Post Processing Black and Whites

Post Processing Black and Whites


In this post Hawaii photographer Natalie Norton shares how she does her post processing on her black and white conversions.

Please ignore EVERYTHING in the images above other than the tones. I’d be much obliged.



I got an email recently from a reader (of my personal blog) named Cindy. She shared a few beautifully composed images she’d taken of her lovely twins. (All of this is posted with her permission, fyi).

Mad props to her just for keeping twin toddlers ALIVE let alone finding the time to photograph them so beautifully but I digress. . .

So ANYHOO, like I mentioned the composition of the images was lovely. I was not however in love with the processing . . . so I told her so. . . does that make me mean and awful. . . maybe, but I hope not, as that was not my intent. Anyway, I requested she send me the original files so I could process them differently and help her see what a difference “proper” processing (I say “proper” because clearly processing is highly subjective) can make. Cindy made the same mistake that many photographers make. . . We’ll call it the SEPIA SPLURGE. . . an image isn’t quite what you want it to be as far as tonality is concerned so you just whack it with a sepia action in post processing and call it a day.

In my opinion straight sepia was born and died in the 90’s. Sepia can make images look drab and dated and not in the vintage kind of way. . . in the kind of way that shouts 1999!!! AGAIN. . . I DIGRESS. Sheesh. Oh one more digression. . . if your interested in understanding the ACTUAL history of sepia tone, as it was not in fact literally born in the 90’s, click HERE, it’s quite interesting.

So here is Cindy’s original shot.

black and white post processing

There is NOTHING WRONG with this image. Truly. The moment she captured is genuine and sweet, the composition employs the rule of thirds and it also very balanced. It is a great shot as is. But now-a-days us digi-brains can’t resist our daily fix of post processing now can we? I sure can’t. So, here’s how Cindy ran her post processing:


Again there’s nothing wrong with this if you’re a sepia lover.

Some of you are loving it, which is totally and completely fine. That’s why cars are painted different colors! I for one am so glad i don’t have to drive a car that’s fire engine red . . . or hang a 20×30 sepia toned image in the middle of my living room for that matter! YAY! But if those are 2 life goals of yours. . . GO FOR IT! The sky’s the limit and you have my complete support. Truly.

Once I got my mitts on Cindy’s images I first had to choose my favorite which was a process in and of itself because I’m telling you this girl has composition down pat. From there I took the exposure up by a tiny tiny bit to light up the DARLING little girl’s face and then converted the original to plain old grayscale. . . black and white. You can do this in any and every editing software imaginable!

post processing black and white photography

Ok, so it’s nice, but it’s lacking some of that warmth from before. It’s a little bit too hard given the tenderness of the subject, no? Well, I say yes and since I’m the queen of the universe we’ll go with that. Final answer. So where was I. . . warmth, yes. So what do you do next? Well you convert your black and white image in to sepia, that’s what. And here’s what you get:

black and white post production

Uh oh, is it just me or are we pretty much right back to where we began with the Sepia Splurge? This is where your editing software comes into play. More and more recent versions of photo editing software are allowing you to play with the levels of the commands you run on your images. In Photoshop this is called OPACITY. In other editing software like newer versions of iphoto you can adjust how heavy the effect is as well. Any Picassa users like to pipe up and let us know if the newer versions allow for this as well?? (SIDE NOTE: I love Picassa. I used it EXCLUSIVELY as my ONLY editing software for nearly a year before I had a brief jaunt with Apple’s Aperture and then moved on to Photoshop CS3 back in March of this year. Picassa = magic. . . free, glorious, magic).

Back to the image. It looks pretty much like what we began with. So what we need to do is adjust the strength of the sepia we just applied. We need to tone it down until we find the amount of warmth and tone that looks best to us. I pulled mine down to 50% , and here’s the final result.

post production sepia

Here you can see the difference between the 3 modes of processing:

post production b&w

Above: Left= straight sepia as Cindy sent it to me. Center= basic black and white. Right= blend of both (remember black and white must always be UNDER the Sepia for this to work properly).

I have to close by mentioning again that post processing is very subjective. It all comes down to what you like (or what you’re client likes). I like this . . . well VERSION of sepia because it allows for the creaminess the sepia lends to my subject’s skin without giving my images SO MUCH TONE.

Natalie Norton is a wedding and portrait photographer who lives on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Visit her popular blog Pics and Kicks ( for more tutorials and samples of her work.

