Black and White Conversion Techniques for Beginners

UPDATE: Please note the UIs and features for some of the software discussed have been updated since this was originally posted.

We’ve talked about why we love black and white photographs and how some subjects can take on surprising transformations when converted from color to monochrome. Certainly, most people are capable of using in-camera and editing software features to produce basic monochrome images, but not everyone is adept at more sophisticated black and white conversions. You have to start somewhere, though, and in this guide I’m going to discuss the following basics:

Turning your color images into black and white doesn’t have to be complicated. Black and white conversion can be accomplished automatically with the click of a button in most popular image editors. It’s when we start thinking about ways to improve and fine-tune the conversion that more choices and tools have to be considered.

What Is Black and White Conversion?

Before we look at different ways to approach black and white conversion, let’s think about what we’re actually doing during this process. When converting a color image to black and white, you’re simply telling your software to map various colors in the image to grayscale values as shown in Figure 1. You might, for example, map the red pixels in your image to darker grayscale pixels, and greens to lighter grayscale pixels (or the other way around). You can also adjust contrast and set limits with regard to the darkest and lightest areas of the image. All of the adjustments can affect the image as a whole, but with some software, selective adjustments are possible.

Figure 1. Variations using Photoshop's B&W Adjustment Layer Properties. (A) Original color image. (B) "Auto" button applied. (C) Yellow slider to the right, Blue slider to the left. (D) Red, Blue, and Cyan sliders to the right, Yellow to the left.

Figure 1. Variations using Photoshop’s Black & White Adjustment Layer Properties. (A) Original color image. (B) “Auto” button applied. (C) Yellow slider to the right, Blue slider to the left. (D) Red, Blue, and Cyan sliders to the right, Yellow to the left.

The Best Way to do a Black and White Conversion

There’s no best way to do a black and white conversion. What should guide you is the final result you’re trying to achieve (see Figure 2). The color information in an image, combined with the right tools, gives you the opportunity to map the grayscale values in almost any way. It’s all up to you.

Figure 2. (A) Converting this photo to a basic grayscale (non-RGB) image produces flat results. (B) Lightroom's B&W Preset, "B&W Look 5" together with a slight adjustment to contrast, gives this image more impact.

Figure 2. (A) Converting this photo to a basic grayscale (non-RGB) image produces flat results. (B) Lightroom’s B&W Preset, “B&W Look 5,” gives this image more impact. When you have a flat image, and no color information to work with, sometimes a simple adjustment to contrast can improve the picture.

In-Camera Black and White

Digital cameras capture color data during exposure. If you set your camera to monochrome (B&W), it can produce a black and white preview/thumbnail of your Raw image and/or a black and white JPEG of that image, depending on how you’ve setup your camera to record captures. The Raw capture, no matter the monochrome setting, will still contain all of the color data, while the JPEG will be the camera’s finished version of the black and white image. Two things to consider: 1) a monochrome JPEG will contain very little, if any, of the original color data; 2) the camera’s internal black and white conversion might not be the best for the effect you’re trying to achieve.

When you import your Raw files into a Raw converter (e.g. Lightroom, Camera Raw), the monochrome settings you applied in-camera will probably not be honored. This is because the converter will read and interpret the Raw file based on its color information. Your monochrome JPEGs, however, already have the color striped out, so they’ll be imported and displayed as-is.

So, if you want black and white images from your Raw captures, you’ll have to convert them to black and white somewhere in your digital workflow. If you want to get black and white images directly out of your camera, without having to convert them later, monochrome JPEGs make that easy. But for that convenience, you’ll trade away valuable image data that you can use to create more fine-tuned, better black and white images. Starting with color information (Raw files or color JPEGs), you’ll have many more options down the line.

Most of the time, you’ll be better off capturing color information and converting it to black and white during editing. Since Raw captures the most color information, it’s the preferred format.

