How to Convert Color Digital Images into Black and White Ones - Digital Photography School

How to Convert Color Digital Images into Black and White Ones

UPDATE: Learn more about Black and White Photography with our new Essential Guide to Black and White Photography.

As part of our series of posts on Black and White Photography the following tip on converting images from color to black and white was submitted by DPS reader – Frank Lazaro. You can see his photography at his Flickr page.

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Introduction

With the proliferation of digital photography, people have now started to look at ways to recreate what film has done for them, including recreating a black and white photo.

There are numerous ways to make a digital black and white, some include:

1. In camera filter – By changing a setting in the camera menu to take a black and white photo. Essentially this is a built-in color de-saturation method that removes the color information after the camera takes the picture. I won’t be covering this method in this article.

Pros: Easy, simple and does not require any knowledge or post processing to create a black and white photo.
Cons: Limits the contrast and dynamic range of the photos. In my personal experience, leaves the photo looking washed out or flat.


2. Post Processing – There are various methods in creating a black and white in a post processing environment.

I’ll cover several here. Please note, when I refer to Photoshop, I am using the generic term to mean using any photo editing tool with similar feature, such as Gimp or Photoshop Elements. There are also numerous plug-ins for Photoshop that will convert to Black and White as well. It is not possible; or rather I do not have the time to go over each one, so I will cover the ones that are the most popular in my opinion.

Using iPhoto or Google’s Picasa or Photoshop Elements. With in several of these tools, and even in the professional Photoshop products, there are built-in black and white filters. The benefits to these are they make creating a black and white photo as simple as one click. Granted some of the filters work better than others, but for the most part do a decent job.

Pros: Simple one step process to create a black and white photo
Cons: Requires the purchase or installing of additional software. Quality is hit or miss

Using Photoshop. Even within Photoshop there are multiple ways to create a black and white photo. I’ll only cover a handful of the popular methods, including my personal preferences.

To quick outline the methods, here is a quick list:

  • Channel Mixer
  • Lab Color Method
  • Gradient Map
  • Desaturation

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Channel Mixer

The more popular way to convert a photo into black and white is using the Channel Mixer.

There is a common misconception though with this technique – the RGB percentages must equal 100%. The truth is they do not need to equal 100%, they can actually equal whatever you want them to be, since the main goal is to make sure the photo looks the way you want it to look.

When I have used this method before, I usually start with the following settings:

R: 70% G: 30% B: 5%

From there I adjust the settings until the photo looks the way I want it to.

How to convert using the Channel Mixer
First, open your photo and then add a Channel Mixer adjustment layer.

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Select Monochrome and adjust the percentages for RGB. Again, I usually start with 70%, 30%, 5%.

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Adjust the percentages until the photo looks good, don’t worry about great, we’ll get to that in a moment. You can also adjust the constant percentage to lighten or darken the photo. In this case I darkened the photo by setting the constant to -2%.

When done, click Ok

Now, duplicate that layer twice. If you flatten the photo, just drag the layer to the Create a New Layer Icon on the Layers window. If you prefer to not flatten, you’ll need to duplicate both the above layers. The easiest way to do this is by selecting both the adjustment layer and the photo and dragging them to the Create a New Layer Icon on the Layers window.

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Click on the one of the duplicated photo layers.

Change the Screen Mode to Color Burn and reduce the opacity to something between 5% and 15% (personal preference).

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Click on the other duplicated layer

Change the Screen Mode to Soft Light and reduce the opacity to something between 5% and 30% (personal preference).

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Now the Photo should have more depth and not look as flat. You can adjust each of these layers based on the photo of your personal taste.

One thing I find useful is at the end to add a contrast layer, this will darken the darks and lighten the white. This is optional step.

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Lab Color Method

This process has become a personal favorite of mine. It is rather simple, but does require the use of a robust post-processing application, such as Photoshop CS.

Open the file you want to convert.

Convert to Lab Color by going to Image>Mode>Lab Color

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From the channel window (if it is not open, go to Windows>Channels) and select the Lightness Channel.

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Select all by either going to the menu Edit>Select All or Ctrl-A or Cmd-A and copy the selection either through the menu or Ctrl-C or Cmd-C. Then convert back to RGB Mode, go to the menu Mode>RGB.

