Home How-To Image Processing From Color To Black&White
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From Color To Black&White

The simple switch from color to grayscale isn’t enough—to make beautiful black-and-white photos, you need a more refined approach

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Black And White Adjustment
On the Adjustment menu, not far from the Channel Mixer, is the Black and White adjustment option. It works in much the same way, but instead of just RGB channel sliders, this tool provides adjustments to Cyan, Magenta and Yellow as well. It also includes presets, which you can alter and save to the right of the drop-down menu, too. Aside from the additional color sliders (for more finite control), the biggest difference is that this method doesn't take the same "zero-sum" approach as the Channel Mixer. You can reduce the influence of one color without increasing another, which makes this technique slightly more user-friendly. You also can easily add a tint via the check box and sliders at the bottom of the window, perfect for sepia toning.

Adjustment Layers
Using Adjustment layers isn't a unique black-and-white technique, but it's a valuable offshoot of the methods mentioned previously. Because they provide nondestructive editing, you can make black-and-white conversions on these layers without affecting the original. Think of an Adjustment layer as a filter through which Photoshop lets you view your image. With the right filter—say, a Channel Mixer adjustment—color images become beautiful black-and-whites, and the original color pixels are just a click away on the layer below. Adjustment layers also use layer masks, opening up a world of selective adjustments, so you can rely on one conversion method for one portion of an image and a different method for the rest. Lighten the red channel, for instance, and you'll eliminate blemishes and lighten skin tones. Darken it, and you'll create ruby-red lipstick, but in black-and-white.

In Lightroom, black-and-white conversion takes place in the Develop module. Clicking on B&W in the HSL/Color/B&W panel turns an image into gray-scale and reveals many controls for how colors are converted. The sliders work the same way as Channel Mixer in Photoshop, but the default black-and-white mix is based on Lightroom preferences—either an automix optimized for the colors in an image or a flat mix that values each color equally. Fine-tuning is then a straightforward process. Interestingly, after converting to black-and-white, the color balance Temperature and Tint controls still affect the image. This changes the underlying color information that's used to create the black-and-white conversion, so the black-and-white changes, too. It's not quite as refined as the individual channel sliders, but it's a great way to get close quickly and efficiently.

Lightroom also includes a target tool to aid in refining the black-and-white conversion. Click on the circle in the top left of the HSL/Color/B&W panel and place that target on a specific tone to modify. Clicking and dragging up or down will change those tones—and only those tones—making them lighter or darker before your eyes.

It's easy to split-tone an image in Lightroom. This technique was long used by darkroom photographers to add subtle tones to highlights and shadows, enhancing the illusion of depth and overall beauty in an image. It's also a great way to create sepia tones as bold or subtle as you like. Simply click to choose a color with which to tone highlights, then another to tone shadows. The Balance slider weights the color in one direction over another, and the Saturation slider is perfect for increasing or decreasing the effect.

In Aperture's Adjustments inspector, black-and-white conversions are simple. Click on Black & White in the Adjustments menu, and your image becomes grayscale instantly; you're presented with RGB sliders and presets. On the Presets drop-down menu, choose Black & White, but don't click yet. You'll see options for conversions that mimic the use of filters and film, and previews of the result. For more control, click the small box to expand the color palette and reveal 18 sliders for hue, saturation, luminance and the range of the six colors of light. This provides a more refined adjustment for each color's influence on the conversion instead of a simple lighter/darker choice.

Both Aperture and Lightroom make it easy to save black-and-white presets. They come preloaded, too, and you can download other photographers' presets and plug-ins to help create conversions that go far beyond the basics of "an image without color" to make truly beautiful black-and-white photographs.

If you're serious about working with black-and-white, you owe it to yourself to check out specialized conversion software. Nik Silver Efex Pro, a plug-in for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture, is designed to do one thing really well: convert color images to black-and-white. With a ton of tools for refining the grayscale conversion, adjusting highlights and shadows independently, toning images and emulating the look of particular combinations of film and processing, this software is the benchmark by which digital black-and-white conversion methods are measured. List Price: $199. Contact: Nik Software, www.niksoftware.com.

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