Black & White Basics

Making black-and-white images is easier than ever, thanks to black-and-white adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as black-and-white plug-ins like Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro, Perfect B&W from onOne Software and Topaz Labs’ B&W Effects.

Sure, you can play around with the sliders in the programs and plug-ins, and you may wind up with a cool-looking image. With an understanding of the basics of black-and-white imaging, however, you can create a more powerful, more dramatic and even more artistic image. I’ll cover those basics in this column. I’ll use some of the recent photographs that I’ve taken in Death Valley to illustrate my points.

Before we get going, however, here’s an important thing to think about when it comes to creating a great black-and-white image. As you’re composing your image, you need to learn to see in tones, rather than seeing colors, and to envision how shadows and highlights will "play" in your black-and-white images. How will the scene look without color? After a while, you’ll be able to visualize the final image more easily in black-and-white.


Here’s the color file from which I created the black-and-white image that opens this column. It’s nice enough, but I thought a black-and-white image would have more impact. Why? Because when you remove the color (or true color) from the scene, you’re removing some of the reality, and when you remove some of the reality, an image can look more creative and artistic.

I created the opening image using Nik Silver Efex Pro, paying close attention to the basics of black-and-white photography: adjusting Levels, understanding the effects of filters and controlling contrast. These are the black-and-white basics you need to consider when working with software to convert an image.

Basic #1: You need the blacks to be black and the whites to be white. You can accomplish that goal by checking the Levels of your color file. If there are gaps at either end of the histogram, as there were here, simply move the triangle sliders inside both ends of the "mountain range." After you click OK, your Levels will be adjusted, and the blacks will be black and the whites will be white. Of course, this is a basic Levels guideline to follow. It worked for this image because I didn’t want my shadows to be blocked up or my highlights to be overexposed.

Basic #2: Learn about color filters. Understanding the effects of color filters is very important in creating the black-and-white effect that you desire. You’ll find many articles online that show you the benefits of filters like red, orange, yellow, green, blue and more. [Editor’s Note: See our guide to the effects of color filters for black-and-white at]

After you learn about the effects of filters, click on a filter in your black-and-white software (or adjust that color slider in Lightroom or Photoshop) to see the effect in action. You’ll be surprised at how your image changes as you move from filter to filter. I used a red filter in Topaz Labs’ B&W Effects to create this black-and-white image. Red is a popular filter for landscape photography, as it makes a blue sky dramatically black. Yellow is popular for people photography, as it adds a smooth look to skin tones.

Basic #3: Consider contrast. This image has strong contrast, one of the elements that contributes to strong black-and-white images. When composing an image for black-and-white, strong contrast is often desired, which is one reason to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon (as I did here) when long and strong shadows add contrast to a scene.

One method for increasing contrast is simply to use the Contrast slider. A better way is to create an "S" curve in Curves, adding and adjusting the anchor points as shown here in this screenshot of the Curves dialog in Photoshop. The point of moving the bottom-most anchor point inward is to protect the shadows. The point of moving the uppermost anchor point inward is to protect the highlights.

Well, my friends, I hope these examples inspire you to create some cool black-and-white images. Experiment and have fun, which is what photography is all about.

Our friend Rick Sammon has been writing for this magazine for more than 10 years. Visit with Rick at to learn more about digital imaging.

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