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Go back to the Channel Window and select the Red channel. Paste either through the menu or Ctrl-V or Cmd-V.

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Select the Green Channel and paste either through the menu or Ctrl-V or Cmd-V.

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Select the Blue Channel and paste either through the menu or Ctrl-V or Cmd-V.

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Reselect the top channel to make all the color channels visible again and you are done.

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If for you feel the photo looks flat, you can use the duplicate layer method mentioned above. Just duplicate the main layer twice and follow these steps above.

If the photo is too dark, add an Levels Adjustment layer and lighten the photo.

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To lighten the photo, I adjusted the center value and increased it to 1.20. The original value was 1.0. Too darken the photo, decrease the center number. To lighten, increase the center number.

Gradient Map

I don’t use this method all that much, but it is a pretty simple process.

Open the file you want to convert and add an Adjust layer. Click on Gradient Map. On the Dialog box, click on the pull down menu and select Black and White. Click Ok and you are done.

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Desaturation Method

This method, in my opinion, leaves the photo looking flat. This is another simple method. Open the file you want to convert and add an Adjust layer. Click on Hue/Saturation. On the Dialog box, decrease the saturation value to -100%. Click Ok and you are done.

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Conclusion

There is absolutely no right way to convert a digital photo to black and white. I have barely touch the surface in terms of how to and what kinds of software allow you to create a black and white photo. There are numerous plug-ins, methods, applications etc not mentioned here – but no one way is perfect. In the end, do what looks and works best for you and your photos. Enjoy.

Now you’ve read this tutorial – give it a go and post your results in the Black and White assignment in our forums.

Also check out our previous Black and White Photography Tips.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like...

Read more from our Post Production category.

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Ian

    Does anyone know how to convert a black and white into a color? I took photos with my Canon digital SLR in black and white accidentally…

  • http://anotherphotographynoob.wordpress.com anotherphotographynoob

    been playing around with black and white conversions myself :) these are made in lightroom

    http://anotherphotographynoob.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/memories-2/

  • http://paulbola1.blogspot.com/ Paul Bola

    I was looking for a perfect tutorial which can really help me.. I will definitely use this trick to change from black n white to color

  • sona

    Is there a way to do a batch conversion to B/W?

  • Baghy

    Looks like links are broken for a while now.. Is no one maintaining these links?

  • Rulon Cushing

    I want to keep the original Color Photo?

Some older comments

  • Baghy

    March 12, 2013 10:51 pm

    Looks like links are broken for a while now.. Is no one maintaining these links?

  • sona

    February 8, 2013 05:27 am

    Is there a way to do a batch conversion to B/W?

  • Paul Bola

    December 12, 2012 09:54 pm

    I was looking for a perfect tutorial which can really help me.. I will definitely use this trick to change from black n white to color

  • anotherphotographynoob

    January 31, 2012 10:02 pm

    been playing around with black and white conversions myself :) these are made in lightroom

    http://anotherphotographynoob.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/memories-2/

  • Ian

    October 27, 2011 03:46 am

    Does anyone know how to convert a black and white into a color? I took photos with my Canon digital SLR in black and white accidentally...

  • Does not work in Photoshop 8

    October 22, 2011 09:53 am

    Sorry, but this tutorial is too complicated and confusing. For example when you talk about screen modes on two layers (colour burn and soft light) the images does not stay BW, it becomes colour image again. That is not what your images show. I gave up. Totally pointless tutorial.

  • Dave

    April 22, 2011 02:44 am

    heh...I just "updated" to CS4 (I've been using PS v.6.0 & PaintShop Pro 5 for years), and started playing around with raw images. Serves me right for living in the last century for too long...I now realize that "living in the past" has been actually hurting my work. Great site...will forever be in my bookmarks.

  • catharine

    March 16, 2011 04:37 pm

    I've been using photoshop elements 7 to scan and print old black and white photos and the black and white photos are printing with a pink hue. I have tried setting the mode at 8 bits channel- grayscale as well as RGB colour and converted to black and white and it still seems to happen.
    the image on my computer screen looks fine but when I print it, there is a pink hue which I dislike.
    how can I correct this? Do I need to adjust my settings on my printer?