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Natalie Norton is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Yogendra November 27, 2009 09:45 pm

    i love the way you right as much as what you are writing!!

  • Roberto Suriguez November 25, 2009 12:23 am

    Your knowledge is huge. Thank you for your lessons.n Greetings fron Argentina!!

  • Becca September 25, 2009 07:08 am

    I just found you site and I will be back. I have been taking one on one classes and I have to tell you that I've learned more from your site today than all my classes. Needless to say I will be canceling them.
    Thanks again. Becca

  • MICHELE PHILLIPS June 20, 2009 01:52 am

    What a great explaination! I just wanted to say Thank you! I love the fact that you use actual photographs to show the differences in the changes you make to them. I'm a big fan of digital-photography-school and your Blog.

  • Tarah May 13, 2009 04:59 am

    I'm not sure if someone already posted how to do this in Picasa, but I think I've figured it out. 1) Convert image to B&W. 2) Convert to Sepia. 3) click on saturation and instead of increasing, decrease the saturation of the sepia to desired level. Voila!

  • Stephanie Wagner February 10, 2009 11:38 am

    I loved this post! Thanks! Here's how I did it in Photoshop Elements

  • SimoneBlog February 5, 2009 03:55 am

    I do a b/w photo in 5 steps...does it correctly? My Photoshop Tutorial

  • Red Sky Photography November 27, 2008 12:40 am

    Hey Nat!

    Can If rist of all apologise for Sunnyman's pathetic outbursts and attention seeking. For someone who clearly ISN'T a fan of your processing he manages to get a reply into every one of your tutorials. If yuo're reading this I think it best you just claim your undying love for Nat's photography style and finally let it out!

    LOL ahem! (musn't laugh at my own jokes!)

    ANYWAY.... Just wanted to say that I'm a professional photographer and I find myself coming back to your site time and time again to see what's new. Your articles are great but your pictures and composition are FANTASTIC! I'm sure you don't need me telling you but honestly, you have a way with people that cannot be taught in tutorials....your pictures prove this.

    Good luck Nat and keep up the good work .......and....if you get a love letter from Sunnyman don't be surprised!

    Rick from Ireland.

  • choet September 29, 2008 11:43 am

    Also really loved the initial composition. Cindy to a fabulous shot of her daughter - captured memories - the wonders of photography.

  • choet September 29, 2008 11:31 am

    Great information - absolutely helpful and loved the final composition.

  • Embassy Pro Books September 27, 2008 12:20 am

    Thanks for this information. I have a hard time sometimes with the post processing and posts like this really clear things up a bit.

  • Troy September 26, 2008 12:42 pm

    Great post as always Natalie! Keep up the great, informative tips and teaching. Great blog too, everyone should check it out if they havent. (And I think your writing style is awesome and fun, despite what some haters on here might say)

  • Carolyn September 26, 2008 08:34 am

    Great tip! I also second (fourth? Seventh?) the posters who requested more tutorials on playing with conversions to b&w rather than simply moving to greyscale and leaving it at that. I do a lot of rowing photography, and the detail of the boats, oars, and water splashing really lends itself to b&w so in that arena would be greatly appreciated.

  • Rosa Ramentol September 26, 2008 06:47 am

    does anyone know if you can you do this double process with the B&W and the sepia in picasa?

  • Da Goddess September 26, 2008 06:36 am

    I use Paint Shop Pro X2 and there's a great compromise to the "sepia/no sepia" argument, as well as the B&W conversion. Under the Effects tab is "Photo Effects" (third from bottom) and then "Time Machine". Within "Time Machine" is Platinum Processing. You can adjust the level of the effect to your liking or even the sepia if that's how you want to go, but I've found the tiny bit of warmth added from the Platinum effect to be just right, adjusting on the scale according to what works best for that image.

  • Janzil September 26, 2008 06:06 am

    Excellent article. I really like the final effect.the highlighting of the little girl's face completely lifts the pictures.
    Thanks for all the info....I look forward to more :-)

  • Pigapicha September 26, 2008 03:01 am

    Interesting but I love the original color photo, and find the post processing is not adding value. Wonderful flesh tones, and the pipe and faucet have more interest in color as well.

  • Chrsitine September 26, 2008 02:35 am

    Great article !! I always go like a blind when it's time to work with black and white photos and yours are pretty good ways to show what you can do... Love it!!

