Converting Images to Black and White Properly - Digital Photography School

Converting Images to Black and White Properly

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by: David Wahlman of Wahlman Photography

Recently I was asked about the process of converting images to black & white; namely when to know the image would be good for it. So in this post I’m going to talk about when to convert an image to black & white and then how to do it in Photoshop without losing quality.

When To Create A Black & White Image

There are three ideas that come to my mind when I evaluate whether I should convert an image to black & white.

  1. First of all, and somewhat obviously, what is your desired outcome? Is your client specifically asking for b&w images? Are you entering a b&w photo contest? Are you doing a gallery set of b&w (because, generally speaking it doesn’t look too good to have just one or two b&w mixed in with colors. You want a good balance)? Like I said, it should be pretty obvious that your outcome needs to be considered, but it was worth saying.
  2. Second, you should consider the value range of the image. In photography the term “value” speaks of darks vs lights. So when I say to judge the image’s value range, I’m talking about if you have deep blacks and bright whites. What’s your dynamic range like? For the most part ‘flat’ images don’t look very good in b&w. Traditional b&w have good contrast and well spread value all across the histogram. So if your image has these elements then it may be a good choice for converting into a b&w.
  3. I’ll be doing a post soon on color theory and color relationship, but if you have odd colors or colors that don’t work well together, then it may be a good candidate for being converted to b&w. Let’s face it, some colors don’t really work well together. B&W may be a good way to avoid these colors but keep the great shot.
  4. A quick tip, if you squint your eyes while looking at an image, you will see less color and more of the total value. This can be good for getting an idea of if your image has good value range.

How To Convert A Color Image To Black & White

Now lets talk about how to convert your image – there is a right and wrong way.

You may get the same result, but if you do it wrong you actually loose quality (to be technical, you sacrifice bytes of information).

For this article I’m going to be talking about using Adobe Photoshop. There is conversion software that you can buy, but for all intensive purposes, why pay extra when you can do it in Photoshop really easily.

Step 1

If you have found an image that you want to convert, then step one is opening the image in Photoshop. For my example, I’m using one of my wedding photographs that you may have seen on my website. It was shot during the first dance.

Screen Shot 2013 03 05 at 8 13 48 PM

Step 2

Screen Shot 2013 03 05 at 8 13 57 PMMost people would try to go to the top menu, go to Image>Mode and change the color profile to “Grayscale.”

Don’t do this!

Long story short, you’re actually changing the color profile, which means you will lose pixel information in your colors. You don’t want that; you want to retain as much information in your image as possible.

What you do want to do is use the black & white adjustments.

You can access this either by going to the top menu to Image>Adjustments>Black&White or in your side bar click on the adjustments button (as shown in picture) and then click on the b&w icon, which is the black and white box divided diagonally.

Step 3

Screen Shot 2013 03 05 at 8 14 10 PMOnce you’ve clicked this, you should see adjustments for the value of each color (see image). Notice that Photoshop has kept track of colors in the image. It’s just displaying them as b&w, but your keeping the information in tact.

This also gives you more control on editing your b&w cause you can adjust it by color section now.

Be aware, that you don’t want to push the limits on these colors too much, you’ll start to see ‘clipping’ in gradient colors such as skies. You’ll see it in your preview as you do it, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Step 4

After this, you can use these other adjustments (which act as smart layers, if you know what that means) to adjust the image how ever you need; exposure, contrast, levels, curves, filters, etc.

Step 5

After you’ve done all the editing you feel you need to do you should hopefully have an image you’re pleased with as a final. From you there you can save it. 

Screen Shot 2013 03 05 at 8 20 12 PM

David Wahlman is a wedding and portrait photographer from Redding, CA. He works all around California and is aiming to get into destination photography. You can see his best work at www.wahlmanphotography.com and follow his updates on his facebook page.

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  • Kit

    The method I’ve used for a while is to convert to lab color, go to channels, copy the lightness channel, convert back to RGB, and paste. It’s pretty straightforward and gets generally good results. Certainly far better than converting to greyscale.

  • Andrew

    I kinda see where this article is going, the main point is don’t use grey scale, and definitely don’t use the B/W option on your camera (you will lose all that colour information). However, you don’t have to use photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture can both do this, but if you want REALLY good results, use Silverefex Pro 2 from Nik software (which you can pick up as a bundle now for $126 from google). I shot thousands of toles of B/W film in the 80’s abd 90’s abd I really didn’t get results that looked anything much like the B/W film I used to shoot until I started using Silverefex Pro. I’m sure I’m sure I will get trolled for that statement but whatever. A good tip to add to this is if you are specifically trying to shoot B/W, create a high contrast B/W profile in your camera and shoot raw. You can use the B/W preview created in your camera to give you an idea if the image will work as B/W but the raw image has all the colour information so when you upload to Lightroom/Aperture you actually have a colour image to work with. This can help you get the correct exposure you need to create a great B/W image as you often need to under (or sometimes) over expose to get and image that will work well.