Camera Raw for Black and White Conversion

If you’re working with a Raw file, you can use Adobe Camera Raw (or another Raw converter) to adjust the colors and create a black and white image. Camera Raw comes as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop that allows you to process a Raw file and export it as a finished JPEG, or for further editing in Photoshop.

To convert your Raw image in Adobe Camera Raw:

1) Open the Raw image in Camera Raw: In Photoshop, go to File > Open. Select your Raw file from its location on your computer or attached device, and click Open.

2) Click to bring up the HSL/Grayscale panel: Tick the Convert to Grayscale checkmark box. This brings up a set of sliders under the tab, Grayscale Mix as shown in Figure 3. Use these sliders to change the way corresponding colors on the image are mapped to black and white (Figure 4).

Figure 5 is an example of what can happen if you make extreme adjustments to the sliders. Zoom in to make sure you’re not clipping or creating banding or other types of artifacts. If this is happening, pull back on the sliders until the tones blend smoothly.
Figure 3. Camera Raw plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. Check the box marked, "Grayscale" in the HSL/Grayscale panel.

Figure 3. Camera Raw plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. Check the box marked, “Convert to Grayscale” in the HSL/Grayscale panel.

Figure 4. A simple adjustment to the Green and Yellow sliders, primarily, helps pop the subject out from the background.

Figure 4. In this image, a simple adjustment to the Green and Yellow sliders, helps pop the subject out from the background.

3) When finished making your adjustments:

  • Click Done, to stop working with the image and save the settings you’ve made. Note: this action does not save a finished version of the image, it only records the adjustments you’ve made to this point. Or,
  • Click Open Image, to open the image in Photoshop. This will bring the Raw file into Photoshop along with the adjustments you’ve made. You can continue making adjustments using Photoshop’s editing tools. You’ll be limited to grayscale tools unless you change the image to another format (i.e., Image > Mode > RGB).
Figure 5. Extreme adjustments can sometimes cause problems. (A) Areas of the hair contain artifacts resulting from pulling the Yellow slider too far to the left. (B) Pulling up on the Yellow just enough to so that the hair looks natural again.

Figure 5. Extreme adjustments can sometimes cause problems. (A) Areas of the hair contain artifacts resulting from pulling the Yellow slider too far to the left. (B) Pulling up on the Yellow just enough to so that the hair looks natural again.

Figure 6. With a slight adjustment to contrast, this is the finished result of the conversion.

Figure 6. With a slight adjustment to contrast and minimal retouching (stray hair, a blemish), this is the finished result of the conversion and Photoshop work.

From Photoshop, you can save or export your finalized images to another format, like JPEG. Figure 6 is a result of the conversion and final retouching in Photoshop.

Lightroom for Black and White Conversion

Adobe Lightroom is another popular tool used to achieve easy black and white conversion. If you’ve used Lightroom, then you’re probably already aware of the B&W Presets, B&W Filter Presets, and B&W Toned Presets located in the Presets panel of the Develop module. If you’re not familiar with these, I’d advise you to first learn about Lightroom in general (it’s a tool for organizing, editing, and various types of image output, which also uses the same type of Raw conversion engine found in Camera Raw). Once you’ve done that, the following simple steps will make more sense, and it will be easier for you to install and use the third-party plug-ins available for Lightroom. Here’s how it works:

1) Preview B&W Presets: With an image selected in the Develop module, hover over any of the preset names listed in the Presets panel. The preview image in the Navigator panel will show you what the image will look like if the preset you’re hovering over is clicked and applied to the image (see Figure 7.).

Figure 7. An image is viewed in the Develop module of Lightroom. The Navigator panel shows a preview when hovering over the preset, "B&W Contrast High."

Figure 7. An image is viewed in the Develop module of Lightroom. The Navigator panel shows a preview when hovering over the preset, “B&W Contrast High.”

2) Select and Apply a Preset: When you find an effect that you like, click it and you’ll see that the main image displayed will take on that black and white effect. You can stop there if you would like to export the image as it appears on the screen, or you can continue to fine-tune the effect by adjusting the various sliders on the right (e.g. WB, Tone, Black & White Mix, etc.) as shown in Figure 8. Several other tools and effects are also provided.