  • Disposable Wedding Cameras

    March 11, 2011 08:49 am

    Another method via Photoshop
    click on "Image", click on "Adjustments" and click on "Desaturate"

  • Wedding Disposable Cameras

    March 11, 2011 08:38 am

    Photoshop: Click on "image", click on "mode", and click on "grayscale"

  • Teena

    March 6, 2011 04:26 pm

    Are the links to pictures/screen caps broken?

  • Sunny16

    February 2, 2011 11:32 am

    While I'm new to photography, I'm no slouch when it comes to photoshop. If you want to leave some colour in the image, the best way would definitely involve the use of a masking layer.

    Once you have achieved the b/w conversion by whatever method suits you best (don't forget the curve controls for fine tweaking!), you can simply drop the original colour image over the top of your b/w image in a new layer of its own.

    Making sure you have the new 'colour layer' selected, you then need to add a layer mask
    (Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All)

    From there you can simply brush colour back into your image using a white brush with a hard or soft edge selection, dependant on how much precision is needed. The beauty of such a technique is that the process is 'non-destructive'. That is to say you can switch to a black brush to paint the colour back out - the image is always preserved, unlike the more crude method of erasing.

    It's also worth noting that the layer mask is like a sub-layer nested in the colour layer. If you shift focus to another layer and then return to the colour layer to further edit the amount of colour present, make sure you have the mask selected and not the underlying colour image.

    It's probably worth noting that layer masks can also be used to great effect when used in conjunction with adjustment layers (like Hue saturation) and channels. The scope of such things is almost without limit, but one thing is for sure, grasping layer masks will significantly boost your creative control.

    Experiment and have fun!

  • Dan Borrego

    January 26, 2011 08:38 am

    Thanks for the help. I was able to make some pretty lousy color photos look okay in black and white. I used the "LAB Color Method" it was pretty easy. I have to say that I did get a bit confused at the end when you say
    "If you feel the photo looks flat, you can use the duplicate layer method mentioned above. Just duplicate the main layer twice and follow these steps above." I didn't quite understand what you meant.
    THis was a great resource. Thanks again.

  • MCTSexams

    November 5, 2010 05:44 am

    This is very helpful tutorial thanks!!

  • Sarah Cowan

    October 7, 2010 05:21 am

    Can I just say I absolutely love your tutorials! :) You're helping my photography come on leaps and bounds

  • sajjad

    July 28, 2010 02:43 am

    Hi all,
    I see convert4all and enjoy it.
    This is very good site to convert image. It is powerful in this subject.
    also in this site you can convert:
    1- ltr language Microsoft Word (and other similar formant) to PDF format
    2- convert Jalali , Hijri and Gorgian Date to each other
    3- give rate of 180 Currency and convert Currency rate to each other

    I recommend you to see convert4all

  • vikas

    July 13, 2010 03:34 am

    There is a website where you can simply convert your image from color to Black & white.
    you can also create sketch and painting effect.
    www.pixelstouch.com

  • manfy30

    June 30, 2010 04:08 am

    you can convert your color images to gray-scale one simply use this website:
    http://www.convert4all.com/index.php?module=3&language=2
    it help you convert your images type to different type too

  • Karen

    April 29, 2010 05:59 am

    Excellent tutorial! Thank you.

    I converted an image first using the Desaturate method, then using the Channel Mixer method and compared the two images side by side. The photo converted with the Channel Mixer method looks sooooo much better!

  • vikas

    April 22, 2010 05:24 am

    There is a website where you can simply convert your photo to painting or sketch with maintaining actual size t and that is totally free……
    http://www.pixelstouch.com/

  • Mark

    April 16, 2010 11:45 pm

    I think i'll try the channel mixer, i have not tried it yet but it think it will turn out great, thanks for the tip!

  • Karen Stuebing

    January 8, 2010 03:27 am

    I've been using channel mixer. However, did NOT know the tip about adding depth. I am going to try it along with the other methods here. The old gray mare can learn new tricks. :)

    One thing I do like to do with any converted photo is add back just a little of the color. Not all the time but it works for some.

  • Aluk

    January 4, 2010 03:00 am

    One thing I might add is that there's a better way to add contrast: instead of using the contrasst ajustments directly, use an Unsharp with radius between 50 and 100 pixels (depending on the image size) and Amount between 0 and 15%, depending on the effect you want. It will selectively add contrast to the overall scene, making details pop out better.

