Ballet dancer in Cuba.
Photography began with black-and-white images and the darkroom process, where images came to life. Today, photographers have many more choices. Some photographers still shoot black-and-white film and develop in the wet darkroom. But for most photographers, we capture in digital color and decide later if we want to convert to black-and-white. We have the best of both worlds, and our darkroom is a computer with Lightroom or Photoshop.
But here’s the thing: Anyone can just click the Grayscale button in Lightroom and convert their color image to black-and-white. But is that really doing justice to your beautiful, hard-earned image? And what about Photoshop? What’s the best way to convert an image to black-and-white inside Photoshop?
There are many paths to effective black-and-white conversions and adjustments, and which technique you choose will depend on the image and your creative vision. Some images may only require a few simple steps, while others will require selective adjustments and multiple brushes. Let’s look at converting your photo to black-and-white, and what adjustments you need to create an award-winning image.
Converting The Image To B&W
Before we even talk about converting your image, make sure you’re shooting in RAW when black-and-white is your final goal. The benefits of RAW capture are well known, and many black-and-white adjustments can be made in Camera Raw. Don’t shoot in black-and-white JPEG mode. Your camera is discarding all the color information, and you’ll have less latitude to make adjustments on a processed JPEG.
Converting a color image to black-and-white is similar in Lightroom and Photoshop. Since we’re shooting in RAW, the Camera Raw editor will open by default in Photoshop. If you’re using Lightroom, Camera Raw is embedded in the Develop module and is what you use on all supported file types (RAW, JPEG, etc.).
The Camera Raw engine is the same in Lightroom and Photoshop. The sliders are oriented differently but perform the same functions, but in Lightroom I can go back and readjust the RAW file—in Photoshop the conversion is the first step and any later changes are performed from that starting point. Before I convert my image to black-and-white, I start with my basic image adjustments that I do on every image. These adjustments include setting the white point and black point, adjusting exposure, reducing highlights and often opening up shadows. I leave Saturation and Vibrance at zero. Increasing these would affect some tonalities in the black-and-white version, but I’ll adjust this later after converting the image to black-and-white. I also apply Sharpening and Clarity at this point. The beauty of working in Camera Raw is that your adjustments are nondestructive. We’ll revisit some of these sliders later to touch up our black-and-white image.
First, let’s look at converting an image in Lightroom. Open your image and go to the Develop module. In the Basic Panel at the top, simply click Black and White as the treatment. Then scroll down and open the HSL/COLOR/B&W panel, and the various color channels will be displayed. You’re ready to start making adjustments.
In Photoshop’s Camera Raw, the conversion is similar. In the menu bar below the histogram, choose the HSL/Grayscale icon and click the Convert to Grayscale box. This converts the image to black-and-white with automatic adjustments applied.
Applying B&W Adjustments
Now that we’ve converted our image to black-and-white, the exciting “developing” process begins. But what makes a good black-and-white photograph?
First, look for an image that has a clean black and a clean white. You want to have a range of tonalities from black to white, including the full range of gray tones. Pure black and pure white anchor the black-and-white image, while shades of gray help define the subject. Contrast is a critical element in black-and-white imagery, and an important aspect when considering tonal range. Next, graphic shapes, patterns and textures are important in black-and-white imagery. Since color is absent, we rely on other graphic elements to create a dramatic shot. Finding scenes with depth and dimension also creates compelling black-and-white images. Knowing effective black-and-white image characteristics will influence the adjustments we make later.
Honestly, I create most of my black-and-white images in Lightroom. Lightroom offers the tools I need, and the Develop module has a few options Photoshop Camera Raw doesn’t offer.
With my image already converted to black-and-white, my first step is to evaluate the auto adjustments that Lightroom applies. In the HSL/COLOR/B&W panel, you can see the slider values Lightroom has applied. One approach to tonal adjustment would be to move the individual sliders and watch what happens to the image. But a far more effective method is to select the Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT) and click on the image area you want to adjust. This tool is located in the left corner of the HSL/COLOR/B&W panel. Place the TAT on the image area you want to adjust, click and move the tool up or down to lighten or darken this area. The beauty of the TAT is that it chooses the right mix of the color sliders to adjust the area you’ve chosen. You can build contrast into your black-and-white shot and increase tonal range using this technique.