Figure 8. The B&W Contrast High preset has been applied, along with some slight changes to the sliders under "B&W Mix."

Figure 8. The B&W Contrast High preset has been applied, along with some slight changes to the sliders under “Black & White Mix.”

3) Export The Image: To export a copy of the image with the black and white conversion applied, use one of the many export options under the File menu. I often export a single image out to Photoshop where I do my final image editing. Figure 9 shows the context menu that pops up when I right click the photo.

Figure 9. Right click over the image to bring up the context menu. Select Edit In > [Photoshop ] to export the image directly to Photoshop for further editing and/or saving/exporting.

Figure 9. Right click over the image to bring up the context menu. Select Edit In > [Photoshop ] to export the image directly to Photoshop for further editing and/or saving/exporting.

Note: None of the changes you make to the look of an image are actually taking place on the original image in Lightroom; the adjustments are saved as data for Lightroom to use for display and final export of a copy of the image featuring those changes.

About Presets (Make Your Own!)

Keep in mind that a B&W preset (or any preset) is simply a way to store a settings configuration; the adjustments you can make on the panel on the right-hand side can be saved as a preset. That means you can create your own black and white conversion recipes in Lightroom by simply clicking the Black & White button under the Basic panel (Treatment heading), then making other adjustments to any of the other settings and sliders. If you’d think you’d like to use a particular combination of settings again, you can save that combination as a preset by clicking the plus sign (+) on the Presets panel heading, then follow along with the options in the New Develop Preset dialog box.

Photoshop for Black and White Conversion

Photoshop may be the central focus, or hub, for any serious black and white conversion. After all, Camera Raw (Raw converter) is a built-in Photoshop plug-in, Photoshop and Lightroom work well together in a digital workflow, and several popular black and white conversion tools/plug-ins (see below) are made to work with Photoshop. Just about anything that you want to do, where black and white conversion is concerned, you can do in Photoshop, albeit some of the plug-ins can make the process much faster, easier, and more convenient.

There are a number of ways to realize a black and white conversion in Photoshop, some better than others. Here are a few ways to do it in the latest versions of Photoshop. The features in your version of Photoshop may vary:

Grayscale It

You can select Image > Mode > Grayscale (see Figure 10) to do a default grayscale conversion. This choice will leave you with very limited editing options moving forward and is not recommended.

Figure 10. It's possible to convert an image directly to grayscale, but not generally recommended. Inset shows the result of a straight conversion.

Figure 10. It’s possible to convert an image directly to grayscale, but not generally recommended. Inset shows the result of a straight conversion.

Use Adjustment Layers

Layers are really the way to go with just about anything you’re editing in Photoshop. They provide for a non-destructive approach which allows for changes to be made without applying them directly to your working image until you decide to commit those changes (via merging the layers, exporting a finished image, etc.). When you introduce an Adjustment Layer, you’ll see that it appears just above the currently selected layer in your Layers panel, and by default it affects the look of the image (or combination of layers) under it. The following are very useful for black and white conversion:

  • Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. From the menu, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation, or click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” button at the bottom of the Layers panel and select, Hue/Saturation.” This will place a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer above your currently selected layer. In the Hue/Saturation Properties panel, you can pull the Saturation slider all the way to the left to remove color (see Figure 11).
  • Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer. From the menu, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Channel Mixer, or click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” button at the bottom of the Layers panel and select, “Channel Mixer.” This will place a Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer above your currently selected layer. In the layer’s Properties panel, I’ve got the following options when I click “Preset:”
    • Black & White Infrared (RGB)
    • Black & White with Blue Filter (RGB)
    • Black & White with Green Filter (RGB)
    • Black & White with Orange Filter (RGB)
    • Black & White with Red Filter (RGB)
    • Black & White with Yellow Filter (RGB)

    Selecting one of these options places a check mark next to Monochrome and automatically adjusts the color sliders in the panel. This roughly results in the effect you would see if using a color lens filter when shooting in black and white (or infrared). The sliders can, of course, be adjusted to your liking, and you can store your own settings combinations as custom presets via the panel’s menu. You can skip the selection of presets and simply check Monochrome yourself and adjust the sliders to taste as shown in Figure 12.