  • Jackie September 26, 2008 02:22 am

    This is great b/c I have had problems with black & white since digital appeared. Digital post-processing to B/W tends to look bluish - anyone else get aggravated w/ this problem? I've searched and tried almost everything out there, but it still turns out bluish. The above technique definitely does help the matter and I love the look, but I'm curious how to get true B/W from post-processing digitals - HELP! (notice the ALL CAPS ;-> ) My favorite medium is B/W, but digital-post is driving me crazy. I may post this in a forum for discussion... :-)

  • Gina September 26, 2008 12:53 am

    WOW! I'm so gald I have subcribed to this site. I have learned so many things and this was another. Thanks for describing everything you did in the each step. Keep em coming. Can't wait to try.

  • Heather September 26, 2008 12:18 am

    WOW! Great tip! I love the warmth! You're amazing!

  • Linda September 26, 2008 12:04 am

    I am very new to post processing and I love this..It is very informative and I I got a lot out of it. Thanks.

  • Brian September 25, 2008 11:54 pm

    You can get a similar effect (if you are shooting in raw and processing in ACR) by mostly desaturating an image.

  • Scott Fillmer September 25, 2008 09:58 pm

    SUPER tutorial on B&W and color balance.

  • Sunnyman September 25, 2008 08:47 pm

    Interesting reading... As Bill said, the writing style is not my favorite kind of style though.

    Personally, I sometimes do sepia toning in some way I can't quite explain right now, using Photoshop tools. (Sorry, I missed that I was being '90-ish).

    And yes, the very reason it IS an established post-processing technique is that it's been used since the 1800s for treating gelatin-silver prints and is commonly seen in vintage photographs. (Thanx for reminding me.)

    Maybe I'll write about sepia on My Blog - in MY way...

  • Garrett September 25, 2008 05:02 pm

    It was great to read this tutorial. I was working on a photo last week and had trouble finding a good sepia level without making it too "90's". Here's how it ended up:

  • Tom September 25, 2008 04:42 pm

    Great tutorial! Always wanted to add some warmth to some of my street photos, but it never really clicked that I could blend both. Well done.

    however, I think for a sepia photograph, cindy's was nice.
    I never do sepia, but I mean, for such a 90's style, it actually turned out pretty well.
    Great photos by cindy too. Timeless keepsake!

  • PPP September 25, 2008 04:37 pm

    Hmm, i like all the 3 images, but the 1st and 3rd PP images did it best.. there is something about the black n white that didn't quite do it for me.


    Rachel, in this digital age.. i'm sure $700 on THAT "advanced software" is something you could not have to part with... IM JUST SAYIN!! hehehe

  • Christina September 25, 2008 04:35 pm

    I second Bill, it reads like we're on Myspace. I do like the technique described, it's very clear. However, I don't get why it is b/w, is it just because we're all Photoshop junkies? Generally I think b/w images are like that because the lines are stronger than the colours, or because the subject calls for such an effect.

  • Rachel September 25, 2008 01:00 pm

    I'm so glad you said it's okay to use Picasa! Huge sigh of relief there. I'm just a beginner trying to learn the ropes on what I have until I can afford some more advanced software.

  • Richard September 25, 2008 09:56 am

    GREAT article! THANK YOU! You always deliver practical tips in the form of an interesting and exciting presentation! (How exciting can a blog get?) Keep em' coming!

  • lilia September 25, 2008 08:30 am

    I like the way she writes, it's as if she's speaking to you very excitedly :) One method of post processing I'd much prefer for tone/saturation changes is doing it in Adobe Camera Raw, (with a raw image to begin with though) That way you can heighten the saturation of some colors which will bring out the levels of certain colors as you covert the whole thing to black and white. It gives it much more punch and keeps things intact rather than putting it into grayscale.

    But that's for raw takers...

  • Janek September 25, 2008 08:21 am


    I'd like to respectfully suggest that the original image is the one to keep... The little colour details in that image add life to it that is lost in any of the monotone processed versions.

    Maybe brighten the face a touch as in the last processed example.

  • Jave September 25, 2008 06:35 am

    Informative post. Now I see that sepia and B&W are not so... well, black and white. ;)

    The one thing that bothered me, though, is how her arm appears rigid? Does anyone see that? The edges look like steps, apart from the rest of the photograph.

  • Addy September 25, 2008 05:44 am

    I love the 'grammar theatrics.' It gives a tone to the article. And, of course, I enjoyed the article too.