  • Deirdre

    November 18, 2009 02:49 am

    How about cleaning out the spam? There are some interesting comments here, but it's difficult to read them through all the junk.

  • Glenn

    November 12, 2009 04:12 pm

    Why you need to copy the lightness channel to each RGB channel? where you could create a new layer and paste the lightness copy to it (after converting back to RGB) ?

  • Don Reeves

    August 12, 2009 12:56 pm

    This is a great tutorial and show just how hard it is to do post work on Tiff and Jpeg image files.

    That's why I shoot everything in RAW format.

    I have used Olympus cameras since the late 70s and with the digital age I still use Olympus.
    The reason I say this is because of the awesome software that comes with Olympus dSLR cameras.
    I know Canon, Nikon etc must have similar software that enables the user to work with RAW files.
    Anyway for my example, I'm going to show what I do with ORF files which is an Olympus standard RAW file and transform it into a B&W image, it's just so easy I can fit it on this reply..

    First I take the image in RAW color format.
    Then I open Olympus master 2 which is their "free software" for editing and manipulating ORF files.

    I then chose picture mode and select monochrome.
    Now I have a basic B&W image.
    Next I have the choice of B&W filters, tone corrections, gradation, brightness and contrast settings, picture tone and exposure settings, the list goes on and on.

    It's like having a darkroom at your fingertips and more.
    The feel of using this powerful software is like you're still there composing your B&W shot with a huge bag full of filters, and being able to change the settings on the camera, seeing the results instantly.

    That's it, simple ehe?

    What this article shows is how difficult it is to transform a color Jpeg image into B&W, it's not that easy and this article is excellent at explaining how to do it.

    But if you had the choice, which would you rather do?

    You can also take the B&W image to even more levels and make it take on the dynamics of all the little things that make different B&W film desirable for setting tones and mood, it's called HDR editing and because the image you just edited into B&W is still a RAW file, you can save several exposures and use HDR editing to get the image to take on tones from Pan-X, Tri-X etc, types of film, and it's not that time consuming to do.

  • Online Shopping Centre

    May 6, 2009 02:34 am

    What a great tutorial, I had previously thought this kind of graphic work would be next to impossible. Thanks for sharing...

  • mark

    April 28, 2009 07:59 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial... recorded it as a macro for use on a bunch of images, and it worked a treat.

  • Neo

    April 17, 2009 05:52 am

    The fastest way with best results is of course Gradient Map.

  • jamie

    March 4, 2009 12:51 pm

    Since you mentioned Photoshop, Duo, Tri and Quadtone make much more creative b&w type photos.

  • Ken

    February 11, 2009 12:47 am

    Great article!

    "The truth is they do not need to equal 100%, they can actually equal whatever you want them to be, since the main goal is to make sure the photo looks the way you want it to look. "

    —This is fantastic to have read. I say this all the time, i.e. if the image looks the way you want it to, not much else matters.

    Ken

  • JimRocket

    September 27, 2008 11:02 am

    >> How do you leave a pop of color in the picture….for example a bold pink shirt with the rest bw? <<

    just found that piece of software on colorator.com that does just this. you can click on a color and everything except that color turns B/W. pretty cool.

  • Tampa Weddings

    August 4, 2008 12:19 am

    Great step by step guide. Black and white pictures are so elegant. Thanks for a great tutorial.

  • pichobbie

    June 30, 2008 06:14 pm

    PictureTheBatch can easily convert your images to Black & White or Sepia. And it also has many useful features.

    http://www.sharewarecheap.com/PictureTheBatch_software_1318.html

  • gillian

    May 28, 2008 07:36 am

    Bingo. That's what I want to know.

    Here's how I've been converting:
    Change to Lab Color. With channel palette open, drag "Layer b" to trash (remaining channels change names to Alpha 1 and Alpha 2), drag "Layer Alpha 2" to trash. Change image mode to greyscale. Easy peasy.

  • chris

    April 20, 2008 10:33 am

    Hi there,
    My question is this. Do you enhance your color photo (levels, curves etc.) before converting to B&W or do you just take the color image "as is" and convert to B&W?

