PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white

josh fassbind | photography 101

There are many ways of converting a picture to black & white and I don’t believe one is better than the other. You just have to find what works and produces the best results for you.

Here are some of these techniques that I applied to a picture of myself for better demonstration.


1. IN CAMERA

Most cameras today —DSLRs and point & shoots — allow you to shoot directly in black & white by changing a setting in the menu. Although probably the easiest method, I wouldn’t recommend this as all the camera does is desaturate the original color image.

2. GRAYSCALE

The grayscale method is once again, very similar to the desaturate. What you are actually doing when applying this technique is changing the whole colorspace of the photo from RGB (Red, Green, Blue) to Grayscale thus resulting, once again, in a gray photo lacking contrast.

PHOTO 101: Photoshop grayscale menu

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Color photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Grayscale

3. DESATURATE

Done in Photoshop (or some other post-processing software), this is basically the same as above. All it those is remove all color information from the image. This leaves you with a rather flat, gray picture still needing quite a bit of work.

PHOTO 101: Photoshop desaturate menu

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Color photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Desaturated photo

4. CHANNEL MIXER

Now we are getting into the more effective and interesting black & white techniques. The channel mixer is probably the most popular method to achieve nice black & white photos. What is happening here is that you are affecting the output (making brighter or darker) of every single color resulting in better contrasts. There are two ways to get to the channel mixer. One is through your adjustments menu and the other is through your adjustments pannel. The former is destructive, the latter is not. Fool around with the different sliders until you achieve your desired result. There is no secret recipe, it’s all about trial and error.

PHOTO 101: Photoshop Channel Mixer Menu

PHOTO 101: Photoshop Channel Mixer Adjustment Panel

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Color photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Channel mixer

5. LAB

Another great method is to use the LAB channels to convert your image to black & white. What we are doing is selecting the LAB colorspace and isolate the A & B channels to retain the Lightness channel only. Start by switching your colorspace from RGB to LAB. Then, go to your channels pannel and select the Lightness channel. Now go back and convert your colorspace to grayscale. This will isolate channels A & B. Come back to your layers pannel and your picture is converted to black & white.

PHOTO 101: LAB in Photoshop

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Color photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | LAB

6. PLUGINS

Last and not least, is my favorite option for converting my pictures to black and white. I use a plugin by Nik Software called Silver Efex. It allows you to control a lot of aspects and especially specific zones in your picture to produce stunning black and whites.

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Color photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Silver Efex

As a conclusion I would say it is important to find a solution that suits your needs.

Here are the 5 different outputs again so you can see them side by side.

PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Grayscale PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Desaturated photo PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Channel mixer PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | LAB PHOTO 101: Converting to black & white | Silver Efex

I hope you enjoyed this and feel free to add a method or ask a question in the comments.

Cheers!

3 Responses

  1. David Lawson
    2011-04-19

    Josh, thank you for your very clearly explained recommendations with the helpful illustrations. I was not aware of the LAB channels or the plug-in options so I will certainly try these. It appears that unfortunately if we want to take black & white photography we will have to grapple with the RGB channels. As the camera sensors all have an RGB mask I see no way around this. Shooting in b&w seems to require a lot of channel mixing work to achieve acceptable results. One suggestion I came across was to use Adobe Camera Raw V6.3 and optimize the image in colour before using the ACR ‘convert to greyscale’ feature. Further toning of the image if necessary could then be performed in Photoshop. I wonder if you see this as a feasible option especially when we may have many images to convert to b&w? Many thanks.
    David

    Reply
  2. josh
    2011-04-19

    David,

    I always work on my color images before converting them to B&W. I personally wouldn’t recommend going the grayscale way but as I wrote in the post, it’s whatever works for you. I do, however, always tweak my converted image by playing with the curves and levels adjustments. I want my blacks to be as deep as possible and my whites as bright as possible. Both retaining some detail, of course!

    As for converting a batch of images to B&W, it is a long task as I don’t think a “one size fits all” solution exists.

    I know that in the film days B&W was easier as you had it in camera. But look at it on the bright side. We no longer need to choose. We have a color image and if we decide we want it in black and white we can. It’s the best of both worlds! (:

    Have a great day,
    josh

    Reply
  3. David Lawson
    2011-04-21

    Many thanks Josh for your sharing your invaluable experience.
    David

    Reply

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