View Full Version : Black and White Conversion - One Method

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06-21-2008, 10:58 AM
I have found about 1,000 different ways to convert your color digital files to black and white, some of them very simple, some of them very complex. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and none of them is inherently "better."

It has taken me a little while to gear up to writing this tutorial because while I do have a method, it's really a "look" I have in my mind before I begin that allows me to get the final conversion. If you are familiar with some of the black and whites I have posted on this forum, you will know that I like the dark red filter b+w look--i.e., very dark skies and very contrasty, "poppy" tones.

I figured the easiest way to do this tutorial was to present a couple of images as I go through each relevant step of the conversion, so you can see how they are similar/different. I am assuming a working knowledge of Photoshop (specifically CS3), so if you have questions, I will try my best to answer them.

06-21-2008, 11:03 AM

06-21-2008, 11:12 AM
Example #1: Meerkat
I am using this photo of the meerkat because I feel like it came out particularly well, and was a very low contrast photo to start. Low contrast is often helpful with black and white, since you can add it in (and selectively) later. Other times, converting a low contrast image results in a lot of blah grays (I had to do a lot of burning and dodging for my rhino photos).

Original Image: This is the original image, converted from RAW. I do all my b+w conversions (and most of my photos) from RAW because the camera adds sharpening, contrast, and saturation that can do weird things when converting to black and white.

Step One: Add a Black and White Layer - This is a feature in Photoshop CS3. If you don't have CS3, the channel mixer will work, but is a little trickier. I'm not going to recreate the wheel here and go into detail of how to use the channel mixer. The black and white layer feature makes channel mixing somewhat easier, and breaks down the photo into each color channel so you can manipulate it. It also has many presets, and an "auto" feature. For this photo, I used "auto" because it looked best--i.e., it had the "look" I wanted, and a nice range of whites to blacks with good gray tonality.

Step Two: Step one looks decent, but I felt like it still was a little flat and lacked "pop," so I went in and added some localized contrast using unsharp mask. For some photos, the brightness/contrast slider works as well or better, but many times unsharp mask works better for what I'm trying to do. I have also found that I can be a lot more aggressive with it on the 5D than I could be on my Nikons, so you will have to experiment with your particular application and see what looks best. For this one, I used unsharp mask with values of 50%/50 pixels/0 threshold... sometimes this goes overboard and makes things look overprocessed and causes halo-ing, especially if you have in-camera sharpening already. In this case, it made all the lines look cleaner, and made the meerkat pop more. In other cases, I often use 10% or 20%/200 pixels/0 threshold for a more "normal" contrast adjustment.

Step Three: This is the final step, where I just ran the photo through my web action, which is: camera specific noise ninja profile; unsharp mask at 10%/200 pixels/0 threshold; resize and add border; additional unsharp mask for web (150%/0.3 pixels/0 threshold). This final image isn't much different than Step Two, and sometimes this step leads to oversharpening, so I have several different border actions depending on the photo.

user errors
06-21-2008, 11:18 AM
I'll definitely be testing this later

06-21-2008, 11:27 AM
Example #2: Honda Fit (sky conversion)

Original Image: I didn't have my polarizer with me this day, so I didn't know how this conversion would come out (didn't know if I could make it look like I wanted without heavy manipulation).

Step One: Dodging and Burning - To get the really dark skies that I like, generally I use a circular polarizer to help darken and saturate the blues in the sky. I didn't have it with me for this photo, and it wouldn't have helped anyway since I was facing the sun, so to get the same effect, I went to Select->Color Range->used the eyedropper on the sky, and then adjusted the fuzziness until the right amount of sky was selected. I then used the Burn tool to burn in the Shadows at 20% strength. I only did this on the sky to darken it. This is what the color image looks like:

Step Two: Black and White Layer - For this conversion, I did the black and white layer, then selected High Contrast Red Filter to darken the sky. Sometimes that won't darken it enough, so you have to play around with the blue and cyan channel sliders. It's best if you get stuff right in camera, though, because manipulating the sliders too much can result in some really unnatural looking tone transitions. I don't know if you can reproduce the effect using the channel mixer, since it doesn't have the fine control of the black and white layer tool (I have control over the following 6 channels: red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and magenta).

Step Three: Unsharp Mask - Again, I liked the conversion well enough, but wanted it to be even more dramatic. Coincidentally, I used the same 50%/50 pixel/0 threshold unsharp mask on this photo, which was taken with the D300. This last step also has my NN/USM/resize/border action run, as usual.

