Peeling Back the Layers

Big Island - Hawai'i, USA

When I took this shot on the Big Island of Hawaii, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. Although the colors were rich and beautiful, I wanted to create a black and white version that would show off the soft contrast in the distance, and the repeating curves in the trees. When I want to convert to black and white, I usually start by producing a color image first. I want that full color shot for my archives, and in case someone asks for a color print. So, I started by adjusting the color balance – just as I would for any other photograph – and I go through my entire normal processing workflow. Once the color photo is finished, I save it, and then get back to work making adjustments for a black and white conversion. Here’s the original color photograph for reference. (You can click on any image to see it at larger size.)

Big Island - Hawai'i, USA

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I take a look at the finished color image and think about what I want to accomplish with my conversion. In this case, the image is about patterns and repetition. I wanted to make sure that the repeating patterns in the trees really stood out – so contrast was important. I also wanted to highlight the beautiful softness of the light filtering through the mist. I started by opening the image in Nik’s Silver Effex Pro. I chose on of my favorite filters to start with (024 Full Contrast and Structure), and made a few tweaks to it. I reduced the midtone structure just a bit, and then reduced the highlight tonality protection to make sure I kept the incredible glow on he leaves. Below, you can see what the Nik black and white conversion looked like.


I loved the contrast in the finished conversion, but maybe you notice that the mist seems to have gotten lost. No problem. To bring it back, I needed a second black and white layer – and a mask. I hid  my Silver Efex layer (I didn’t delete it), and started again with the original color layer. This time, I used a simple Black and White adjustment layer. I converted the image to black and white again – this time, making sure I maintained the very soft contrast in the misty distance. Here’s what that layer looked like…


Next, I created a mask so that the Black and White adjustment layer would have an effect only where I wanted it. I used my Wacom tablet and stylus to draw a simple selection, and feathered it pretty broadly and created the mask. Then, I zoomed in nice and close and made a few adjustments to the mask with the paintbrush tool to make sure I maintained a very natural look… I didn’t want tree trunks that were close to me to look hazy – just those in the distance. So blending the layers carefully was important. Here’s the black and white adjustment layer with the other layers turned off. You can see that the adjustments I made to this layer will only show up exactly where I wanted them.


Maybe seeing the layers will be helpful, too. You can see that I started with the background layer (the bottom layer), and then created a Silver Efex layer for contrast. Then, I duplicated the background layer and placed it on top of the others. I created a black and white adjustment layer, and then added a mask to the background copy layer. The finished image is the one at the top of this post.



So – what do you think? Do you think the finished image looks natural, and do you prefer the color image or the black and white conversion?


About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Tom Kappel

    The B&W photo is beautiful and I love black and white, but in this case I do prefer the color photograph. To me, the color adds a dimension of life and depth. A reality that is not there in the other.

  • Grzywacz Philippe

    J’aime beaucoup le noir et blanc, beaucoup plus pointu que la couleur surtout pour des effets. Mais j’aime aussi jouer avec les couleurs l’harmonie est différente, dans ce cas je pense que l’effet de brume est plus flagrant en couleur. Je pense noir et blanc pour des expressions portraits, lieux dégageant un certain mystère,… ce n’est qu’un modeste avis je suis bien loin de rivaliser et j’ai bien du mal à jouer avec les logiciels photos en fait je me considère comme nul, je pense savoir trouver l’angle, l’inattendu mais je ne sais pas travailler la photo comme elle le mérite.
    J’admire le travail, le savoir faire, Respect

    • Merci beaucoup, Phillippe. J’aime aussi jouer avec les couleurs. Je trouve plaisir dans les deux types de photographie. J’espère que vous allez continuer à travailler avec le logiciel plus – de sorte que vous pouvez apprendre. Bonne chance avec votre photographie!

  • Pete Pfeiffer

    The B&W draws my eye to the slightly hazy tree framed opening in the distance. I like the fact that the sharp in focus portions draws attention to the distance providing one the feeling of travel. Thanks for showing me that color can get in the way!

  • Jennifer

    I definitely prefer the black and white. It has a very etherial quality to it.
    Do you think you would be able to achieve a similar final image using the fog filter in Color Efex Pro 4.0 after doing your B/W conversion in Silver Efex?

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Yes – I think you could get a similar effect doing it that way. There are lots of different ways you could achieve this effect. This is just one of them. 🙂