There are always going to be days when you return home with a pocketful of images, hopefully all shot in RAW, and some of them, for whatever reason, just don’t do anything for you. You try breaking the rules by experimenting with images shot directly into the sun or even high contrast images that wash out the color, or you’re at a wedding and flash bulbs are going off all over the place and one of them finds its way into your picture. Maybe you have a photo that doesn’t have a lot of color in it to begin with. Or you may simply want to see what a color image looks like in black & white. Take an image that you’re getting ready to pass on and experiment a bit longer. Try turning it into a black & white image instead. The results might surprise you.
There are any number of places where you can learn about bit depth and color channels that will explain in detail how to go down the Photoshop rabbit hole when it comes to converting color photos into black & white, but here we’re going to use some pretty basic tools that will streamline the process.
First, it’s really important to shoot RAW with your digital camera. It will require more work in the long run when it comes to post-processing, but the results will be better because you’ll have more digital information with RAW than JPG. If you.
Let’s take a perfectly neutral color image:
The original, on the left is essentially a flat picture, with no corrections at all. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. On the right is what it would look like if you simply desaturate it without any additional help. Not much better. Maybe worse. The separation between the shadow side of the building and the sky at the top is almost indistinguishable. It’s important to remember that when making global changes to an image, you cannot change relative values. That relationship is going to stay the same unless you highlight one are and change it separately from the rest of the photo. Here we’re going to talk exclusively about global changes.
The first thing to remember is this: if you are going to make changes to an image is don’t work on the original! Always save a master copy somewhere else, and then rename the file you’re working on.
The second thing is don’t open an image in Photoshop and work in its “native” environment – you will lose tons of data and degrade your image significantly in the process. Always make corrections to your file globally in Camera Raw, the panel you will arrive at when opening a RAW file (using CS3). The panel will be ‘floating’ above Photoshop and it looks like this:
All of the controls you need to convert your photo to b&w will be right here in tabs on the right. Remember, this is where you do your global work. If you need to do detail work, open the file (at the Open Object button) and work locally within Photoshop.
The most significant tabs to work with will be the general tab, the first one on the left, the tone curve (second) and the HSL/Grayscale (the HSL stands for Hue, Saturation and Luminance).
The HSL/Grayscale has a checkbox at the top of it that says: “Convert to Grayscale.” It will give very generic results, like the image on the right above.
Before checking that box, go to the General tab and adjust the Clarity and Vibrance sliders. Clarity will give you a good deal of sharpness at the edges or add some interesting glow to your highlights, and Vibrance will act as a gentler saturation. Look up at the Blacks slider and add some depth to you darker zones. Temperature will also be effective in changing tonality before you go to the HSL tab. Then you can check that ‘Convert’ box. With some radical adjustments in Clarity and blacks, then converting, the image looks like this:
It adds a nice touch, giving it a glow. The palm trees are going to go completely black with very little detail (you can always open up the shadows locally if you want).
When working with large swatches of sky, there’s only one thing to do. Once you’ve checked the ‘Convert’ box, there will only be a ‘Grayscale Mix,’ greatly simplifying your choices. The ‘Blue’ slider will create a dense sky and the “Yellow’ slider will adjust your highlights. Then add one more touch: the ‘Lens Correction’ tab (the sixth tab over) and the two ‘Lens Vignetting’ sliders: ‘Amount’ and ‘Midpoint.’ Amount will bring the edges in sharply and will be very noticeable when used to extreme. This can work well with portraits, but for large patches of sky, it becomes too noticeable. Use a minimal Amount (up to -25 or so) and then manipulate the Midpoint slider (as much as you care to) to bring a smoother, less noticeable gradation to your picture. Lastly, when using the yellow filter, it’s always a good idea to sharpen your image to keep it cleaner. Applying these filters can soften you image a good deal. Here’s what our final image looks like compared to the first, unedited conversion:
Good separation between sky and building. An increase in the highlight luminosity, adding a “feel” to the photo, and a nice bit of highlight retained at the top of the trees to offset their blackness. You might want to go in locally and bring up the mid-tones in the building, but that is more detail for another time.
This is, of course, a quick and easy solution. Using these tools requires a fair amount of experimentation, but with a few quick tricks, you can turn a dull picture into something worth looking at. Your job as a photographer is to find out what works best for you and then experiment a little more. It’s just like life. It’s always growing.