  • AlaskaTeacher

    February 24, 2008 06:32 pm

    Thank you! Your step by step instructions were easy to follow and very helpful!

  • kiran kumar

    January 5, 2008 06:42 pm

    COVERT INTO COLORIMAGE

  • kiran kumar

    January 5, 2008 06:40 pm

    how to covert black & WHITE IMAGE INTO COLOR IMAGE WITH PHOTOSHOP

  • some guy

    December 29, 2007 04:55 am

    great tutorial. stupid comments below. i hate seeing a color shirt or whatever in a black+white image. it's not Schindler's List or something.

  • Beth

    December 18, 2007 11:54 am

    Where can i find a black and white filter? Photoshop Elements?

  • tina

    December 18, 2007 02:56 am

    How can i convert a black and white image to a color image?

  • disposable wedding cameras

    October 10, 2007 03:06 am

    i have to tell you that i just tried a filter and it works great

  • WEDDING CAMERAS

    September 25, 2007 04:44 am

    THE BEST WAY TO CONVERT TO BLACK & WHITE IS A TO USE FILTER

  • kay

    September 12, 2007 04:43 am

    Channel mixer and tweaking the curves is still king.

  • Disposable Wedding Cameras

    August 14, 2007 04:35 am

    I also like the features on Photoshop CS3.

  • nina

    July 31, 2007 11:47 pm

    i need it in black n white

  • Api

    July 16, 2007 01:18 pm

    How can i convert a color image to a black and white image using visual basic programming?

  • Nick

    June 4, 2007 09:38 am

    A better way that I discovered through tutorials and playing around is the following. There are two ways to do it, depending on what you want to leave in color.

    1.If you want to use your brush to "paint black and white around the image you want to LEAVE in color" use this one:

    Have your full-color photo as the base layer (this can be the background image if you want). Duplicate the layer and add a vector mask to your duplicate.

    VECTOR MASK: When your layers palette is open, below your layers you'll see an F in a circle (Add Layer Style) and to the right of that it's an icon with a circle inside a rectangle. THAT'S the vector mask.

    Once your duplicate layer has a vector mask on it, go back to your background image that is full-color. Go to Image, Adjustments and Desaturate to take all the color away. Now click on the part of your duplicate image that is NOT the image itself (this is the vector mask). Take your paint brush, making sure the color is black, and when you paint it, it will take the color away.

    BONUS: If you make a brush stroke that took away some color you meant to keep, change the brush's color to white and paint on that part to reverse it. That's the best feature of this one. If you make a bit of a mistake but don't realize until the end, you can fix it.

    2.If you want the image to be black and white and to use your brush to "bring the color back" just follow all the same steps but make your duplicate image the desturated one instead of the background.

    Enjoy.

  • Brandon Martinez

    May 19, 2007 03:13 pm

    Photoshop CS3 has a nice new addition for controlling Color -> B/W photos. You can essentially do everything the channel mixer would do, but it is built right into the a new menu called "black and white."

  • Timoty

    April 16, 2007 04:11 pm

    cool blog!

  • Hawk

    April 14, 2007 11:20 pm

    One other way to leave a bit of color in... see if your camera can do it. My Canon A620 has 'my colors' mode, which lets you swap or accent colors. I've found it to be particularly fun while taking pictures of places like construction sites, where it helps really bring out the machinery. I've found it can quickly turn a boring shot into an interesting one.

    The trick with the in-camera stuff seems to be finding a scene that isn't hugely colorful. If you tried to pick out just blue flowers at a botannical gardens for example, you might end up with the flower not blue enough, or the background getting some of the color in it, leaving everything washed with blue.

  • Jean

    April 4, 2007 04:07 pm

    The easiest way to accomplish this is to make use of layers...

    The original coloured image will be the base layer, while the black and white conversion is pasted as a new second layer...

    Then simply erase the parts of the black & white layer away to reveal the coloured areas you want to see & highlight...

    The finishes are upto you there after (opacity, feathering, etc)

  • Tyra

    March 25, 2007 01:47 pm

    i was wondering that to.

  • Kristi

    March 14, 2007 05:16 am

    How do you leave a pop of color in the picture....for example a bold pink shirt with the rest bw?

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