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How to do Great Black and White Conversions Using Photoshop


Some photos that you take you’ll want to convert to black and white. Photoshop has some tools that you can use to convert your photos to black and white and I’ll show you what these are and the best way to do the conversion.

Why you should shoot in color and convert to black and white

If your camera saves photos as jpeg images, even if it can capture in black and white, it’s advisable to avoid this setting and instead shoot in color and convert later. The reason is that when you capture in jpeg and have the camera set to black and white, all the color information is discarded when the image is saved and you can never get it back. So you will only ever have a black and white image. On the other hand if you capture in color you will have the choice to convert the photo to black and white, but you will also have a color image in case you decide it looks better that way.

Black and white conversions in Photoshop

You have a couple of choices when converting to black and white in Photoshop. You can desaturate the image by choosing Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. This removes the color from the image but you have no control over how it is converted.


A better way to convert an image is to use a black and white adjustment layer. So choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White and click Ok to create the new adjustment layer.


When the Properties dialog appears you will see sliders for red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta. You can use these to control how the colors in the photo are converted. Drag a color slider to the left to darken areas in the image which are that tone and drag to the right to lighten them.


In some cases you may see little or no change when you drag a slider – this will happen if there is little or none of that color in the image.

The sliders allow you to create a custom black and white conversion for your photo and you can also adjust how similar value colors are converted. In this image the girl’s pink shirt and the green background convert to a similar shade of grey – but adjusting the green slider to the left darkens the background and creates a more pleasing black and white image.


In addition to adjusting the sliders you can also use the targeted adjustment tool by clicking its icon in the Properties panel (circled in red below). You can then click on a specific area of the image and then drag to the left or to the right to adjust the color under the eyedropper. Drag to the left to darken the color, and to the right to lighten it. You should be aware, that this will, of course, adjust every occurrence of that color in the image, not just the area of color underneath your cursor.


As you adjust the sliders take care to avoid dragging adjacent sliders in completely opposite directions. You are adjusting colors which are likely to be found in close proximity to each other in opposite directions – making one color light and the other dark. The risk is that you will create areas of mottled darks and lights in the image which won’t be aesthetically pleasing as in this image below:


Instead, adjust adjacent sliders so their values are closer to each other for a smoother and more pleasing result as in this next image:


There are also presets options available from the Properties dialog that you can use as a quick start converting your image to black and white. Click a preset in the list to apply it. If you find one you like you can use it as is, or continue to adjust the sliders to fine tune the result.


Although you can apply this black and white conversion directly to the image using Image > Adjustments > Black and White, I suggest you use the adjustment layer method instead. The reason for this is that, when you use an adjustment layer you can double click the adjustment layer thumbnail to fine tuning the result at any time.

If you apply the adjustment as an adjustment layer you can blend it into the image below by reducing its opacity. Here I reduced the opacity of the black and white adjustment to reveal some of the original color image to give an almost hand tinted look to this image.


You can also, as I will explain below, add multiple black and white adjustment layers and use the built in masks to control how each adjustment layer affects the image.

Tinting a black and white image

The Black and White Adjustment Layer Properties dialog also gives you the option of tinting the black and white image. To do this click the Tint button and click the color selector which allows you to choose a color to tint the image. Choosing a bright color will result in a brighter and more colorful tint and choosing a darker color will give a more subtle tone to the image.


Multiple black and white adjustments

Occasionally you may want to treat two areas of similar color in a photo in different ways. For example you may have an image that has a blue sky as well as other elements which are also blue. If you adjust the image using a single black and white adjustment layer all the blues in the image will be converted to a similar grey value and this may not be the effect that you want.

When you need to adjust two areas of similar color in an image in different ways you can apply two separate black and white adjustment layers. To do this, add the first black and white adjustment layer and use it to adjust the image the way you want it to look for one area of color. In this example I’ve adjusted the top of the image.


Then add a second black and white adjustment layer to the image. At this point you may notice that making changes using the second adjustment layer has no effect on the image at all. This is to be expected – a black and white adjustment layer won’t have any effect when applied over the top of what is basically a black and white image. You can change this behavior by selecting the new adjustment layer and choose Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options. From the Knockout dropdown list select Deep and then click Ok.


Now you can use the new black and white adjustment layer to fine tune the image. In this case I used it to adjust the image so the bottom part looked the way I wanted it.


To finish the image you can blend the two adjustments using the masks on one or both adjustment layers.

For this example I targeted the mask on the topmost adjustment layer and filled it with a black to white linear gradient using the Gradient tool. I dragged down at an angle across the middle of the image so the gradient would follow the angle of the sign. The result is that the top most black and white adjustment layer no longer has any effect on the topmost part of the image (the mask is black in that area).


This process has allowed me to convert two areas of the photo, both of which contain a similar blue color to different tones of gray, one light and one dark.

If you prefer to watch a video showing these adjustments see below for the same steps:

This second video shows how to craft custom black and white images in Photoshop:

For tips on using Lightroom for your black and white conversions try these:

Do you have any other tips for black and white conversion using Photoshop?

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Helen Bradley
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.

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