My photography career began 30 years ago as a photojournalism student in college. Each week, I would be assigned a story to cover and off I’d go with my Nikon FM2 and 50mm lens in search of images. But capturing the images was only half the story. The best part, I thought, was getting to develop my shots in the darkroom. I can almost smell the chemicals to this day. Slowly, my images would come to life in beautiful, bold…black-and-white. Yes, that’s right, black-and-white.
Today, photographers get the best of both worlds. We can capture an entire photo shoot in color and decide later if we want to convert the images to black-and-white. No more harsh chemicals, darkrooms and nasty drains. Using software, anyone can convert an image to black-and-white with a few mouse clicks. But similar to working in the "wet" darkroom, understanding what makes a good black-and-white image, and how to pull that out of a color shot, is critical to creating dramatic black-and-white images.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BLACK-AND-WHITE IMAGE?
Before we can start converting our color images in the computer, it helps to know what elements create a good black-and-white image. Or, another way of looking at it is, what color images would look better without color distracting the viewer?
Strong black-and-white images rely on design elements such as line, shape, form and texture. Images with a lot of tonal contrast work well in black-and-white. The more tones you have in your color shot, the more shades of gray you’ll have in your black-and-white image.
What if you’re shooting on a dreary, overcast day? Color photographers try to reduce the bleak gray sky in an image because it takes away from colorful subjects. But imagine that same shot in black-and-white. The dreary sky is now only another shade of gray and works just fine with the other black-and-white elements in the image.
Virtually any subject can look great in black-and-white: portraits, landscapes, architecture and travel images. Look for scenes that have a lot of tonalities and strong design elements, as these aspects can be brought to life in a black-and-white conversion.
Some cameras allow you to capture in black-and-white, but I like to shoot in RAW and convert the image with software. You capture more information in color, with the option to have both color and black-and-white versions of the photo.
CONVERTING WITH LIGHTROOM
Today, many photographers rely on Lightroom as their main editing and database program. Lightroom 4 offers many options for converting your images to black-and-white. Before doing any conversion on your image, make sure the basic adjustments like exposure, whites and blacks are set the way you want them.
Probably the quickest way to convert an image to black-and-white and get decent results is to try out a Lightroom B&W Preset. Open your image in Lightroom and choose the Develop module. On the left side in Presets, choose the Lightroom B&W Presets folder. There are seven actions for you to try out on your image and one might be a good choice for your image. Also, in the folder Lightroom B&W Filter Presets, a variety of colored filters allow you to add contrast between certain colors in your shot.
This method is a quick fix, but I prefer a different technique to convert my images to black-and-white in Lightroom 4. I start by opening my image in the Develop module and adjusting exposure, white, blacks, and highlights so my color image looks good. Next, I go to the HSL/COLOR/B&W window and choose B&W.
This converts the image to black-and- white. Individual colors are listed in this window, allowing you to lighten and darken the tonalities in your image. But what I really like is using the Targeted Adjustment tool, located in the left corner. I click on this tool, put my cursor over an area in the image I want to adjust, then click and drag on that area.
This tool will choose the exact color mix I need to lighten or darken an area in my shot. Some colors, like blue, will obviously lighten or darken a blue sky in your image. But if you can’t figure which slider to use to adjust an area in your black-and-white image, use the Targeted Adjustment tool.
I often get the results I like using this technique. Occasionally, I’ll also open the Tone Curves window and add an ounce more contrast to my image. To do this, make a very slight "S" curve by moving the Highlights slider to the right (plus) and the Shadows slider to the left (minus). This window also has a Targeted Adjustment tool to use in lightening or darkening specific areas of the image.
After I’ve done all my black-and-white adjustments, I often go back to the basic adjustments for minor changes. I really like increasing Clarity in black-and-white shots, especially those with a lot of texture. Pushing the Clarity slider to the right really makes things pop.
As you might expect, Photoshop has numerous options for converting images to black-and-white. One popular conversion method is to choose Image > Mode > Grayscale, and your image is converted to black-and-white. This might give you a good result, but it doesn’t allow easy adjustment of the tonalities in the shot and really isn’t the best way.