    Note that exceeding the recommended total of +100 % for the mix will result in some clipping (see Figure 12).
  • Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. From the menu, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map, or click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” button at the bottom of the Layers panel and select, “Gradient Map.” This will place a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer above your currently selected layer. The default output of this Adjustment Layer is generally very pleasing. In the layer’s Properties panel, you’ll see the gradient in use (by default, this is a smooth black-to-white gradient as shown in Figure 13). If you click on the gradient itself, you’ll see the Gradient Editor dialog box which allows you to select presets and adjust gradients. Any adjustments you make will affect the way the tones are mapped to the underlying image.
    Back in the Gradient properties panel, if you click the arrow next to the currently used gradient, you’ll see the Gradient Picker. Here, you’ll find a list of gradients you can choose from to use with your image. While the default black and white one is most useful for straight black and white conversion, if you click the icon next to the available presets, it will bring up another menu listing several preset groups you can add to the main list. Included are the Photographic Toning presets which you might like to try for quick split toning effects.
  • Black & White Adjustment Layer. From the menu, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White, or click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” button at the bottom of the Layers panel and select, “Black & White.” This will place a Black & White Adjustment Layer above your currently selected layer. You might be happy with the result of the default setting, but the real power is in the layer’s Properties panel. There, you’ll find the Auto button that might produce good results, a tint option, and several good black and white presets to choose from. Figure 14 shows the result of making a custom slider adjustment.
    By changing the position of the sliders via a preset, directly, or using the in-image slider control, you’re telling Photoshop how you want the colors in your image to map to black and white (grayscale values). For example, by moving the red slider to the left, you’re telling Photoshop to make red areas of your image appear darker in the black and white version. Move a slider to the right to get its corresponding color to appear lighter in the black and white image.
Figure 11. Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the "Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer" icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) Pull the Saturation slider all the way to the left.

Figure 11. Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) Pull the Saturation slider all the way to the left.

Figure 12. Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the "Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer" icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) Check the Monochrome checkbox and use the sliders to get a mix that works best .

Figure 12. Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) Check the Monochrome checkbox and use the sliders to get a mix that works best. In this example, I’ve exceeded the recommended total of +100 for this mix (I’m at +149), so some clipping is occurring in the whites.

Figure 13. Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the "Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer" icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) A default black-to-white gradient effect is produced.

Figure 13. Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) A default black-to-white gradient effect is produced.

ps-bw

Figure 14. Black & White Adjustment Layer. (1) Click the “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” icon. (2) The new Adjustment Layer should be placed above the layer(s) you want it to affect, in this case, the base image. (3) A default black-to-white effect is produced. Here, I’ve adjusted the sliders a bit to create custom effect.

Adjustment Layers, especially when combined with other Photoshop tools and techniques, are very powerful for creating or enhancing black and white images. More sophisticated techniques focus on making adjustments to specific areas of an image rather than having a change potentially affect all pixels of a given color. And things like selective contrast and sharpening adjustments also come into play with more advanced editing. If you’re trying to duplicate the look of a certain process or black and white film, you’ll probably want to add noise (for the look of grain) and other effects.

Experimenting with different techniques and taking the time to go over specific areas of an image for selective adjustments can be rewarding, but if you want to save some time and get great results the easy way, you might consider some of the popular plug-ins available (see Figure 15).

Figure 15. A lackluster color photo of a small waterfall is transformed by Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Figure 15. A lackluster color photo of a small waterfall is transformed by Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Figure 16. Topaz B&W Effects.

Figure 16. Topaz B&W Effects is used on the same photo, with a different effect.