Removing Partial Color from a Photo: Photoshop Techniques - Digital Photography School

Removing Partial Color from a Photo: Photoshop Techniques

While there are lots of ways that you can convert an image into black and white in Photoshop sometimes you want to remove some of the color but not all of it.

One method to do this, is to use a tool such as an adjustment layer to remove the saturation from the image or to apply a black to white gradient map adjustment. This removes all the color and you can then recover some of it by reducing the opacity of the adjustment layer to show some of color from the image layer underneath. However, when you adjust opacity, the setting is applied to every pixel in the image so light and dark pixels are treated equally.

You can achieve a richer effect by using the image as its own mask so that the desaturation effect is applied with different strengths to pixels in the image depending on their relative lightness or darkness.

To see how this effect can be achieved:

Step 1

apply-image_step1.jpg

Open a new image and add an adjustment layer to convert it to black and white. I used Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map and used the Black, White gradient from the basic set of gradients.

Step 2

apply-image_step2.jpg

Click the Adjustment Layer’s layer mask to select it – this is the white box in the Layer palette to the right of the Adjustment layer thumbnail. Choose Image > Apply Image. This tool lets you apply the image to itself as a layer mask. The current image name should appear in the Source Image area and you need to apply it to the Merged layer. Experiment with selecting and deselecting the Invert checkbox, if you have Preview selected you’ll see how each setting affects the image. Choosing Invert typically gives the best looking results and it’s the option I chose. Click Ok to add the image as its own layer mask.

Step 3

apply-image_step3.jpg

Inspect the image and let’s talk about what’s happening. The screenshot here shows the mask (not the resulting image). You can toggle the mask’s visibility on and off by Alt + Click (Option + Click on the Mac) on the Layer Mask thumbnail in the Layers palette.

Masks are grayscale so they’re always black, white or shades of gray. They work like this: where they are white, the current layer is shown – that’s the black and white conversion in this example. Where the mask is black, we are seeing through the current layer to the colored layer below. Where the mask is grey we’re seeing some partial transparency in the black and white layer so some color is showing.

Here the mask is dark in the sky area and around two of the buildings on the left so you’re seeing some blue in the sky and color in the buildings in this area. Where the mask is white, the image is almost all desaturated.

apply-image_step4.jpg

So you can see how subtly different the results are using this method, here’s the original image, the version we just created using the Apply Image command and another version showing the result with the same Gradient Map adjustment layer but this time with a reduced opacity and no layer mask. The significant differences are in the sky which is bluer and the grass which is more desaturated in our example – a result you cannot achieve by simply adjusting the opacity.

Tip

Masks can be adjusted just like regular layers. So, you can create more variety in the mask by clicking on it, and choose Image > Adjustments > Levels. Adjust the levels to suit – if you lighten the mask you’ll make it whiter overall which means the image will become more black and white and less colorful. If you darken the mask then you will see more of the colored image below.

If you are curious to learn more about the Gradient Map adjustment layer, check out this recent post on Gradient Maps for more on how it works and how to use it.

Read more from our Post Production category.

Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at Projectwoman.com.

  • http://www.tanyaplonka.com Tanya Plonka

    I love the feel of this technique, and it’s definitely something I wouldn’t have thought of. Thanks!

    p.s. The gradient tool in Lightroom is even better :)

  • vsa

    If you’re in a hurry you can just go to the channels tab and ctrl click one of the (r,g,b) channels to load that as a selection and apply it to the adjustment layer mask. For black & white photo I’d use the “Black & White” adjustment layer instead of gradient map.

    I often use this mask technique with curves adjustment layers to gain more control over the darks and lights of the photo. Obviously it’ll work the same with every other kind of adjustment layers.

    On a sidenote: You can shift click the layer mask thumbnail to turn it off and on.

  • http://www.newmediaphotographer.com new media photographer

    It’s amazing how many different ways you can do the same thing. I’ll have to try this out.

    Rosh

  • Granger

    I like this idea. If you want a little more flexibility with your black and white conversion options do this. Put a hue and saturation adjustment UNDER your gradient map conversion. Now adjust your hue and you can change the channel emphasis in your black and white conversion. Or go to one of the selective colors to just target that color for adjustment. Its actually every bit as easy. But I really like the gradient bw conversion because of the targeted contrast that you can achieve.