Instead, I use the following method in Photoshop to convert my images. First, let’s look at how to convert a RAW image. Shooting in RAW offers advantages over JPEG and TIFF. Working in Photoshop’s Raw converter on a RAW image is non-destructive (similar to Lightroom), and you also can use RAW adjustments like Clarity to improve your shot. While TIFF and JPEG images can be opened in the Raw converter (change settings in Photoshop Preferences > File Handling > Camera Raw Preferences), these pixels have been processed at least once already in order to be saved in their current file format. You can get excellent results using JPEG or TIFF, but if you want the most flexibility for the end result, shoot in RAW.
To start, open the image in Photoshop, and the Camera Raw dialogue box will open. Start by making the standard image adjustments (exposure, white, blacks and so forth). Next, choose the HSL/Grayscale button located below the histogram. Click the Convert to Grayscale button and the image is converted to black-and-white.
Various color sliders are shown, allowing you to adjust the grayscale mix. The auto button often gives you a nice result, but I normally want to tweak things even more. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that Targeted Adjustment tool similar to Lightroom? Guess what, Photoshop CS6 using the new Raw converter now has that option.
Choose the Targeted Adjustment tool from the toolbar in the left corner (it has a plus, target and black triangle symbol), and put your cursor over the area you want to adjust. Click and drag your cursor up and down to adjust the tonality of the area. You also can adjust curves, noise reduction, sharpening and many other image characteristics using the tools available in the Camera Raw dialog box. After doing my black-and-white conversion, I often go back to the Clarity and Contrast sliders and fine-tune the image some more.
If you don’t shoot in RAW, Photoshop has another good option to convert your images to black-and-white. Click the Black and White Adjustment button in the Adjustments palette. This adds a new Adjustment Layer, and a dialog box opens, which allows you to adjust colors in the grayscale mix. You can click
on the Targeted Adjustment tool (Hand symbol) in the left corner and use this on the image to selectively adjust areas. I also like to try the Color Filter Presets in the drop-down menu. Sometimes these filters do a great job of improving contrast between different tonalities.
No matter how good your black-and-white conversions come out, do you wonder if there might be a better way to do this task? Instead of trying to figure out these conversions on your own, you may want to try third-party software that does an excellent job converting color images to black-and-white.
One of my favorite black-and-white conversion programs is Exposure 4 by Alien Skin. This software contains folders with actions that simulate all the black-and-white films I used to shoot. Exposure 4 works as a plug-in in both Photoshop and Lightroom. When I open my image in Exposure 4, I choose the folder B&W Films, and choose what B&W film I want my color image to resemble. I might choose the Kodak TRI-X 400 action for one shot, and the Ilford Delta 100 for another image. Very cool!
But Exposure 4 offers a lot more. You can choose from various folders loaded with different black-and-white actions, including vintage, polapan and infrared effects. Once the effect is chosen, a wide variety of adjustments can be made using the tools on the right side of the window.
One thing I really like about using Exposure 4 in Photoshop is that the black-and-white conversion is applied on its own layer. This allows me to reduce the opacity of the layer for a muted color effect. Exposure 4 also has folders of color conversions from your favorite color films.
Another popular plug-in for black-and-white conversions is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. This software offers a number of black-and-white conversions, with detailed control of select image areas using Nik’s U Point technology. Add a control point to any part of your image, and you can control variables such as brightness, contrast and texture.
A nice feature in Silver Efex Pro 2 shows you a variety of preview windows when you select a set of black-and-white conversions. This lets you preview what your image is going to look like, so you quickly can decide which direction to take with your black-and-white conversion. A brush feature allows you to brush in your conversion to select areas of your shot. Silver Efex also applies the conversion as a separate layer in Photoshop, allowing further adjustment of the conversion.
It has never been easier to convert color images to black-and-white. Imagine what your favorite color images might look like in black-and-white—and you just might like them even more.
Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit www.tombolphoto.com.