  • http://edbundyphotography.com Ed

    I am with you Andrew. Silverefex Pro is definitely the way to go if you are serious about black and white conversion. While I love and use all of Nik’s products (www.niksoftware.com), the Silverefex Pro saves me hour in the digital darkroom. Even if you only use the presets provided, you can emulate just about any old B/W film, as well as doing a great job of grain simulation if you still love the look and feel of the film days.

  • Christi

    Nik’s Silverefex is great. However, I think it’s beneficial to learn how to do these things yourself, so you understand what’s happening in the plug-ins. It gives you more control in the end.

  • http://GaryMintzPhotography.com Gary

    Once I got lightroom this is how I do it every time now. Feels good to know I am doing something right for a change. LOL. Great article. Thanks

  • http://www.nerd-fury.com Blake

    Doesn’t an editor proof-read these articles before they go up? If not, START DOING IT.

    “how to do it in Photoshop without loosing quality.”

    LOSING.

    “There is conversion software that you can buy, but for all intensive purposes”

    ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES.

    “It’s just displaying them as b&w, but your keeping the information in tack.”

    YOU’RE. INTACT.

    Seriously, guys.

  • http://alastairmoore.com Alastair

    @Blake

    April Fools! I think? It must be.

  • http://Www.harrylimphotography.com Harry

    One can only hope the horrible grammar is an April fools joke.

  • http://500px.com/davidcoward David Coward

    @Blake: You missed a couple of things. But yeah, it’s really distracting to read an article with bad spelling. Admittedly, I’ve seen much worse, but a professional site should have a proofreader.

  • http://www.nerd-fury.com Blake

    @David Coward – there’s more!? I just had a brief look!

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    If I had to do all those steps I would never make any images B&W. Here is yet another vote to add to the others in the comments for Silver Efex Pro. I even wrote a few years ago why I love it:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2009/11/11/why-i-love-silver-efex-pro-3-by-nik-software.html

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Cramer Imaging

    My method for b/w conversion has been to desaturate the image using the hue/saturation feature in Photoshop. This allows me to go back in with a photo filter later if I want to go with a sepia tone. This might be a good suggestion for me if it allows me to use the filter later. Some of my pictures work best with that brown tone instead of full color or b/w.

  • Lynzie

    Does anyone know how, or know where a tutorial exists, that shows this method in LR?

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene Hildebrandt
  • Moe

    What about just sliding the saturation all the way to no color. Is that a bad way to convert a photo to Black and White?

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

    @lynzie a link for you to how to do it in Lightrooom is right below your comment

    @moe no you have no control over how the various tones in the scene get rendered and most often you end up with a flat image. Read my article on doing it in Lightroom I show the difference it can make especially if you have blue sky in your image

  • Francis

    I use Lightroom, they have nice default B&W converter.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/francisverana/8620463174/in/photostream

  • Xpinger

    For us lesser mortals using PSE, there is a really good function ‘convert to black and white’ which then offers the user a number of pre-set contrast variations before you can tweak then for further refinement.

  • DougS

    “why pay extra when you can do it in Photoshop really easily.”

    Did you really just say “why use something that costs a little bit of money when you can use something that costs many hundreds of dollars?”

    I don’t think you understand what you are saying. Also, please look up words and phrases before you use them. Blake already hit all the major errors that were bugging me, so I won’t repeat them.

    Last thing, someone already linked to it, but there was a B/W conversion tutorial on here not too long ago, and it was basically the same method, except it was a much better article. Oh, I see that Darlene was the author of it. Good job Darlene. :)

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

    Thanks Doug!

  • http://bubbleweb.co.uk/online-stores-ecommerce-wirral-liverpool.html Christiane

    Thanks for your enlightening blog.

  • Jason

    What if I want a four color B/W?

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene Hildebrandt

    @jason – what is a four color b/w? you lost me

  • Jason

    @Darlene – I use images that have to get printed in a four-color process. So if i just convert the way it is stated here (RGB) the image would get converted when printed and look different. So i was wonder if there was something similair for a CMYK black and white.

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene Hildebrandt

    @jason – OH! for 4 color presses!

    You can do a “convert profile” and choose CMYK. There isn’t another way of doing it that I know of, but you still wanna use this process to convert from color to b/w, then convert that to CMYK.

    Who’s the printer? Often they can accept RGB files and convert them for you.

  • Jason

    @Darlene – If I convert the image to a CMYK it doesn’t allow me to use the option told here for a black and white conversion. The B/W adjustment is greyed out. This is why I was asking if there was a way to convert a CMYK image without converting to grey scale and with out using a different program than photoshop.

    thanks

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene Hildebrandt

    Sorry I meant to follow directions for converting to b/w using the info above or on my article using LR.
    http://digital-photography-school.com/3-tips-for-better-black-and-white-conversion-using-lightroom

    Then flatten the image, and then convert to CMYK.