  • ellathinks September 25, 2008 04:42 am

    I like the images!Very interesting and it truly give ideas.I like most the black and white its an art.

  • Ed V. September 25, 2008 04:34 am

    Hi, Natalie--I'm using Picasa 3 beta, which does not have any control over the sepia strength, unlike most of its other filters. Also, Google spells "Picasa" with one "s", so I think they had better fix that in v4. :)

  • MikeStan September 25, 2008 04:05 am

    I second Bill's comment. I'm not a big fan of writing style that mimics happy-hour / pitcher of beer talk in a loud bar. It is actually a little exhausting to read (although humor is still much appreciated!)

    Natalie, I do support your anti-sepia mission though :)

  • ldd September 25, 2008 04:03 am

    I mean, I realize that you want us to look at the tones only, but the final result looks better for other reasons too, not just because it's semi-sepia.

  • ldd September 25, 2008 03:55 am

    Wait, there are other things different about the final photo other than the toning: the child's face is dramatically lighter relative to the rest of the photo, and more so than the prevous 'lightened' version, the blown-out parts of the shirt have been reduced, and the lower-right corner has been darkened as well.

  • Jeffrey September 25, 2008 03:45 am


    Excellent description of the process. You were really clear and explained every bit why you were doing any step.

    Thanks and keep it coming.

  • Nicholas Chase September 25, 2008 03:10 am


    I just subscribed to your blog today.

    Nicholas Chase here, I was 'the video guy' at BlogWorld Expo, who 'mistakenly' gave away the ML dinner with you and John Chow Shoemoney etc! Must have been brain fade on my part.

    I must have been sleep deprived, because that is the reason I went to BlogWorld, and donated my videography services to the management!

    Enjoyed speaking with you at Market Leverage dinner at Envy Steakhouse on Saturday @ BlogWorld Expo.

    Your presentation was informative and insightful. I blogged about the dinner here. Borrowed Zac Johnson's photo from his post.

    Your site is beautiful, I am an amateur photog, using old Sony gear, and a Canon A1 35mm with way too many lenses.

    Respectfully, Nicholas Chase

  • Bill September 25, 2008 02:47 am

    Very informative article, and an interesting technique, thank you Natalie.

    But, while we're being brutally honest...

    (and does this make me mean and awful? Maybe, but I hope not) addition to toning down the sepia, I recommend toning down the ALL CAPS and excalamations! in! YOUR! writing!

    You obviously have a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm -- so let that come through in your content; there's no need to shove it down your reader's throats with all the grammar theatrics. I felt like I was talking to a speed addict while reading this and it distracted me from your actual message (which as I said was very interesting).

    Just some friendly advice for future articles you write.

  • taryn September 25, 2008 02:38 am

    this was a great post! i'm going to go home and give it a whirl!

  • Robert Kuykendall September 25, 2008 02:17 am

    Lower sat ( instead of b/w ) + slight sepia is also a nice effect. I don't like 100% sepia, but I love the tool. In small doses, it does a lot.

  • Ricky September 25, 2008 02:08 am

    Very nice job, I always wanted to know how I could enchance my B&W photos, and now I know. I agree with the others, I would like to see more post processing ideas for B&W pictures.

  • Sime September 25, 2008 01:49 am

    @ The Wallbanger...

    "From there I took the exposure up by a tiny tiny bit to light up the DARLING little girl’s face and then converted the original to plain old grayscale"

  • Sime September 25, 2008 01:48 am

    I notice that my black and white, or indeed sepia processing is very dependant on my mood!.. If I'm happy it will be a less contrasty b+w conversion (Lightroom) whereas, if I'm in a darker mood, it's a high contrast black and white conversion with tons of extra contrast... weird, but there you have it.

  • The Wallbanger September 25, 2008 01:39 am

    Did you lighten the child's face in that last photo? Or was that just natural through the black & white conversion?

  • Navneeth September 25, 2008 01:39 am

    I’d love to see some more ideas for B&W post-proc. I’m completely out of my element when playing around in this area. I’ll literally pull open an image I like into CS3 and just start pulling sliders around with little idea of what I’m doing!

    I hear ya!

  • Smitty September 25, 2008 01:17 am

    I'd love to see some more ideas for B&W post-proc. I'm completely out of my element when playing around in this area. I'll literally pull open an image I like into CS3 and just start pulling sliders around with little idea of what I'm doing!

    Anyway, thanks for the great ideas and candid narrative. I hope to see more posts from Natalie.