Making monochrome work with the OMD EM5

I’ve been working hard to improve black and white output from the little Olympus OM-D E-M5 with my favorite “walking around” lens, the Sigma 19mm/f2.8. Although editing and posting pictures from an iPod mini while traveling was lot’s of fun, it is very nice to get back to a fully functioning MacBook with Photoshop and Aperture.

Seeing all the full-frame Leica MM and Sony RX-1 pictures on the web recently made me realize that with a micro 4/3 camera, I need to work harder to squeeze all the IQ I can from its little sensor.

A post by Ashwin Rao on Steve Huff’s site made me really think about what constitutes a good monochrome photo. Other than elegant composition and usable lighting, there seems to be a significant sensory feeling of texture in classic B&W photography that is no longer a simple result of the instrument and the process when you switch to digital.

Although I can get decent results from Aperture by itself, film simulation filters are now an integral part of my photo processing workflow. Here are a couple images at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum converted to monochrome using the Alien Skin Agfa APX 25 film filter after first adjusting exposure in Aperture.

The lighting was very different in these two instances. The first was snapped in bright full on sunlight and the second was taken as the last rays of the setting sun fell across the waves.

To get the most out of both of these, I let the highlights go over a bit while shooting, and then recovered them from RAW in Aperture. This seems to make for more dramatic and consistently interesting photos after adjustments. The APX 25 film simulation gives pretty extreme contrast, I tend to switch to APX 100 for a less contrasty look, and I definitely like Scala 200 for people pictures – since it is a little more flattering for skin tones.

For really subtle photos with a lot of texture in the middle grays, I keep the histogram centered and then work to flatten it across the full range once I get to the processing step. This next picture is not particularly amazing from a composition standpoint, but illustrates the flat gray approach to bringing out textures. In this case, the film filters don’t really add much unless you intend to add grain. The default black and white conversion sliders by themselves seem to be enough to get the right gradations of luminance across the frame.

In a way, I guess I am going after balancing the various zones of luminance here, although at this point I have not read Ansel Adams closely enough to tell you how that translates in terms of the range of digital photography compared to film.

Here are screen grabs of histograms illustrating what I see as “drama” vs. “texture” situations while processing these images. It is all subjective I guess, but I think I am starting to think that the flatter I manage to get the histogram, the more classic the look the image has.

These were all taken at Muir Beach in Northern California yesterday. There is something hecka awesome about being able to watch a beautiful sunset on the beach with a bonfire going. It definitely made me thankful.

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!

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One thought on “Making monochrome work with the OMD EM5

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