  • http://scrapmuss.blogspot.com/ Maria

    Thanks for the tip!
    I usually duplicate the layer, desaturate it and them play with opacity and blending modes (overlay, soft light, etc.)

  • Haley Allen

    Thanks for this – Could you offer an explanation of how to do this in the GIMP for those of us who are too poor to get Photoshop (legally)?

  • rod fermin

    The results are amazing!!! thanks very much. ou’ve been a great help. More power!

  • http://www.iiiyaaa.com Amanda

    Thank you, this helps, I have this problem with pictures from a vacation…need to try it out!

  • http://www.aperfectfool.com Codswallop

    Great idea, but the explanation is terrible. I don’t usually have trouble with DPS explanations, but I found this unusable.

  • http://www.projectwoman.com Helen Bradley

    Hi Codswallop..

    I’m sorry you are finding this tutorial unusable. Perhaps if you tell me which step it is that the process is causing you problems I can offer some additional help or more explanation?

    Helen

  • karis

    how do i change a color to b/w then select a particular area to be color?

  • monik

    this is a really good tip!
    but can u explain it a little bit better..
    and if you can explain it how to do it in GIMP it would be amazing..
    thanx

  • Amy

    Does this work with photoshop elements 6?

  • http://www.flickr.com/36photos/veloipauma Steven Kaikai

    Thanks so much will try this techniques.

Some older comments

  • Steven Kaikai

    July 7, 2013 03:32 pm

    Thanks so much will try this techniques.

  • Amy

    March 25, 2011 01:02 pm

    Does this work with photoshop elements 6?

  • monik

    June 26, 2009 02:40 am

    this is a really good tip!
    but can u explain it a little bit better..
    and if you can explain it how to do it in GIMP it would be amazing..
    thanx

  • karis

    May 21, 2009 03:26 pm

    how do i change a color to b/w then select a particular area to be color?

  • Helen Bradley

    March 14, 2009 08:20 am

    Hi Codswallop..

    I'm sorry you are finding this tutorial unusable. Perhaps if you tell me which step it is that the process is causing you problems I can offer some additional help or more explanation?

    Helen

  • Codswallop

    March 14, 2009 07:37 am

    Great idea, but the explanation is terrible. I don't usually have trouble with DPS explanations, but I found this unusable.

  • Amanda

    February 7, 2009 10:34 am

    Thank you, this helps, I have this problem with pictures from a vacation...need to try it out!

  • rod fermin

    February 5, 2009 07:12 pm

    The results are amazing!!! thanks very much. ou've been a great help. More power!

  • Haley Allen

    February 5, 2009 03:29 pm

    Thanks for this - Could you offer an explanation of how to do this in the GIMP for those of us who are too poor to get Photoshop (legally)?

  • Maria

    February 5, 2009 03:10 pm

    Thanks for the tip!
    I usually duplicate the layer, desaturate it and them play with opacity and blending modes (overlay, soft light, etc.)

  • Granger

    February 4, 2009 09:15 am

    I like this idea. If you want a little more flexibility with your black and white conversion options do this. Put a hue and saturation adjustment UNDER your gradient map conversion. Now adjust your hue and you can change the channel emphasis in your black and white conversion. Or go to one of the selective colors to just target that color for adjustment. Its actually every bit as easy. But I really like the gradient bw conversion because of the targeted contrast that you can achieve.

  • new media photographer

    February 4, 2009 02:03 am

    It's amazing how many different ways you can do the same thing. I'll have to try this out.

    Rosh

  • vsa

    February 3, 2009 11:51 pm

    If you're in a hurry you can just go to the channels tab and ctrl click one of the (r,g,b) channels to load that as a selection and apply it to the adjustment layer mask. For black & white photo I'd use the "Black & White" adjustment layer instead of gradient map.

    I often use this mask technique with curves adjustment layers to gain more control over the darks and lights of the photo. Obviously it'll work the same with every other kind of adjustment layers.

    On a sidenote: You can shift click the layer mask thumbnail to turn it off and on.

  • Tanya Plonka

    February 3, 2009 09:06 am

    I love the feel of this technique, and it's definitely something I wouldn't have thought of. Thanks!

    p.s. The gradient tool in Lightroom is even better :)

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