Monochrome (and Duotone) Magic

Spider Lily (Hymenocallis x festalis) duotone
Spider Lily (Hymenocallis x festalis) – duotone created in Photoshop

Sometimes I prefer the look of a photograph that has been converted to black and white, rather than the original colour version. And it can be even better if it has had some ‘toning’ added in Photoshop.

So why should that be? For some photographs, it may simply be that the original colours don’t work well together – as with the ‘Spider Lily’ above. The flower was growing in front of our house, which is painted ‘Suffolk Pink’. I didn’t like the pink wall as a background because it distracted from the flower too much.

Converting the picture to plain black and white got rid of the distraction but the result wasn’t terribly exciting, so the colour tones were added to create a bit of extra interest. This has given a look very like a cyanotype print which has been toned in tea. (Does that sound odd? Ordinary tea makes a great toner for cyanotype prints – takes the harshness out of the blue and turns the white paper a soft cream/brown shade.)

Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)
Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

Other photographs may benefit from simplification. With the ‘Crown Imperials’ above, I was attracted by the lines of the veins on the petals, and to a lesser extent, by the way the curve of one of the leaves at the top echoes the curve of the petals below it. But in the original, the orange of the flower and the green leaves that contrasted with it competed too much for attention. Here, with the image as a monochrome, your eye can more easily follow the lines along the petals.

Both of the photographs below worked well in colour but the blue and brown duotone of the agapanthus and the warm pinky-brown monochrome of the astrantia give the images a new life. They have become something entirely different from the photographs I started with. (You can see the original colour photograph of the astrantia here. )

Left: Agapanthus Right: Astrantia
Left: Agapanthus Right: Astrantia

I think that the toned versions of the photographs work because their subjects no longer look as they do in nature. Without their normal colouring, the flowers are somehow unfamiliar.  Because of this, they are able to be seen in a different way. Now there is a possibility that you may notice new details or simply react with feelings that the original colour versions wouldn’t have inspired.

It’s very satisfying to experiment with photographs in this way. There can be a restfulness, even an elegance, to the restricted colours in the final image.

If you fancy trying this on your own photographs, you’ll find that it’s not hard to do if you have an image-editing program. Photoshop, for instance, allows you to convert the photograph to black and white. You can then alter the colour in any way you like, using the ‘Colour Balance’ adjustment on the shadows, midtones and highlights or you can try the more complex controls available in the ‘Curves’ commands. (I should think that there are other possibilities with newer versions of Photoshop than mine.) And, of course, there are many other monochrome effects out there that you can try. You could have hours of fun with these!

Tulipa orphanidea
Tulipa orphanidea

Variations on a Theme

Two white Japanese anemones in a bottle.
Photograph after treatment with textures and overlays to create a soft, dreamy feel.

One of the good things about photographing flowers is that it’s fairly easy to come up with different images of your subject. (Much easier than having to hike miles around a landscape to find a different viewpoint.)

Variations of the image can be created while photographing or afterwards in the computer, using an image-editing program.

The top image (a version of the photograph below) has had textures added to it in Photoshop to give a softer, more romantic feel.

White Japanese anemones
The photograph as originally shot.

These ‘textures’ are simply photographs of a textured surface, usually with just one all-over colour but perhaps with a darkened edge and corners to give a vignette effect.

Photoshop makes it possible to stack the textured images above the original photograph and then to alter the opacity of the textured images. (Imagine looking through a stack of images printed on clear plastic – that gives some idea of how it works.) Controlling the opacity of the layers means that you can decide exactly how much of the textured layers show in your final image.

In this case, the textures I used were an image of a canvas weave and another of a lightly scratched surface. The opacity of the scratched surface was set very low, so that it hardly showed, while the canvas texture was set higher and made more visible.

If you decide to try out this ‘textures’ technique, there is another Photoshop tool that you’ll want to use – ‘Blend Modes’.

Blend Modes give control over how the different layers interact with each other. This tool can produce very subtle effects but it can also create something decidedly weird. Trying out the different settings is the best way to find out what they do. (And time can all too easily disappear as you play with all the possibilities…)

To prevent the details of the main flower from being obscured, I kept the textures off this area. This also removed the colour of the textures from the flower, so I added a plain pale yellow layer to unify the flower with the rest of the image.

(It would probably be simpler to just blur the textured area over the flower. This would remove the detail of the textures but allow the colour of the textured area to remain.)

After taking the first photograph, I decided to try something a bit bolder. This time I chose a very dark green background. Because very little light was hitting the background, it looks almost black and creates a strong contrast with the flowers.

White Japanese anemones against a dark background.
Same flowers (Japanese anemones), but a much more dramatic image.

For the second photograph, I changed the lighting to add to the contrast. (Both were lit with studio flash.)

The first photograph had been taken with a soft, well-diffused light (a softbox brought close to the flowers and a large reflector to the side). The result was to give a very even light with the reflector bouncing light back into the areas that would otherwise have been in shadow. This allowed the details in the petals to show and helped to give a gentle, delicate feel to the photograph.

To create the more contrasty lighting for the second photograph, I simply moved the light further away (and, of course, turned up the light output to make up for the increased distance). Moving a studio light further away creates a ‘harder’ light with stronger highlights and shadows. (Just think of how the sun creates such harsh shadows – it’s a very distant light source.)

Taking the reflector away also increased the contrast by removing the light that it would have bounced into the shadows. I think the end result is probably as far as I could push the contrast before I started to lose too much detail in the petals.

As with the first photograph, I decided to play around with textured layers to see what the effect would be. The result is much softer than the original photo and goes to show how different the image can become once you start experimenting with the different possibilities. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for quite a while!

White Japanese anemones against teal background
The textured background creates a softer feel.