Your Photos in Living…Black & White – B & W Conversions

As much as we may love the color in our images, Black & White may be chosen as a very viable alternative in processing. Most of my images I do in both Color and Black & White versions. But many times people aren’t sure what the best methods or even how to convert your color image to black and white. So today we will cover what I think are the best methods and then also a couple Programs that can do all the work for you.

First we will look at some methods in programs you may already have

Here is the original image we will work with. I chose it because we have a lot of different colors from Blue to Yellow to Green to Brown and also White, Black and Gray itself. I believe the true test of a good black and white conversion is how well the brightness of a color transfers to the brightness of a tone. Sometimes we want to shift that for effect or pop but usually we want the tonal balance to remain from before to after the conversion. I’ll talk a little further about this later



In Photoshop there are three main methods I use to convert my images to Black and White. The Color Mixer (which sounds counter-intuitive), Gradient Maps and Convert to Grayscale. Some of you may mention what about just Desaturate? Actually that is the least desirable method which will leave you with a flat and lifeless image so I don’t even include that on my list.

The Color Mixer

This method can give you results similar to what we used to get when we used color filters on our cameras to shoot Black & White Film in the “Olden Days” We would add a Red Filter or Green or Blue (Most times it was red). To highlight certain color tones and make the more pronounced in our black & white image. So using this method is similar except that we have a lot more control over the final result. We can choose red, green or blue OR even mix those colors (Hence why it is called color mixer) in any combination we desire.

We enter this method by going to the menu in Photoshop Image> Adjustments> Color Mixer. This brings up this dialog box.

We can Select a channel and then click monotone and it will turn our image Black & White with that channel as 100%, we can then vary the amount of all the channels to get the look we want but it is best of the combinations of percents all add up to 100%.

If you want to preview what each channel will look like at 100% before you actually use the channel mixer, On your layer palette, switch to the Channels Tab and then click on each  channel ( Red, Green, Blue) and see how they each look. That may give you a better starting point. 



For this method we have

Pro: very diverse amount of looks to an image that can be used to add a lot of drama

Con: May not remain true to tone transfer from color to black and white

 Here are some examples of our image using Channel Mixers and Each Channel’s look



 Now I didn’t mix any of the channels because I wanted you to see the effect that each color channel has on the outcome of the conversion.

In reality I would have mixed diifent amounts of each channel and got a result something like this

 Gradient Maps 

The next method uses what are called Gradient Maps. Basically what that is is a Gradient from Black to White and it “Maps” certain tones to certain levels of brightness or luminosity of a color. A Color that has a Luminosity closer to 100% will be mapped as white, one with luminosity close to 50% will be mapped as Mid Gray and so on.

Notice how the tone of yellow and blue seem to be about the same, one isn’t a pale pastel and the other a deep dark color but look at how differently they actually relate in B & W








We get to the Gradient Map by clicking Image>Adjustments > Gradient Map. This is what the Gradient Map dialog box looks like. If the colors of the gradient are not Black and White, Click on the gradient and it will bring up a box where you can choose your gradient. Gradients themselves can be highly modified. But let’s keep it simple for now. This lesson may be getting out of hand already

















 Here is what our image looks like with a straight Black to White Gradient map applied

  I like this method, for the most part gets the tonal part right though not perfect and can add a little drama to the image.

 Convert to Grayscale

Finally we get too my favorite conversion method: Convert to Grayscale.

It’s the only method that truly keeps the luminosity of any color the same when it is made a gray tone. And it’s the simplest process. You do it by going to Image>Mode> Grayscale. Now you could just leave it at that but I like to then make the conversion back to RGB because not all adjustments or filters are available to grayscale images so I go Image>Mode> RGB.

Here is the image with Grayscale conversion

 Finishing the Image

I like to finish off all my black and white conversions with a Curves Adjustment layer we just may differ on how we do it or the look we want. I want to establish a clear Black Point and a White Point so using the shadow and the highlight eyedropper in curves, I will click on an area that should be pure black and an area that should be pure white with the highlight dropper to establish those ends. Then I may make a midrange adjustment to change the contrast. Then I will finish off as I usually do with some Dodging and burning to get everything how I want it.

This is what I would probably get for a final image

  Give me a Break!

Peter, you’re killing me here. It shouldn’t have to be this much work and I shouldn’t have to know this much just to get a decent Black & White image. Well everything good takes work and knowledge. But I and the software manufacturers will let you off the hook.

If you are looking for some simple and quick solutions, the software manufacturers have you in mind

Lightroom 3

If you are a Lightroom 3 user there are presets in the develop Module for many different styles of Black and White. The nice thing is, through the use of virtual copies, you can always go back and change what you did and try another effect and maintain a Color and Black & White virtual copy witho9ut actually using up more disc space

If that doesn’t suit your needs or you don’t have Lightroom, I have two other solutions

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

From Nik Software comes the highly acclaimed Silver Efex Pro 2. Nik comes with 36 Factory presets for all types of Black & White conversions including Sepia and other color toning. If that’s not enough the adjustments are endless.

Here is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2’s “Neutral” preset

  Topaz Labs BW Effects 

Another possibility for you is Topaz Labs BW Effects. Again, couldn’t be easier, stroll through the presets till you find what works for you AND your image, no muss, no fuss 

This is their Classic Preset

  Okay, I know that was a lot. But Black & White can be a blast and add a ton of drama to a lot of your Images. Properly printed these can be some of the most outstanding images in your collection. So give it a try. It may seem long-winded but in the end is really not that difficult to do especially if you take advantage of some of the software tools out there