Black and White Conversion: The Best Ways to Turn Color Digital Photos Into Beautiful B&W


Long long ago, Black-and-White ruled the Earth.

Frosty white highlights frolicked with rich black shadows in the Meadows of Grayscale, and it was good.

Then came Digital, whose dingy whites and muddy grays nearly drove Black-and-White to extinction.

But now, like wild-eyed scientists cloning a mammoth, we’ve found the best ways to convert digital color photos into the REAL honest-to-goodness-that-looks-like-Ansel-Adams-took-it Black-and-White. NOT the pale washwater grays and off-white whites you get with “Convert to grayscale”. And we’re going to show you how.

Converting Digital Color Photos to Glorious Black-and-White

3 Quick Ways to Go Black-and-White

There are a couple of simple ways to get black-and-white digital photos.

  1. Use your camera’s built-in B&W setting.
  2. Convert to B&W using the pre-set filters in iPhoto/Picasa/Photoshop Elements.
  3. Use Photoshop (or GIMP or whatever) to desaturate or change to grayscale.

These methods all work, but you end up with flat, muddy photos. Bumping up the contrast will improve matters, but to get a black-and-white picture that really pops, you’ll have to go a little deeper.


Do It Your Way

Keep in mind is that there is no God-given Right or Wrong in photography. The main thing is getting your photo to look the way you want.

Do you want to match the feel of the color version? OK. Make it dark and brooding? Sure. Crazy-high contrast and surreal color values? Fine, go nuts. It’s up to you.

Now, how do you get there? Start with the RGB channels.

Introducing RGB Channels!

Any RGB image (i.e. color) can be divided into three channels. If you open the Channels palette (Window -> Channels) you will see four channels for any color image: RGB, Red, Green and Blue.

The channels represent the proportion of each color that makes up the entire color image. Each color appears lighter in its namesake channel (i.e. red-colored objects look paler in the Red channel) so the three channels will look very different.

  • The Red channel generally shows pale skin tones and dark skies.
  • The Green channel has a good mix of tones and tends to look closest to the original color version.
  • The Blue channel features very pale skies and dark foliage.


Turning a Channel Into Back-and-White

mode-grayscale-smIf the look of a certain channel takes your fancy, you can convert that channel to a black-and-white image.

With the channel selected, go to Image -> Mode and select Grayscale. Discard the color information when prompted, and layers if applicable.

Now you have a lovely black-and-white photo!

Use Auto Levels, Levels or Curves to get crisp whites, deep blacks, and a level of brightness that you like, and you’re done!

Next Up… The Channel Mixer!

mixer-screen-smWhat if you like the general look of a particular channel, but want to fine-tune your results? Use the Channel Mixer instead.

The Channel Mixer allows you to determine how much of each channel is expressed in the final image, using sliders for the Red, Green and Blue channels.

How the Channel Mixer Works

Say you want to darken a red object to make it stand out, but you also want to keep the sky from going too dark?

You’d subtract Red to darken the red object and add Blue to lighten the sky. Low values of a channel darken its namesake color, and high values lighten it.

With the right mix of channels you could make a color completely disappear. Not that you’d want to, but you could.


Working the Percentages

The channel percentages should theoretically add up to 100% (i.e. 50% Red + 40% Green + 10% Blue = 100%). More than 100% means lighter images and less than 100% means darker images, so it’s really up to you. You can also use the “Constant” slider to adjust overall brightness.

The default option is 100% Red, 0% Green, 0% Blue, but 30% Red, 60% Green, 10% Blue is a good starting point.

Using the Channel Mixer

finalThe easiest way to use the channel mixer is to create a new adjustment layer. Go to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer and select Channel Mixer.

Check the “Monochrome” box, then click and drag each slider to see the results.

Move the sliders until you’ve got the look you want, then click OK. If you need to tweak it more later, double-click on the slider icon on the adjustment layer to re-open the channel mixer.

Now to fine-tune the contrast. Auto Levels gives you decent results, or you can add a Levels adjustment layer (Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Levels) and do it yourself.

Bump up the contrast a little, adjust the brightness, and you’ll be in great shape!

More Resources

  • Check out our pal Darren Rowse’s article on black-and-white conversion for info on using lab color and gradient map (plus extra awesomeness with adjustment layers).
  • If you haven’t done black-and-white before, look to the greats for inspiration and technique. Start with Ansel Adams and Minor White, and move on to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. Go to a library or bookstore so you can see good reproductions in a book (the web just ain’t enough).