    Does that help?

  • lee

    I always use split toning … ie use two adjustment layers (ie 2 b&w adjustments). One layer to control the shadows and the other to control the mids and highlights. Then blend accordingly (soft light etc).

  • http://www.herviewphotography.com Darlene

    @lee that’s not my understanding of what “split toning” is. From what I know, toning is when you “tone” or color tint the image – so split toning is toning it in two different tones. Tone refers to color tint and in the days of film and dark room toning was done with chemicals like sepia or selenium, I’ve used both and you could do split toning but it was a lot more difficult than it is now with digital.

    I think what you’re referring to is often called luminosity masking.
    http://goodlight.us/writing/luminositymasks/luminositymasks-1.html

  • Denver Mike

    “…all intensive purposes…”

    Might you have meant “…all intents and purposes…”?

  • Ad

    Thanks for posts, I just want to inform you some of the text has changed to the artistic font and it’s not easy to read ! You can read your posts on iphone to see that .
    Thanks.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Here are my before and after of a nectarine tree branch in blossom.

  • Carlos Roberto López Hernández

    Just some words, “shoot with w&b film”

  • http://www.yiigo.com/guides/vbnet/how-to-start.shtml Gabby

    Personally I think its’s better to leave scenery just the way it is, which looks more lovely. But it would be better to do black and white for photos of people and still life, etc. I’m currently using this, which was way too much pain as compared with your method here. :p
    http://www.yiigo.com/guides/vbnet/how-to-process-image.shtml

  • jazzy joe

    Are you serious? I can reduce this article to “If you want to convert images to black and white us the black and white tool in Photoshop.” Useless read.

  • Hiram Legree

    Useless and illiterate article. For example, in Step 3 he doesn’t give a clue as to what to adjust and how much to adjust it. As to his final wedding image, to my eye it looks muddy and unattractive.

Some older comments

  • Darlene

    June 11, 2013 02:00 am

    @lee that's not my understanding of what "split toning" is. From what I know, toning is when you "tone" or color tint the image - so split toning is toning it in two different tones. Tone refers to color tint and in the days of film and dark room toning was done with chemicals like sepia or selenium, I've used both and you could do split toning but it was a lot more difficult than it is now with digital.

    I think what you're referring to is often called luminosity masking.
    http://goodlight.us/writing/luminositymasks/luminositymasks-1.html

  • lee

    June 10, 2013 07:31 pm

    I always use split toning ... ie use two adjustment layers (ie 2 b&w adjustments). One layer to control the shadows and the other to control the mids and highlights. Then blend accordingly (soft light etc).

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    April 25, 2013 08:17 am

    Sorry I meant to follow directions for converting to b/w using the info above or on my article using LR.
    http://digital-photography-school.com/3-tips-for-better-black-and-white-conversion-using-lightroom

    Then flatten the image, and then convert to CMYK.

    Does that help?

  • Jason

    April 24, 2013 11:17 pm

    @Darlene - If I convert the image to a CMYK it doesn't allow me to use the option told here for a black and white conversion. The B/W adjustment is greyed out. This is why I was asking if there was a way to convert a CMYK image without converting to grey scale and with out using a different program than photoshop.

    thanks

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    April 24, 2013 08:24 am

    @jason - OH! for 4 color presses!

    You can do a "convert profile" and choose CMYK. There isn't another way of doing it that I know of, but you still wanna use this process to convert from color to b/w, then convert that to CMYK.

    Who's the printer? Often they can accept RGB files and convert them for you.

  • Jason

    April 24, 2013 08:19 am

    @Darlene - I use images that have to get printed in a four-color process. So if i just convert the way it is stated here (RGB) the image would get converted when printed and look different. So i was wonder if there was something similair for a CMYK black and white.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    April 24, 2013 07:47 am

    @jason - what is a four color b/w? you lost me

  • Jason

    April 24, 2013 04:22 am

    What if I want a four color B/W?

  • Christiane

    April 19, 2013 11:35 pm

    Thanks for your enlightening blog.

  • Darlene

    April 13, 2013 02:15 am

    Thanks Doug!

  • DougS

    April 12, 2013 11:04 pm

    "why pay extra when you can do it in Photoshop really easily."

    Did you really just say "why use something that costs a little bit of money when you can use something that costs many hundreds of dollars?"

    I don't think you understand what you are saying. Also, please look up words and phrases before you use them. Blake already hit all the major errors that were bugging me, so I won't repeat them.

