutorials included there involved aggressive sharpening of contrasty black-and-white images - I had referred to that as the "Ansel Adams procedure". Well, a few of you asked to know the way to get such a deep black-and-white image in the first place. Today I'll show you the relatively simple steps to that - though, a word of warning: most of the job has to occur already in the field.

Deep black-and-white images can have great affective power

The first step, as I already implied, happens well before you approach Photoshop and in fact before you even take the photo. Selecting the scene is crucial.
  • Pick a scene/location where the sun is above and slightly behind you but there is a reflective (usually white or light-colored) area

Of course, for the sun to be above you, you realize that there is a temporal element as well.
  • Shoot during noon hours.
Typical examples include beaches with golden sand (such as the example image I posted above) or images of pristine-white buildings, such as the one below.

Greek architecture offers many opportunities for this kind of photography

With location & time taken care of, you then have to deal with taking the photo. That is, with exposure.
  • Expose for the brightest area and err on the side of underexposure
If you allow the camera to decide for you, you might get an overexposed foreground (in our examples the sand or the building), when what we need is a properly exposed foreground and an underexposed sky. To get the Ansel Adams contrast you also need preserved detail in microcontrast - which means, drumroll, preservation of textures. If you didn't read my article on sharpening, I suggest that you do.

Camera settings don't really matter, as long as you shoot raw (and you should). The out-of-the-camera image you should be getting following my advice would be something like this:

Slightly underexposed, preserving detail in the
foreground, just as we wanted

The rest is easy.
  1. Open a copy of the image on Photoshop 
  2. Click on the "Channels" tab and delete the blue and green channels.
  3. Go to the menu Image > Mode and select "Grayscale"
  4. Click the "Layers" tab and add a curves adjustment layer
  5. Adjust contrast to taste. Don't be afraid to aggressively block the shadows
  6. Finish with some sharpening

Final result:

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