After I’ve done my TAT adjustments, I focus on more specific areas I want to adjust. Specifically, I might want to dodge and burn certain areas, as well as increase texture and emphasize patterns, all elements critical to a successful black-and-white image. For these tasks, I use the Adjustment brush (located in the upper-right corner below the histogram). First, I start by burning areas in my image to increase contrast and to create depth and dimension in the image. Hit the O key to show your mask as you brush, and brush over the areas you want to darken. I use the Exposure slider to darken the selected areas. Next, choose a new brush and dodge any areas you want to lighten, also using the Exposure slider to add light to the selected areas.
Next, I look for any texture or patterns I may want to enhance. Once again, I choose a new brush and brush over the areas I want to change. I then increase the Clarity to 100 and Contrast to 50, and see the effect. Often, Clarity brightens the area, so I’ll reduce the exposure using the Exposure slider. Using this technique, I can also use similar but reduced settings to highlight leading lines, shapes and other important graphic elements in the image. Experiment with different values and other variables like sharpness to enhance structure in your image. I may also choose to add a slight vignette to my image to draw the viewer into the shot, especially with portraits.
Lightroom offers something else to help with your black-and-white adjustments: presets. In the Develop module, locate the Preset button on the left side of the screen, and click on the Disclosure triangle. Lightroom offers three sets of presets, including colored filters, contrast effects and toned effects. I’ll sometimes choose one of these presets and see if I like the effect. But most of my adjustments are made in the HSL/COLOR/B&W panel using the TAT or the Adjustment brush.
Camera Raw is similar in Photoshop, and my workflow is initially the same. I start with basic image adjustments like Exposure, White Point, Black Point, Sharpening and Clarity. Next, I convert the image to black-and-white by checking the Convert to Grayscale box in the HSL/Grayscale panel. This converts the image to black-and-white with automatic adjustment of the sliders. If you don’t like the automatic result, just click the Default button. Now, I choose the Targeted Adjustment tool from the menu on the upper left of the window and select areas to adjust in the image. Unlike Lightroom, move the TAT left or right (not up or down) to change tonalities in the image. Finally, I use the Adjustment brush for selective image adjustments.
But what about converting and adjusting an image already open in Photoshop? One choice would be to desaturate the image, but then you lose control of specific color channels. A better choice would be to select a Channel Mixer adjustment layer. Check the Monochrome box, and your image is converted to black-and-white. You then can use the red, green and blue channels to adjust tones in your image, or select a Preset filter from the drop-down menu.
Another method, and the one I prefer, is to use a Black and White adjustment layer. When you choose this adjustment layer, you have more color slider options for better selective control. There are also more presets available in the drop-down menu. Most importantly, there’s a Targeted Adjustment tool similar to Camera Raw in the upper-left corner of this panel. This tool works similar to Camera Raw. Select the tool, click on the area where you want to change the brightness, and drag left or right to change the value.
There are some terrific programs that create stunning black-and-white conversions. The beauty of these programs is that they give you previews of the black-and-white effect and the ability to fine-tune the adjustments. Some of the programs even offer border effects, lens flare and grain to create almost any style of black-and-white image you can imagine. Here are a few of my favorites.
Alien Skin Exposure X2. Alien Skin has always been one of my favorite black-and-white plug-ins. Why? I started out as a black-and-white photographer using many popular films like Agfa APX 100 and Kodak T-MAX 100, and Exposure X2 labels its black-and-white conversions based on the black-and-white films they simulate. Want to get a T-MAX 100 look? Just click on that action in the black-and-white films folder. Exposure X2 also offers low-contrast, Polaroid and vintage film conversions, as well as RAW editing capability. The toolbar on the right offers full adjustment of the image, as well as creative flare effects and borders.
Topaz B&W Effects. Topaz offers a fine black-and-white conversion program, and takes a slightly different approach to adjusting the image. When you open your image in the program, you have Effects folders on the left. Folders are labeled according to their effect, such as the Traditional Collection or the Toned Collection, etc. When you open the folder, the various actions are listed, and by moving your cursor over the action, you can see the effect. Once applied, you can adjust the conversion from the control panel on the right. At the top are traditional black-and-white filters you can apply, plus a variety of other tools to dodge/burn, apply grain and more.
ON1 Photo 10. ON1 has been busy adding new features to its software, including RAW editing abilities. ON1 Effects offers a folder with black-and-white conversions, and the ability to add colored filters, grain and tone adjustments. Combined with the extensive filter options, you have a wide variety of black-and-white adjustments. Try the Dynamic Contrast filter to add punch to your black-and-white images.
Converting and adjusting black-and-white images has never been easier, with more options than ever before. Even if you’re a color photographer, choose your most graphic shot and convert it to black-and-white—you just might like the end result.
To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit tombolphoto.com