From Color To Black&White

Black-and-white photography is easier than ever. Rather than relying on specialized film, papers and chemistry, photographers are now free to take pictures and then decide to make them black-and-white.

But black-and-white photography is also harder than ever. Instead of the materials that made exquisite black-and-white images practically automatically, now it’s up to individual photographers to determine how best to convert color into black-and-white, and with such a variety of techniques available today, that’s no easy task. Here are some of the most popular methods for turning color photographs into beautiful black-and-white.



Found in the Image > Mode menu, this is the easiest way to convert a color image to black-and-white. It isn’t the best, however. This ham-fisted approach throws out a ton of image information and produces a frequently flat image that doesn’t bear much resemblance to a true silver print. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in speed—it’s the only one-click conversion option from color to black-and-white.


Desaturation (Shift-Ctrl-U) isn’t more nuanced than grayscale mode, but it works differently. Whereas grayscale values colors independently, desaturation converts all colors evenly: one-third red, one-third green and one-third blue. This also creates flat images, but some photographers (such as the übertalented Howard Schatz) prefer this approach on skin—a niche for which it’s well suited. Usually, though, desaturation isn’t the ideal approach either.

Lab Mode

A typical digital image file comes out of the camera in RGB Mode (one channel for red, one for green and one for blue). Switching to Lab Mode, though, is a great starting place for a black-and-white conversion. The A and B channels contain color, while the L channel is only luminance information, meaning that channel is only black-and-white. In the Image > Mode menu, click on Lab Color, then open the Channels palette and delete the A and B channels. The resulting image may need some Levels or Curves adjustments to create an ideal mix of tonal brightness and contrast, but it’s a good start on black-and-white, and it’s not especially complex.

Channel Mixer

If there’s an ideal approach for black-and-white conversions, channel mixer may be it. Though not as efficient as the previous methods, it offers infinitely more control. Channel Mixer doesn’t waste any detail by randomly eliminating color. In the Image > Adjustments menu, click on Channel Mixer, and then be sure to click Monochrome in the bottom left of the window. You can use presets from the drop-down menu, or adjust the sliders to affect how colors translate into black-and-white. Drag red down, and red tones from the original become darker in black-and-white. Drag blue up, and blue tones turn into lighter grayscale values. Make sure the values total 100% (or close to it) to avoid wasting information. Exceed 100%, and light areas will become white; a total below 100% will look dark and underexposed.

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,

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