Monday, February 22, 2010
On the Threshold of the Past: Easy Ultra High-Contrast Imaging in Photoshop
I seem to be on a 1960's techniques kick lately. Last week I wrote about photographing things under black light and here's another technique that kind of resembles one I used way back when: high contrast black and white photography. My father worked in a photographic research lab back then and used to bring home odd bits of film and darkroom materials for me to experiment with. One of the most fun things he brought home were boxes of what is called "litho" or lithographers' film. The film was primarily used for making the separations from which offset printing plates were made, but it had another fun dimension: you could expose negatives on it to create ultra-high-contrast black and white images. There was actually a subculture among some of my photographer friends that got absolutely addicted to making high contrast images and were affectionately known (I think) as "those high contrast guys" at the camera store where we all hung out. Litho film was very expensive, but since I got it for free, I went through tons of it in my basement darkroom.
Fortunately there is a quick and free way to create very similar images in Photoshop and it's called the threshold tool. You'll find the tool at the bottom of the layers palette (if you're new to the layers palette, just click on the little half-circle icon at the bottom and a group of tool options will pop out) and it's extremely simple to use. Once you open the tool the image you have open will convert to high-contrast black and white and you then use the slider to decide which parts go black, which go white. It's very simple. The only real problem with this tool is that it's not all that easy to find an image that looks interesting in ultra high contrast; some images just fizzle completely regardless of how you adjust the slider. I played with a dozen or so different pictures before I settled on this shot of a relief carving on the front of Notre Dame in Paris. The images that work best are those that have a limited range of tones to start, good surface texture and strong shape features. I shot this image late in the afternoon in bright sun that was creating dark shadows in the background and portrait-like facial shadows.
Once you have the image in high contrast, of course, you can always use others tools (like the gradient map) to add color in very striking patterns. Again, finding just the right image is the key and it does take some experimenting to know which images will work. But just think of all the time and money you'll save by not having to go find litho film--and I have no idea where you'd even find it these days!