    Last thing, someone already linked to it, but there was a B/W conversion tutorial on here not too long ago, and it was basically the same method, except it was a much better article. Oh, I see that Darlene was the author of it. Good job Darlene. :)

  • Xpinger

    April 7, 2013 03:21 pm

    For us lesser mortals using PSE, there is a really good function 'convert to black and white' which then offers the user a number of pre-set contrast variations before you can tweak then for further refinement.

  • Francis

    April 7, 2013 02:58 am

    I use Lightroom, they have nice default B&W converter.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/francisverana/8620463174/in/photostream

  • Darlene

    April 6, 2013 03:26 am

    @lynzie a link for you to how to do it in Lightrooom is right below your comment

    @moe no you have no control over how the various tones in the scene get rendered and most often you end up with a flat image. Read my article on doing it in Lightroom I show the difference it can make especially if you have blue sky in your image

  • Moe

    April 5, 2013 07:01 am

    What about just sliding the saturation all the way to no color. Is that a bad way to convert a photo to Black and White?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    April 5, 2013 05:18 am

    If you are a Lightroom person you could also try this method
    http://digital-photography-school.com/3-tips-for-better-black-and-white-conversion-using-lightroom

  • Lynzie

    April 5, 2013 03:32 am

    Does anyone know how, or know where a tutorial exists, that shows this method in LR?

  • Cramer Imaging

    April 4, 2013 11:27 am

    My method for b/w conversion has been to desaturate the image using the hue/saturation feature in Photoshop. This allows me to go back in with a photo filter later if I want to go with a sepia tone. This might be a good suggestion for me if it allows me to use the filter later. Some of my pictures work best with that brown tone instead of full color or b/w.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    April 3, 2013 01:20 am

    If I had to do all those steps I would never make any images B&W. Here is yet another vote to add to the others in the comments for Silver Efex Pro. I even wrote a few years ago why I love it:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2009/11/11/why-i-love-silver-efex-pro-3-by-nik-software.html

  • Blake

    April 2, 2013 01:38 pm

    @David Coward - there's more!? I just had a brief look!

  • David Coward

    April 2, 2013 02:32 am

    @Blake: You missed a couple of things. But yeah, it's really distracting to read an article with bad spelling. Admittedly, I've seen much worse, but a professional site should have a proofreader.

  • Harry

    April 1, 2013 10:57 pm

    One can only hope the horrible grammar is an April fools joke.

  • Alastair

    April 1, 2013 04:42 pm

    @Blake

    April Fools! I think? It must be.

  • Blake

    April 1, 2013 02:10 pm

    Doesn't an editor proof-read these articles before they go up? If not, START DOING IT.

    "how to do it in Photoshop without loosing quality."

    LOSING.

    "There is conversion software that you can buy, but for all intensive purposes"

    ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES.

    "It’s just displaying them as b&w, but your keeping the information in tack."

    YOU'RE. INTACT.

    Seriously, guys.

  • Gary

    April 1, 2013 05:19 am

    Once I got lightroom this is how I do it every time now. Feels good to know I am doing something right for a change. LOL. Great article. Thanks

  • Christi

    April 1, 2013 04:45 am

    Nik's Silverefex is great. However, I think it's beneficial to learn how to do these things yourself, so you understand what's happening in the plug-ins. It gives you more control in the end.

  • Ed

    April 1, 2013 02:19 am

    I am with you Andrew. Silverefex Pro is definitely the way to go if you are serious about black and white conversion. While I love and use all of Nik's products (www.niksoftware.com), the Silverefex Pro saves me hour in the digital darkroom. Even if you only use the presets provided, you can emulate just about any old B/W film, as well as doing a great job of grain simulation if you still love the look and feel of the film days.

  • Andrew

    March 31, 2013 12:27 pm

    I kinda see where this article is going, the main point is don't use grey scale, and definitely don't use the B/W option on your camera (you will lose all that colour information). However, you don't have to use photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture can both do this, but if you want REALLY good results, use Silverefex Pro 2 from Nik software (which you can pick up as a bundle now for $126 from google). I shot thousands of toles of B/W film in the 80's abd 90's abd I really didn't get results that looked anything much like the B/W film I used to shoot until I started using Silverefex Pro. I'm sure I'm sure I will get trolled for that statement but whatever. A good tip to add to this is if you are specifically trying to shoot B/W, create a high contrast B/W profile in your camera and shoot raw. You can use the B/W preview created in your camera to give you an idea if the image will work as B/W but the raw image has all the colour information so when you upload to Lightroom/Aperture you actually have a colour image to work with. This can help you get the correct exposure you need to create a great B/W image as you often need to under (or sometimes) over expose to get and image that will work well.

  • Kit

    March 31, 2013 04:43 am

    The method I've used for a while is to convert to lab color, go to channels, copy the lightness channel, convert back to RGB, and paste. It's pretty straightforward and gets generally good results. Certainly far better than converting to greyscale.

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