Black-and-white photography never goes out of style. It’s the core of imaging and what many of us remember fondly starting with the first roll of TRI-X we processed and printed in the darkroom. As digital took over, there were few monochrome options other than, perhaps, desaturating images in software applications, which usually resulted in dull, flat photos. But, as inkjet printer manufacturers made it easier to print in monochrome and software developers realized the need for digital darkroom equivalents of tools to produce the dynamic range of a silver print, black-and-white conversion steadily grew as a solid option for photographers.
But, like any software process, there are more ways to convert a color image to black-and-white than we can count. Software—and process—choices abound, and personal preferences in workflow and end results differ from one photographer to the next. Ask 10 different photographers about how to create a black-and-white image from a color file, and you’ll likely get 10 vastly different answers.
One of my personal favorite tools for black-and-white conversions is Silver Efex Pro 2, which is part of Google’s Nik Collection of plug-ins, and compatible with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Google announced that, as of March 24, the Nik Collection can be downloaded for free so, run, don’t walk, to google.com/nikcollection and download all six plug-ins—but especially Silver Efex Pro so you can follow along with the conversion process outlined here. (Note: If you purchased the Nik Collection, Google promises they will refund your money.)
The image we chose to work with is very close to a black-and-white image to start, but that gives us the opportunity to work with a few different tools than, perhaps, you would normally.
SILVER EFEX PRO 2
For this exercise, I used Silver Efex Pro (SEP) as a plug-in for Photoshop. After opening the image in Photoshop, go to Filter > Nik Collection > Silver Efex Pro 2. Alternatively, you can first choose Convert to Smart Filters in the Filter dropdown menu before you open the plug-in; this allows you to go back and re-edit the adjustments by double-clicking the SEP layer in Photoshop. Once converted for Smart Filters, the Brush option for SEP is disabled.
Once the image is open in SEP, you have the option of choosing a preset from the left panel. This is often a good place to start, particularly if you have a specific “look” in mind. Scroll down the presets and click on various options to see how they affect the original image. From there, go to the right-hand adjustment panel to tweak the image.
I opted to apply a neutral preset (000 Neutral) as a base image, so SEP applied as few changes as possible (Fig. 1).
(The next time you open SEP, the last-used preset will be applied automatically.)
While the Neutral preset looks pretty good, I wanted to check the photo’s dynamic range before making any adjustments. One of the most helpful features in SEP is the Zone System map tool (yes, it’s similar to Ansel Adams’ Zone System). Click the triangle next to Loupe and Histogram at the bottom of the adjustments panel.
Scroll the mouse over each Zone to see what areas fall into that specific tonal range. Zone 0 is pure black, with no details; Zone 10 is pure white with no details. The latter is particularly important, especially when printing on glossy paper—the lack of ink in those pure white areas may cause gloss differential.
For this image, there are no tonal values in Zone 10, but there are some in Zone 0. To increase the density of the black background (I’m especially fond of dark, dramatic black-and-white images), I clicked on the Zone 0 tab to see how much of the image fell into the Zone, indicated by gold hatch marks in the program.
Open the Selective Adjustments panel and click on the Control Points icon to add a Point to the image. Move the cursor to the background (or area you want to adjust) and click to place the Point. Click on the small circle at the top of the Point’s adjustment list to see the “area of influence” (Fig. 2). The circumference of the circle doesn’t necessarily indicate the area that will be affected by Control Point changes; only similar tones, textures and objects will be included. Adjust the circle size, as necessary.
Adjust the parameters using the Control Point’s dropdown menu. Using the Zone Map, only brightness adjustments will show in hatch marks. Since I wanted to make the entire background pure black, I moved the Control Point’s brightness slider to the left until the Zone 0 hatch marks filled in more of the background (Fig. 3). (This adjustment also affected some areas around the subject’s eyes and under the hood, but we can fix that later with additional Control Points.)
To copy the settings to another part of the image, Opt/Alt click on the Control Point and drag it to the target area. In this case, I dragged it to the right side of the image to continue adjusting the background to pure black. There’s no limit (that we know of) to the number of Control Points that can be added. And, generally, multiple Control Points provide more targeted adjustments.
The effect of Control Points can be turned on/off by clicking the check box to the left of each Control Point in the adjustment panel, which are numbered according to the order they were placed. To view the masked area/area of influence, click the small box to the right of each Control Point. Note that the light areas indicate where the adjustments have been made (Fig. 4).
In the course of this conversion, I applied the same principles to the remainder of the Zone scale, adding Control Points, as needed. In addition, I used a small Control Point to add a bit of brightness to the eyes and some structure to the beard (Fig. 5). The latter emphasizes textures and adds a sharpening effect.
To finish the image in SEP, I made a couple of global adjustments, amplifying the blacks slightly and adding additional structure overall to help emphasize the subject’s craggy features (Fig. 6).
When you’re happy with your image, click OK to apply the changes and open the file in Photoshop (or the host program you used). Then save your image.
Silver Efex Pro 2’s capabilities extend far beyond what we’ve touched on in this column. Take some time to explore on your own; it’s a highly intuitive program, and it won’t be long before you find your own rhythm when converting images to black-and-white.
Freelance writer and photographer Theano Nikitas has been covering the photo industry for more than 20 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, tutorials and images have appeared in a variety of print and electronic publications and books.