12 Ways to Make a Black & White Photo

Several weeks ago, one of my readers asked me if I shoot my photos in black & white or if I convert the color images afterward. I replied back that I do all my black & white conversion during post processing. I also made the statement that there are about a dozen ways to turn a color photo into a black & white photo using Photoshop (or another editing tool). They took my comment about the “dozen ways” seriously and said they were interested in learning about them… or maybe they were just giving me a hard time.

Even so, I thought it would be a good challenge to find 12 ways of doing black & white conversion. I had original intentions of writing my own tutorial for each method, but I soon realized that it would be too much information to cover in one post. So instead, I've rounded up links to these methods — why repeat the work? So here they are, in my order of preference:

  1. Layers From Channels – This is probably my favorite way of making a black & white. It offers the most control over the image, but it can be very time consuming.
  2. CS3 B&W Adjustment – I love this tool for evaluating if a photo has that black & white potential. This method is an extension of the channel mixer, it just has more channels to play with. The nice thing is that it has a list of presets that you can quickly scroll through to give you some ideas on where to go with the photo.
  3. Channel Mixer – This is another great tool for evaluating the photo, but not as flexible as the B&W Adjustment tool. Before CS3, I would use this for quite a few of my photos as a starting point.
  4. Hue-Saturation – I don't typically use this, but it's pretty quick and easy. It also gives you a bit of control over how each color contributes to the black & white output.
  5. LAB Color – This one is fairly painless, and it just involves duplicating some channel information from a different color mode. It really works well for some photos, but not for others.
  6. Calculations – Most people don't know about this tool, but it's there. It gives you control over combining channels and their blending modes.
  7. Gradient Map – Real quick and easy method, but doesn't offer the amount of control as the previous methods.
  8. Desaturate – One of the simplest methods used, but often creates photos that lack punch.
  9. Grayscale – Another simple method, but also produces poor contrast black & whites.
  10. In Camera – Some cameras offer black & white photos, but I would shy away from this. You'll have much more control over output if you grab all the colors and work with them on the computer.
  11. Threshold – Some photos can pull this one off, but not many. You'll end up with black and white only — no grays. Good for abstract work, and creates a very bold image.
  12. Plugins – I don't use any plugins for conversion, but I know there are a few out there. The strong point for these is that they offer fairly complex conversions with a simple interface.

I can't say that one single method will work for every photo, because every photo is different and photography is somewhat subjective. I might go through 4 or 5 of these methods before I even pick one and really start to work on it — if I pick just one. You can find ways to mix and match parts of each method to give you what you're looking for. These conversion methods are also just a starting point. I end up doing a lot of levels and curves adjustments, masking, dodging, burning, and layer blending. Everything I do is done in adjustment layers or duplicated layers — that way I can always go back in time or compare two outputs.

So if you're a master of the “desaturation” or “convert to grayscale” methods, maybe it's time to step up to some new stuff. Revisit your old black & white conversions (as long as you kept the color images) and try some new methods. You'll be amazed at the difference. The photo below was created using the Photoshop CS3 Black & White Adjustment. I used higher levels of green and yellow, lower levels of blue and cyan, and mid-range levels of red and magenta. After that, I did a little curves adjustment for more contrast. Then I duplicated the output 3 times and blended at various fill levels using “screen” and “color burn” to deepen the highlights and shadows.

Photo of the Day…

Old Mill

Photo by Brian Auer
09/04/05 Clinton, NJ
The Old Clinton Mill
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
35mm equiv * f/4 * 1/80s * ISO50