06-21-2008, 02:56 PM
Thanks Mark, looks great!

06-24-2008, 03:25 PM
Excellent tips! Gonna try the first one now.

06-24-2008, 03:39 PM
Thanks Mark, I've been curious about this for a while.

06-27-2008, 12:35 PM
Example #3: People!

As you all have noted in some other threads, you can't take quite the same approach to conversion with people--if you go too heavy on the sharpening, it brings out all the details/imperfections on your subject's skin. Sometimes that's what you're going for, but often it's very unflattering and you will burn more bridges than you will build! That said, I still go for an honest, striking b+w portrait when I convert them. Hopefully, I succeed! Anyway, on to the process.

Original Image: This image was taken in RAW because I was under streetlights outside, and couldn't get any white balance in camera that looked even remotely right. This is one of many strengths of shooting RAW. For the RAW conversion in ACR, all I did was some levels adjustment and adjusted the WB to be more realistic. With b+w, it doesn't need to be perfect, but it helps to get it close.

Step 1: NN and a bit of Shapening
This was shot at ISO1600, which is amazingly clean on the 5D, but I ran it through my routine NN and USM action to add a bit of contrast and clean up what noise was there. The USM for this action is set at 10%/200pixels/0 threshold... it works well for people, because it adds a little local contrast and sharpening, without going too far (IMO).

Step 2: Black and White Layer and Levels
Normally, adjusting levels is one of the first things I do for a shot, but on this one I forgot, so I did it in this step. I converted to b+w first (via the b+w layer option set on AUTO in CS3), then adjusted the levels. It's good to adjust them after your conversion because brightness shows up differently in b+w. Here I just moved the right hand slider until the highlights were white/close to white.

Step 3: Final Contrast Adjustment
I was pretty happy with the photo by the last step, but as always, I go for a little more impact. Here I just used the Brightness/Contrast adjustment slider to add some more general contrast to the photo. What it did was darken the background and emphasize Katherine, which is what I wanted. Here it's set ~50. I left the brightness slider alone, but I adjust that sometimes, too.

These tutorials were really fun and interesting to do--any feedback from you guys would be great. Anything that I did particularly well? Anything you still have questions about? Do the photos I chose work for you?

06-27-2008, 12:57 PM
I love the way you post the samples after each step. Awesome tutorial mark. :)

06-27-2008, 02:12 PM
Do you ever lasso anything and do any USM or anything on that specifically to avoid sharpening things that you don't want to draw attention to?

06-27-2008, 02:14 PM
Do you ever lasso anything and do any USM or anything on that specifically to avoid sharpening things that you don't want to draw attention to?

No, I suck with the selection tools.... :(

06-27-2008, 02:18 PM
I tried it on a shot or two and it seems like it may be useful is all - I honestly thought that was what you'd used to get that little lemur or whatever it is so sharp.

06-27-2008, 02:19 PM
nope--just a sharp lens + sharpening in PP.

03-03-2010, 12:23 PM
Lovin' this tutorial! I recently took a couple hand held shots with my ISO accidently set to 2500! I'm thinking of converting most of them to B/W..can't wait to get home and try this out!

03-03-2010, 12:25 PM
Haven't seen this thread in awhile... I don't use this method much these days, but it does work well!

03-03-2010, 12:33 PM
sweet! It's always fun to try new methods...always fun to try something different!

03-03-2010, 12:37 PM
Haven't seen this thread in awhile... I don't use this method much these days, but it does work well!

PS -> filters -> nik silver -> select preset favorite -> apply -> DONE! :lol:

03-03-2010, 12:39 PM
PS -> filters -> nik silver -> select preset favorite -> apply -> DONE! :lol:

nik what? Seen and heard enough of it...guess I should make a purchase!

03-03-2010, 12:53 PM

IB$200?!!! Yeah, it's not cheap, but it DOES do a really good job automagically for the most part.

03-03-2010, 01:05 PM

IB$200?!!! Yeah, it's not cheap, but it DOES do a really good job automagically for the most part.

As far as I see it, there is not much better than "automagically" for me when it come to processing.:)
Thanks for the link! I'll take all the help I can get!

03-06-2010, 02:56 AM
Great write up! I will definitely go try these methods out asap!