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Tips for Processing Black and White Images in Photoshop


If you’re a lover of black and white imagery (like many of us photographers are), then you are probably aware of the many, many options there are for you to convert your images to black in white in Photoshop (and other software packages). Conversion is only the first step in processing black and white images. Once you have gotten rid of the color in your photos, you will still want to control and manage the tones in your images to get the best results possible. This article will introduce you to a few of these Photoshop tools that you can use to create images with impact.

Tools for processing black and white images in Photoshop

Global/Local Adjustments

Before jumping straight into the list of tools, it is important to differentiate between two different types of adjustments you can make to your images.

Global Adjustments – Global adjustments are adjustments that affect the entire image. For example, if you use the contrast slider in Lightroom, it alters the contrast in the entire image.

Global adjustments in processing black and white images.

As a global adjustment, this curves layer that was meant to bring down the highlights has affected the whole image and not in a pleasant way.

Local Adjustments – Local adjustments are made to specific areas of an image that you define. For example, you can adjust the contrast for a portrait subject’s eyes and the contrast for their shirt separately.

Local adjustments in processing black and white images.

Using a layer mask allowed for a local adjustment, meaning the curves layer only affected the mid-tones surrounding the subject’s face.

What this means for your images

These distinctions are important because, in most cases, you will want to avoid profound global adjustments on your images. Most photos are made of scenes of different elements. If you think of this in terms of portraiture, imagine a person standing against a studio backdrop, such as the image below.

Isolating areas of tonality in processing black and white images.

Dividing an image into areas of tonality and then making adjustments to those areas separately, gives you complete control over your images.

Here, you can divide the image up into several parts. You have the subject’s skin, eyes, shirt, hair, and background. Each of these elements reacts differently to various adjustments. By using global adjustments, you will alter the appearance of these elements at the same time.

For example, if you want to increase the contrast of the shirt by a large amount to help bring out the texture, then you will also be increasing the contrast of the subject’s skin. As a general guide, you usually don’t want to increase contrast on skin. More often than not, you will want to reduce it.

How do you go about increasing the contrast of a shirt while reducing contrast on the skin at the same time? Through the use of local adjustments.

Tools for applying local adjustments

There are a lot of ways to apply local adjustments to your images in Photoshop. Here is a primer on a handful of them.

The right tool for the job depends entirely on the job at hand. By learning how to use several of these options, you will arm yourself with a variety of ways to use local adjustments while processing black and white images.

Remember, this is an introduction to the various tools that you can use and not a full tutorial.

Layer masks

Layer masks are probably the easiest and most common way to get started with local adjustments in Photoshop. If you’re not already familiar with how to use this powerful yet intrinsic aspect of Photoshop, I strongly encourage you to spend some time reading up on and practicing using them as soon as possible.

A layer mask effectively blocks an adjustment layer (masks it) from affecting parts of the image that you don’t want it to.

Using layer masks in processing black and white images

Layer masks will help you to isolate specific areas of your image that you want to make adjustments to. Here, the subject’s hat is darkened.

In the example above, I made a Curves adjustment layer and filled the layer mask with black. Using a white brush (B) set to 100% opacity, I painted (with the layer mask clicked) over the subject’s eyes. Now, no matter what I do with the curves layer, it will only affect the area that I painted white in the layer mask.

Using this technique, you can create as many Curves adjustment layers as you want (or any other type of adjustment layer) with each one only affecting specific parts of the image.  This way, you are able to treat each element in your image with individual care.

Using layer masks in processing black and white images.

Here, you can see three separate curves layers with their own masks. Each one is doing a different job separately from the other. The first two are darkening areas of the image, while the top on is lightening the background.

Select Color Range

While you are working with your layer masks, it can sometimes feel tricky, or downright difficult, to separate specific areas of an image to work with. One technique that is useful in this situation is the Select Color Range tool (Select->Color Range). This tool works very well when trying to select skin and skies.

Select color range tool in processing black and white images.

Here, you can see what the Select Color Range tool will add to your selection when you click on the brightest part of the image and set the fuzziness slider to max.

Opening this tool will present you with a means to select a specific color range in your images that you can then apply to your layer masks. Because we are talking about processing black and white images, instead of selecting colors, you will be selecting a tonal range.

With the dialogue box open, simply click an area in your image that you want to select to work on. You can now use the slider labeled Fuzziness to adjust how much of the image within that range you wish to select. If you only want the very brightest highlights selected, click on the brightest part of your image and drag the fuzziness slider to the left. With the selection made, you can now create any adjustment layer and Photoshop will turn that selection into a layer mask.

Luminosity masks

For a far more complex option, you can use Luminosity masks.

There are a variety of ways to set these up inside Photoshop and with third-party plug-ins, so do be sure to research the various ways to go about it. Luminosity masks give you a ludicrous amount of fine control for processing your black and white images.

