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Photography

How to Convert Your Images to Black and White in Photoshop

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This post is part of a series called Black and White Photography.
Recreating the Lith Printing Look for Black and White Photos
A Quick Start Guide to Silver Efex Pro 2 for Black and White Imagery

Black and white photography is as popular as ever, and, with digital software like Adobe Photoshop, it's never been easier to convert your digital images.

In this article we'll run through some of the most popular black and white conversion methods, outlining the pros and cons of each. Instructions are provided for Photoshop CS and, if the technique's available, Photoshop Elements. The techniques we cover:

  1. Convert to Greyscale (Destructive)
  2. Hue/Saturation Tool (Non-destructive)
  3. Lab Color Method (Destructive)
  4. Gradient Map (Non-destructive)
  5. Channel Mixer (Non-destructive)
  6. Twin Hue/Saturation Method (Non-destructive)
  7. Black and White Adjustment Layer Method (Non-destructive)

Black and White Actions

If you’re looking for some great Photoshop Actions to do the work for you, then there's plenty of choice over at Envato Elements where you can download unlimited resources for a monthly subscription.

You could start with this set of 31 Professional Black & White Photoshop Actions which gives you a wide range of options for creating different black and white effects depending on the look you're going for.

31 Professional Black  White Photoshop Actions
31 Professional Black & White Photoshop Actions, from Envato Elements

How to Convert a Color Photo to Black and White

Converting to black and white digitally has a number of advantages. By starting with a colour photo and converting it to black and white in Photoshop, you have complete control over the conversion.

For the best possible conversion, start by shooting in RAW. Then, in your RAW conversion software, output the photo as a 16 bit Tiff file. 16 bit files have a lot more information to work with than 8 bit files, which makes for a better conversion with smoother tonal graduations.

Most digital SLRs (and some compacts) have a black and white mode. The camera is making the conversion for you, and the results are usually poor, giving flat, washed out photos. It's usually best to avoid this mode, and use the following techniques instead.

Black and White Conversions

Photoshop and Photoshop Elements offer both destructive and non-destructive black and white conversion techniques. Destructive methods are ones that can't be re-adjusted afterwards. Once you've made the conversion, the only way to change it is to undo the conversion and start again.

Non-destructive methods use Photoshop's adjustment layers. The changes that you make to your photo are stored in a layer, and the original photo remains unchanged underneath. Then, when you're done, you flatten the image and it's as this stage that Photoshop makes all the changes to the photo permanent. You can edit the conversion at any time before flattening the image by clicking on the Adjustment Layer icon.

a non destructive adjustment layer
a non destructive adjustment layer

Non-destructive photo editing is always better than destructive editing.

1. Convert to Greyscale (Destructive)

The simplest black and white conversion method, converting to grayscale discards all the colour information in the photo.

  1. Image > Mode > Grayscale
  2. Click ‘Discard'

The method is the same for both Photoshop and Elements.

  • Pros: Quick and easy.
  • Cons: You have no control over the conversion.

2. Use the Hue/Saturation Tool (Non-destructive)

This method gives exactly the same result as converting to greyscale and adding a black and white adjustment layer. The advantage is that it's available as an adjustment layer, and can be used as part of a non-destructive editing process.

Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements:

  1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation
  2. Click ‘OK'
  3. Move the Saturation slider all the way to the left (-100) and press ‘OK'
  • Pros: Quick and easy and and can be applied as an adjustment layer in both Photoshop and Elements.
  • Cons: You have no control over the conversion.
hue saturation
Reduce the Saturation to 0

3. Lab Color Method (Destructive)

This technique converts your photo from RGB colour mode mode to Lab colour mode. Lab mode records the brightness and colour values separately, meaning in Lab you can discard the colour information to leave a black and white image. It's not available in Photoshop Elements.

