12 Ways to Make a Black & White Photo

Several weeks ago, one of my readers asked me if I shoot my photos in black & white or if I convert the color images afterward. I replied back that I do all my black & white conversion during post processing. I also made the statement that there are about a dozen ways to turn a color photo into a black & white photo using Photoshop (or another editing tool). They took my comment about the “dozen ways” seriously and said they were interested in learning about them… or maybe they were just giving me a hard time.

Even so, I thought it would be a good challenge to find 12 ways of doing black & white conversion. I had original intentions of writing my own tutorial for each method, but I soon realized that it would be too much information to cover in one post. So instead, I’ve rounded up links to these methods — why repeat the work? So here they are, in my order of preference:

  1. Layers From Channels – This is probably my favorite way of making a black & white. It offers the most control over the image, but it can be very time consuming.
  2. CS3 B&W Adjustment – I love this tool for evaluating if a photo has that black & white potential. This method is an extension of the channel mixer, it just has more channels to play with. The nice thing is that it has a list of presets that you can quickly scroll through to give you some ideas on where to go with the photo.
  3. Channel Mixer – This is another great tool for evaluating the photo, but not as flexible as the B&W Adjustment tool. Before CS3, I would use this for quite a few of my photos as a starting point.
  4. Hue-Saturation – I don’t typically use this, but it’s pretty quick and easy. It also gives you a bit of control over how each color contributes to the black & white output.
  5. LAB Color – This one is fairly painless, and it just involves duplicating some channel information from a different color mode. It really works well for some photos, but not for others.
  6. Calculations – Most people don’t know about this tool, but it’s there. It gives you control over combining channels and their blending modes.
  7. Gradient Map – Real quick and easy method, but doesn’t offer the amount of control as the previous methods.
  8. Desaturate – One of the simplest methods used, but often creates photos that lack punch.
  9. Grayscale – Another simple method, but also produces poor contrast black & whites.
  10. In Camera – Some cameras offer black & white photos, but I would shy away from this. You’ll have much more control over output if you grab all the colors and work with them on the computer.
  11. Threshold – Some photos can pull this one off, but not many. You’ll end up with black and white only — no grays. Good for abstract work, and creates a very bold image.
  12. Plugins – I don’t use any plugins for conversion, but I know there are a few out there. The strong point for these is that they offer fairly complex conversions with a simple interface.

I can’t say that one single method will work for every photo, because every photo is different and photography is somewhat subjective. I might go through 4 or 5 of these methods before I even pick one and really start to work on it — if I pick just one. You can find ways to mix and match parts of each method to give you what you’re looking for. These conversion methods are also just a starting point. I end up doing a lot of levels and curves adjustments, masking, dodging, burning, and layer blending. Everything I do is done in adjustment layers or duplicated layers — that way I can always go back in time or compare two outputs.

So if you’re a master of the “desaturation” or “convert to grayscale” methods, maybe it’s time to step up to some new stuff. Revisit your old black & white conversions (as long as you kept the color images) and try some new methods. You’ll be amazed at the difference. The photo below was created using the Photoshop CS3 Black & White Adjustment. I used higher levels of green and yellow, lower levels of blue and cyan, and mid-range levels of red and magenta. After that, I did a little curves adjustment for more contrast. Then I duplicated the output 3 times and blended at various fill levels using “screen” and “color burn” to deepen the highlights and shadows.

Photo of the Day…

Old Mill

Photo by Brian Auer
09/04/05 Clinton, NJ
The Old Clinton Mill
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3
35mm equiv * f/4 * 1/80s * ISO50

This entry was posted in Features, Photoshop Tips, Roundup on by .

About Brian Auer

a photography enthusiast from North Idaho. He's also the guy behind the Epic Edits Weblog. As a hobbyist photographer since 2003, his passion has been to constantly improve his photography skill set, to share his own knowledge with others, and to become an integral part of the photographic community.

16 thoughts on “12 Ways to Make a Black & White Photo

  1. inspirationbit

    So which method did you use to turn the Old Mill photo to b&w? And also I really liked that other b&w photo of yours – Three Bridges (you chose an amazing angle to shoot from), how did you convert that one?

  2. Brian Auer Post author

    For the old mill photo I used the CS3 Black & White Adjustment — see the last paragraph in the post for more details.

    The other photo (I’m assuming the shot of the tree?) was also done with the CS3 Black & White Adjustment. That one had higher levels of yellow, midrange levels of green and red, and low levels of blue, cyan, and magenta. Then I did a curves adjustment, duplicated the output 3 times and did a screen blend and a linear burn blend, with some masking on the screen blend to keep the sky from being blown out too badly. So, much the same way this one was done.

    I’m finding that this method I’ve just described is really starting to grow on me. It’s fast to do and you have lots of control over the tones.

  3. inspirationbit

    Thanks very much for the prompt reply, Brian. I really like the outcome so will try using your methods from now on.

    One suggestion: I think if you add a Tutorials section to your blog and add some step-by-step Photoshop tutorials (like converting to b&w photos, using your steps above) – it will bring lots of traffic to your site. People like me love tutorials. :-)

  4. Pingback: The Top 5 Black & White Photography Tips

  5. laura k

    Came to your page by way of a link from a PhotoShop class I’m taking online and immediately recognized the mill in Clinton (photo at the end of your post). I grew up in the area, and my parents’ new house is right down the street. I’m not sure why it surprises me to see it – the mill shows up any time there’s a photo related to NJ (puzzles, calendars, tourism website), but it still always blows my mind. Cool to see it again! It’s been a year or so since I’ve been down there.

  6. Brian Auer Post author

    Clinton is a great little town, as are many other places in New Jersey. I lived in Flemington for a few years, but I recently moved to San Diego — so no more Clinton Mills for me either.

  7. Voos Baratos

    I have been doing some black and whites on my camera, but later I started doing them again on Photoshop. Sometimes I regret not having a great pic in colors! Thanks for the tips!

  8. Vasilis

    Photoshop i a great tool to turn a photo to B&W i use gradient map and few plugins i download from the web.

    Thank you for the extra tips.

  9. Rymdgreven

    Hi! Nice collection of B/W-ways.
    I wonder what You think is the best way to send an image to a black-and-white ad?
    Say I have created a beautiful image with the CS3 BW-tool. What to do next?
    Today, I usually use #2 followed by #9. Do You have any ideas of a better way to make it BW (not RGB or CMYK – just Grayscale) for best appearance in the press?
    Cheers / Rymdgreven

  10. Lange

    I read another post on in-camera B&W that actually made sense. Earlier, like you i have not used the incamera B&W because of control and actually having the picture _in color_ too.

    Then, seeing the results immediately on the screen, getting that kind of feedback can, and I think; will improve your B&W skills. I think they differ from shooting in color.

  11. Eric Luden

    As i dedicated B&W fan, I am always encouraged to see people writing about this topic. Our tagline at my company Digital Silver Imaging is “The Art of Black & White in a Digital World”. We have found that the Nik Software Silver Efex pro provides the most reliable conversion. Our core business is b&w printing from digital files onto true silver based papers. i can assure you that we have tested many conversion methods and have found the Silver Efex to be consistent in the conversions and that it provides, as you mention, a very easy to use interface plus a host of tools to recreate the look and feel of a true silver print. Once you pair that with our B&W silver printing, you get great results.
    I would encourage your readers to look at their site and try the 15 day free trial of their software. We sell it at 25% off if anyone’s interested after the free trial.

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