Luminosity masks in processing black and white images.

This is an example of what Luminosity Masks might look like when setting up in your images. I made the selection here with the ‘Light Lights’ mask. With all of these options to easily select specific tonal ranges, you should be able to see how powerful this is.

In brief, Luminosity masks grant you the ability to create layer masks for every tonal range in your image. They allow you independent control over the brightest of highlights, the darkest of shadows and everything in between. With this amount of control, you can fine-tune every part of your image to your heart’s content.

One word of warning though: leaving the Luminosity masks in your files results in very large file sizes. Consider deleting them before you save your images.

Tools for controlling tones

Now that you have a few options for selecting and isolating the various parts and tones of your images, there is a large selection of tools that you can use to manipulate the tonality (and other aspects) of your images.

Selective Color

The Selective Color adjustment layer is, probably, the easiest of these tools to get to grips with. Once you’ve created the layer, all that you have to do is find the drop-down box and choose either: whites, neutrals or blacks. (Because this article is discussing black and white images, you can discard all of the color options for now.)

Selective color in processing black and white images.

With the Selective Color tool, you have a fair degree of control over your highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Just move the Black slider in the relevant box. This doesn’t give the amount of control that other methods do, but it’s quick and intuitive.

With any of those three options selected, find the slider labeled ‘Black’ at the bottom of the dialogue box. Dragging this slider to the right will darken the relevant tones. Dragging it to the left will lighten them. Do this with all three (whites, neutrals, blacks) for every part of your image, and you will have a great deal of control over the tonality of your images with very little effort.

As a bonus, if you’re still getting to grips with Layer Masks, the fact that the Selective Color tool adjust the highlights, mid-tones and Shadows independently within the dialogue box, means that you have a bit of local control over those three tonal ranges without having to use a layer mask at all.


The powerful Curves adjustment layer is another Photoshop staple that you should learn inside out early on.

By manipulating the curve in the dialogue box, you will gain absolute control over every minute aspect of contrast and tonal range in your image. Combine this tool with Layer Masks, and you have a solution that will get you through most situations.

Curves in processing black and white images.

Here you can see the image before I applied the Curves layer.


Curves in processing black and white images.

After applying the slightest of S curves, you can see just how much a difference was made to the image.


In terms of processing black and white images, the Curves tool will allow you to increase or reduce contrast as you see fit. Because it is a complicated tool with a lot of nuances (it will take a fair amount of time for you to get to grips with it beyond a simple S curve), do spend plenty of time practicing and reading up on how to get the most out of this tool.

Gradient Map

The Gradient Map tool is another complicated, but powerful, option for controlling the tones in your images. You can use the Gradient Map to do the actual conversion of your image to black and white, but that’s only the start. Note, that you can use the Gradient Map after you’ve done a conversion using any other method and that is what is being described here.

In the Gradient Editor (with the black and white gradient selected) you have a few options. Click on the slider at either side (the black or the white) and a mid-tone marker will appear. Dragging this left or right will adjust the position of the gradient and it will have a drastic effect on how the tones in your image appear.

Gradient map in processing black and white images.

With the black and white gradient selected in the Gradient Editor, you can see that there has already been a huge increase in contrast.

If you click anywhere in the middle of the gradient in the gradient editor, it will add another marker that you can use to set the tonal point anywhere in the gradient. This also gives you new midpoint markers between these points. Using these tools, you can control the contrast in the various parts of your images’ tonality in one fell swoop.

Gradient map in processing black and white images.

Circled in red, you can see the midpoint slider that will allow you to position the position of the gradient in terms of the tones in your image. Underlined, you can move these slider to control where the black and white point of the gradient starts. Move these inwards to increase contrast.

Combine these options with Layer Masks and you have yet another powerful tool that gives you complete control over how your final black and white images turn out.

Gradient map in processing black and white images.

By adding a third point in the gradient, you can control the exact tone that appears. It also gives you two midpoint sliders to play with.

The end

Tools for processing black and white images in Photoshop

Alongside other retouching tools, using these tools (on their own or in concert with one another) can give you a great deal of fine control over your black and white images.

With these tools, you should see that you have a lot of options when it comes to processing black and white photos after the conversion process. By taking full control of the tonality of your black and white images, you will be able to create images with plenty of impact and fine-tuned contrast. It’s important to note that the concept of local adjustments applies to a lot more than tonality and you can use them for any type of adjustment you can think of in Photoshop. For example, you can sharpen an area of fine detail (like hair) in your image for emphasis without applying that to your subject’s skin.

Do you have any other tips for processing black and white images in Photoshop? If so, please share them with us in the comments. Also, please try these methods out and share your resulting images with us in the comments section.

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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