  1. Image > Mode > Lab Color
  2. Go to the Channels window if it's already open (if not go to Window > Channel) and select the Lightness channel
  3. Image > Mode > Grayscale
  4. Click ‘OK'
  • Pros: Gives a black and white conversion that is, theoretically, more mathematically accurate. Whether it is a pleasing conversion depends on the picture.
  • Cons: Destructive editing process that doesn't give you much control.

4. Gradient Map (Non-destructive)

The Gradient Map tool maps a black and white gradient to the brightness values of your photo. Dark areas become black or dark grey and highlights white or light grey.

  1. Press ‘D' to reset the foreground and background colours to black and white.
  2. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map
  3. Click ‘OK'
gradient map
Gradient Map technique
  • Pros: Quick and easy non-destructive black and white conversion
  • Cons: No control over the conversion

5. Channel Mixer (Non-destructive)

The Channel Mixer is the first black and white conversion tool listed here that truly begins to use the full potential of the information contained in the colour photo.

Colour photos have three colour channels; red, green and blue. These primary colours combine to make the millions of colours in your photo. The Channel Mixer conversion method lets you adjust the ratios between the red, geen and blue channels.

Lightening the value of a channel with the channel mixer lightens colours close to it on the colour wheel and darkens the colours that are opposite it. Increase the value of the red channel, for instance, and you'll make the red tones in your photo lighter and the blue ones darker. This has the effect of lightening skin tones and darkening blue skies.

Channel Mixer is the digital equivalent of black and white photographers using colour filters. Setting the brightness of the red channel to 100% gives the same effect as using a red filter on the lens with black and white film. It's not available in Photoshop Elements.

Photoshop CS:

  1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Channel Mixer
  2. Tick the Monochrome box.
  3. Move the Red, Green and Blue sliders to the left and right to lighten and darken different tones in the photo. The total of the three sliders should be 100% at all times.
  4. Click ‘OK' when you're done.
channel mixer
Channel Mixer method
  • Pros: Gives you a high degree of control over the black and white conversion.
  • Cons: Not as flexible as the next two techniques. Not available in Photoshop Elements.

6. Twin Hue/Saturation Method (Non-destructive)

This technique uses two Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layers. The top layer is a straight monochrome conversion. The bottom layer changes the colours of the original photo, which in turn changes the tones in the black and white conversion. It gives you a fine degree of control.

Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements:

  1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and click ‘OK'
  2. Move the Saturation slider all the way to the left (-100) and click ‘OK'
  3. Activate the background by clicking on it
  4. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and click ‘OK'
  5. Click ‘OK'
  6. Change the blending mode of the bottom Hue/Saturation layer to ‘Color'
  7. Double click the bottom Hue/Saturation layer's icon
  8. Move the Hue slider left or right and watch the tones change! You can also experiment with the Saturation and Lightness sliders.
  9. Click ‘OK' when you're done.
twin hue saturation method
Twin hue/saturation method
  • Pros: Extremely fine degree of control over the monochrome conversion.
  • Cons: None, but less control than some other methods.

7. Black and White Adjustment Layer Method (Non-destructive)

Available in Photoshop CS3 onward, the Black and White Adjustment Layer gives you all the control of the channel mixer and twin hue/saturation techniques via six colour sliders. But the most exciting feature is its Targeted Adjustment Tool. With this tool you can adjust tones in your photo to make them lighter or darker. It's an intuitive and a precise conversion technique.

  1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black and White
  2. Click ‘OK'. The Black and White toolbox appears.
  3. Move the six colour sliders right or left to brighten or darken the respective tones in the photo. You can also choose from from the presets in the drop down menu at the top.
  4. Click ‘OK' when you're done.
  • Pros: The most flexible black and white conversion method available.
  • Cons: Only available in Photoshop CS3 up.

Learn more about Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

Conclusion

It's worth taking the time to experiment with these different methods when deciding how to approach black and white conversion. Some may work better for you than others, but always remember to keep an original copy of the image if using a destructive method and ultimately, it's always better to work non-destructively, so you have the option to change your mind.

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