The old-fashioned art of black and white photography went far beyond the initial picture-taking. Another, equally important creative process took place in the darkroom, where the image was dodged and burned to enhance the tones and concentrate the viewer’s gaze on the subject and composition.

Dodging and burning is a bit of a lost art. It’s a lot easier with digital than it was in the darkroom, of course, but now that black and white is more of a minority interest than a mainstream technique, people seem to have forgotten how to do it, when and why.

But a little extra work can make a huge difference, and here’s an example. Our start image is a very everyday record shot of an unusual rock formation on a beach. A straight black and white conversion isn’t really that much more interesting than the original, so I’ve taken the image into Google’s Silver Efex Pro 2 instead, because its special skill is recreating darkroom effects in a digital form.

Silver Efex Pro Vignette

I’m going to apply a very simple but very effective technique – a vignette. It concentrates attention on your subject and acts as a framing device that stops your viewer’s eyes from wandering out of the frame.

01 Pick a preset

Silver Efex Pro Vignette

You can conjour up your black and white effects from a neutral base image in Silver Efex Pro 2, but it’s much easier to pick a ‘look’ you want from the vertical list of presets on the left side of the program window. I’m going for the ‘Full Dynamic (Harsh)’ preset here because it darkens the sky a little and adds some ‘punch’ to the contrast.

02 Vignette presets

Silver Efex Pro Vignette

You can find Silver Efex Pro 2’s Vignette effects in the Finishing Adjustments panel on the right. There are a range of presets in the drop-down menu, and I’m choosing ‘Lens Falloff 3’. You can see the effects previewed live as you move down through the menu.

03 Fine tuning

Silver Efex Pro Vignette

Silver Efex Pro 2’s adjustment presets are just starting points. You can then go on to fine-tune the adjustments to get just the look you want. I’ve reduced the Amount slider (which darkens the vignette edges), moved the Circle-Rectangle slider to the right to make the vignette more rectangular, and increased  the Size value so that the darkening effect starts closer to the centre.

04 The finished image

Silver Efex Pro Vignette

I’m much  happier with this. Silver Efex Pro 2 has produced a more contrasty, better-defined image, and the vignette has really focused attention on the rock in the centre, emphasising its isolation and the strangeness of the overall scene.

See also

More Silver Efex Pro tutorials